Denial is often described as one of the primary roadblocks to addiction recovery. Admitting that you feel lost and powerless is never easy, so it’s understandable that men and women struggling with substance abuse would prefer not to acknowledge the extent of their problem. However, there’s a good reason that the first step of the 12-Step program used in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is, “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” If you can’t identify what needs to change, it’s impossible to take the necessary action.
The ABCs of Denial
For someone with a substance use disorder, denial often takes one of three forms: avoidance, blaming, or comparing.
- Avoidance. They refuse to think about their addiction or the harm they’ve caused to themselves and others. If other people try to confront them about the issue, they play dumb or change the subject. They stick their heads in the sand and hope for the best. Avoidance is essentially a form of wishful thinking.
- Blaming. They tell themselves that they only drink or get high because they had a bad childhood, their marriage is in trouble, or work is very stressful. Or, they rationalize their behavior by saying their depression or anxiety makes it so hard to function that they just can’t help themselves. Assigning the blame to some external factor keeps them from feeling fully accountable for their actions.
- Comparing. They compare their drug or alcohol use to other people around them to argue that their own problem isn’t that bad. For example, they may claim that they’re doing just fine because they haven’t lost their job or gotten arrested like the friend they shoot pool with at their favorite bar. Comparing themselves with people who seem to have already “hit rock bottom” makes them feel like their substance use is still under control—even if they can see how things are getting progressively worse.
The reasons for the denial are complex but often include guilt, embarrassment, and fear. Addiction is a progressive illness, but the development of a substance use disorder is often so subtle that a person doesn’t realize what has happened until the problem has gotten too big for them to handle alone. They’re often well aware of how their actions are hurting others, but recovery seems like an impossible task when they’re struggling to make it through the day. Insisting that everything is fine seems easier than acknowledging the truth.
How to Break Through
Getting your loved one to admit they have a problem is the first step towards making a meaningful change. Here are some tips that can help you break through your loved one’s denial and begin the recovery process:
- Don’t confront them when they are under the influence. It’s tempting to want to address the issue immediately, but someone who is drunk or high isn’t going to be able to think clearly about the problem at hand. Wait until your loved one is sober to talk about your concerns. For most people, the best time is shortly after they’ve woken up in the morning.
- Stick to the facts. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you. It will be harder for your loved one to argue with a calm, rational discussion of the specific behaviors you’ve witnessed—such as drinking a six-pack of beer every night for the last week or mixing alcohol with prescription drugs despite warnings from the doctor.
- Document everything. Keep a journal of everything you’ve noticed relating to your loved one’s addiction, such as the number of times they’ve missed work due to a hangover or the times they’ve broken promises to their children in favor of drinking or using. Seeing a written record of their actions may help put the problem into perspective.
- Avoid blaming or shaming. Addiction is a disease with both biological and environmental triggers. It’s not your loved one’s fault, no matter how difficult they are being in this particular moment. Frame your concerns as coming from a place of love.
- Be persistent. Loving someone with a substance use disorder can be difficult, but it’s important to not give up. It often takes several tries to convince a person struggling with drug or alcohol addiction that they need help.
- Bring in reinforcements. You may not be able to help your loved one break through the denial on your own. Consider enlisting the help of other friends and family members to plan an intervention.
How St. Joseph Institute for Addiction Can Help
Located between Altoona and State College in the beautiful mountains of Central Pennsylvania, St. Joseph Institute for Addiction offers a substance abuse treatment program that includes comprehensive client assessments, detox, individual counseling, recovery education, relapse prevention, and aftercare. Our services are designed to help your loved one develop a better understanding of the severity of his or her illness while building the foundation for a lasting recovery.