Denial can be a powerful coping mechanism when accepting reality seems too painful. Because addiction is often stigmatized, it’s common for people with substance use disorders to be in denial about their condition. However, acknowledging the problem and being brave enough to ask for help is the only way to move forward.
What Does Denial Look Like?
People with untreated substance use disorders will go to great lengths to avoid admitting that they have a problem. They’ll make excuses, shift the blame, and say things like:
- Other people drink more than I do.
- I just love to party—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
- I need the pills to cope with my chronic pain.
- I wouldn’t use if my job wasn’t so stressful.
- If I was addicted, I wouldn’t be so successful in my career.
- I have an addictive personality.
- It’s in my genes.
- Using distracts me from my problems.
- You’re overreacting.
- You don’t understand me.
- I could stop if I wanted to.
Substance use disorders often develop gradually, which makes it easy for a person who is abusing drugs or alcohol to continue to stay in denial. When the changes in their behavior happen over an extended period of time, they forget what a “normal” baseline looks like. Continued drug or alcohol use also causes changes in the brain that negatively affect a person’s memory, thinking, and problem-solving skills.
In some cases, well-meaning friends and family can contribute to denial by enabling the person’s addiction-related behaviors to continue. They may loan money, pay legal fees, handle household chores, or concoct elaborate “cover stories” that normalize substance abuse and prevent the person with an addiction from feeling the natural consequences of their actions. Enabling is often related to codependency.
Overcoming Denial Is the First Step Towards Recovery
Sometimes, a person is motivated to seek out treatment when their behavior results in a crisis situation. A near-fatal overdose, for example, is a prime example of a “rock bottom” moment that can help a person acknowledge the seriousness of their condition. However, this doesn’t mean you should wait until a crisis occurs before you take action. Substance use disorders are chronic, progressive illnesses. They won’t get better without access to treatment but acting quickly can make it easier to find an approach that meets your loved one’s unique needs.
When planned appropriately, an intervention can be a powerful tool for breaking through denial. An intervention is a structured meeting where friends and family gather together to share the concerning behaviors they’ve seen, explain why they believe the person has a substance use disorder, present a pre-arranged treatment plan, and outline clear consequences that will be applied if the person doesn’t agree to treatment. In some cases, the intervention team includes a trained therapist, social worker, and/or spiritual advisor.
12-Step groups can also help a person with a substance use disorder see that they have a problem. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) both encourage members to admit that they have a substance abuse problem. For example, Step 1 of NA is, “We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
If your loved one is suffering from a substance abuse disorder and a co-occurring mental health condition such as anxiety and depression, a meeting with their primary care provider might be helpful. A trusted healthcare professional can share information on how substance abuse affects mental health and stress the need for comprehensive addiction treatment.
No matter how frustrated you may feel, you should avoid blaming or shaming your loved one. Addiction isn’t caused by a lack of willpower, and people who are in denial about their substance use disorder are often struggling with feelings of low self-esteem and hopelessness. It is much more effective to use positive language that expresses your concern in a loving way while stressing that lasting change is possible.
How We Can Help
St. Joseph Institute for Addiction provides comprehensive care for men and women with substance use disorders, including treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions. Our services are personalized to fit each person’s needs and take a holistic approach to help heal the mind, body, and spirit while building the foundation for a lasting recovery. Graduates of our Pennsylvania inpatient addiction rehab also have access to a wide range of continuing care resources to help prevent relapse and support the transition back to independent living. Contact us today to learn more about our admissions process and how we can help your loved one take the first steps towards a brighter future.