Enabling the Alcoholic to Stay in Denial

How others strengthen denial and delay recovery

It is observed that denial is a part of addiction, be it alcoholism, drug abuse, or a behavioural addiction such as gambling. Here we are mainly using alcohol merely as a convenient example.

Denial is a psychological process that occurs at the unconscious level in the alcoholic.

The alcoholic’s mind creates an illusion that convinces them that it is the ‘reality.’ The individual will not disclose accurately the quantity, frequency or problems created by his addictive behaviours.

The adverse consequences and problems associated with his drinking or drugging will either be minimised, explained away or denied altogether.

Others strengthen denial

For the alcoholic to maintain his/ her denial, others contribute unknowingly.
Long-term excessive drinking inevitably leads to a crisis (health or career), and those close to him start to get him out of the mess.

Alcohol, which at first gave him a sense of success and independence, now exposes him and makes him like a helpless and dependent child. Now, everything is taken care of by others. Family, friends and colleagues maintain the alcoholic’s denial.


He behaves as if he is independent when all the while he is totally dependent on others. Whenever there’s a crisis, his family and friends take up the responsibility and cover up the consequences.

The alcoholic is not allowed to face the consequences of his behaviour, so he believes that the situation is not serious.

Those who are helping the alcoholic are called Enablers, and their behaviour is termed Enabling Behaviour. “Enabling” denotes a destructive form of helping. It only helps the alcoholic to continue drinking without facing the consequences of his inappropriate behaviours.

The Enabler

An enabler is a person who may be compelled by his/ her own anxiety and guilt to rescue the alcoholic from his problem. He wants to save the alcoholic from immediate crisis and relieve him from the tension created by the situation.

To the enabler, it is like saving a drowning man. The rescue mission conveys to the alcoholic what the person thinks –” You cannot face your problems without me.”

Enablers meet their own need rather than that of the alcoholic, although they do not realise it. The enabler reveals a lack of faith in the alcoholic’s ability to take care of himself. Sometimes, the role of the enabler is played by family members, friends or ‘social workers’ who lack information about alcohol and alcoholism.

Their behaviour conditions the alcoholic to believe that there will always be a protector who will come to his rescue, even though the enablers might insist they’ll not help him again. They have always rescued him, and the alcoholic knows that they will. Such rescue operations are as compulsive to them as drinking is to the alcoholic.

The Victim

The victim is usually the employer, supervisor or colleague. When the alcoholic fails to perform his job, the ‘victim’ typically completes the work. If the alcoholic is absent due to his drinking or due to a hangover, the ‘victim’ gets the job done for him. The victim always hopes that this will be the last time he will be rendering this sort of help.
But he continues to protect the alcoholic again and again. The alcoholic can continue his drinking with the help of the ‘victim’. The victim unknowingly helps the alcoholic to continue with irresponsible drinking without losing his job.

The Compensator

The key person is usually the partner (spouse) or parents of the alcoholic, or the person with whom the alcoholic lives with. This person plays the role of ‘compensator’. The partner is very hurt and upset by his/ her repeated drinking episodes.

She has to take up the responsibility to hold the family together despite all the created by his drinking. She becomes bitter, resentful, afraid and deeply hurt. She controls, sacrifices and adjusts, but never gives up.

The alcoholic blames her for everything that goes wrong in the house or outside. In helping the alcoholic, she also unconsciously meets a need of her own. She enjoys the importance arising out of the alcoholic’s total dependence on her. She is also forced to play the role of a responsible and accommodating housewife who can function efficiently despite the entire family’s problems.

She is afraid that society will otherwise brand her as “non-cooperative, unaccommodating and inefficient”. She tries whatever possible to make her marriage work and prove that she can efficiently manage her problems.

She plays the role of a father, mother, earning member, etc. When the alcoholic gets into trouble, her typical response is to try and minimise it.

“Let’s hush this up!”

“Let me inform his office that he is taking leave because he has a dentist appointment!” While the compensators are trying to help, they are actually aiding and abetting the development of the disease.

Every time they try to rescue the alcoholic, they are only delaying the necessary treatment. She also tries to counsel him constantly. But that doesn’t work.

As a result, she adds to her hurt, guilt, bitterness, and hostility until the situation becomes unbearable.

Denial needs to be addressed

If the alcoholic is rescued from every crisis by the Enabler, Victim or Compensator, there is little chance for him/ her to recover. Recovery is possible only if the major block (denial) is broken.

In reality, the alcoholic is helpless; by himself, he cannot break the lock. He will recover only if the enablers learn to break his dependency on them by refusing to help him get out of the crises created by his addictive behaviours.

The beginning of recovery

When the alcoholic feels helpless, desperate due to a crisis and no one ready to rescue or take up his responsibility, he will have to face the problems he created. He will find it impossible to deny the problems caused by his behaviour. He will hopefully then seek help.

He will finally realise that he has a real problem that needs to be addressed. This is the motivation required to initiate recovery.

“Rock Bottom”

Many traditional Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members believe that a person has to hit “rock bottom”. According to them, this is the crisis that opens the eyes of the alcoholic. When he/she has no more to sink, he will be ready for help.

Whatever you may call it, a crisis is an opportunity to break denial and initiate recovery. The resulting confrontation following a crisis can break through denial. This can be the first step towards recovery.

The task of treatment is to make the alcoholic well. But it is the task of intervention to bring the alcoholic into treatment.

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