One of the keys to the progression of a loved one’s drinking or drug use moving from bad to worse, abuse to addiction, is DENIAL. Denial is a very human defense mechanism we all use at one time or another to protect ourselves from facing something we just don’t want to face. It can be seen in the eyes of a guilty four-year old who denies breaking a vase for fear of being punished, or in the tears of a lover who doesn’t want to admit the relationship is over or in the dieter’s pretending the size of a piece of birthday cake doesn’t really matter.
For alcoholics/addicts, however, denial not only distorts reality and hurts other people, it can ultimately lead to death. For substance abusers, denial can lead to addiction and/or years of destructive substance misuse behaviors. Denial is what causes the substance misuser to adopt an arsenal of offensive measures (anger, minimizing, rationalizing, blaming and deceiving) in order to protect their ability to drink or use – everything from flimsy excuses to devious lies, whether they “accidentally” hide a bottle in a gym bag or pretend it’s an urgent matter to go out late at night because a “friend needs help” or they were “just holding the pot and paraphernalia for a friend.”
And, for family members, denial is what causes them to adopt the unhealthy coping skills (striving to be all things to all people so that he/she won’t want to drink/use; striving to get good grades and stay out of trouble so that mom/dad don’t have one more thing to deal with); coping skills that allow them to excuse or rationalize or defend themselves against the substance misuse behaviors (”it’s not that bad,” “everyone drinks too much now and again,” “lots of people drink and drive – he just got caught,” “pot is not that bad, at least he’s not using heroin”…). A family member in denial can aide (without even understanding they are) in the progression of a loved one’s substance misuse but more importantly wreck havoc in their own lives – not only emotionally but often physically (stress, lack of sleep, depression, ulcers), as well.
Together, the person drinking/using drugs and those who love him/her collaborate to enforce and support the notion that what is going on is really not what it is going on because no one wants to label a loved one as having a drinking or drug use problem they cannot control — or worse yet, of being an alcoholic/addict. And, so together, they continue to enforce the two most important rules in the substance misuse household:
– Rule #1: Alcohol/drug use is not the problem.
– Rule #2: Do not talk to anyone (not family, not friends) about the drinking/drug use nor the behaviors related to the substance misuse, and, above all, attack, minimize or discredit any family member who does.
Denial becomes automatic because the thought processes become embedded neural networks. One way to ‘see’ denial is to listen for the word, “but…” or the expression, “yah but…”. “He drank, but he was never mean to me.” “He smoked pot, but then how is that different than someone having a few drinks?” “She broke her promise to stop drinking if I paid her rent, but if I don’t pay her rent, she’ll be homeless.” Denial is the black or white, all or nothing kind of thinking that takes hold as the substance use progresses to abuse and from there to dependence. It protects us from the truth because we do not understand substance abuse and/or addiction and want to avoid acknowledging its possibility at all costs.
Unless and until alcoholics/addicts and family members and friends break through their denial, the consequences of a loved one’s drinking or drug use will continue to spiral, and together they will “all fall down.” It only gets worse. It cannot/will not get better until the denial is stopped. Learning more about the disease of addiction is an important first step, and one you can do by browsing through this site or visiting, www.hbo.com/addiction.