Guest blog post by Jennifer DiCostanzo, LCSW, CADC, MISA1
Is overcoming denial in addiction important? Or even necessary? When you’re watching a loved one struggle with addiction, understanding the role that denial plays is vital!
The Role of Denial in Addiction
If you have ever watched a tv show or movie with scenes focused on addiction recovery, I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “the first step is admitting you have a problem.” You may not know that this originates from the well known 12 steps of “Alcoholics Anonymous” (AA). Step 1 in AA’s 12-step process is “We admitted we are powerless over alcohol [or I would say whatever the drug of choice] and that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Let me start by saying that an individual does not have to subscribe to the ideals of AA (or NA, HA, CA, etc.) or join one of those fellowships to overcome denial. However, it is a specified and necessary first step in the 12-step programs and essential for all people struggling with addiction to admit to having a problem for a couple of reasons, most important being their health and overall well-being.
I’ll talk about those reasons a bit later, but first it’s important to address the idea of forcing a loved one, patient, client, etc. to overcome denial in addiction. To put it bluntly, it’s just not going to happen.
Denial Defense Mechanism
In my career, I have seen countless family members work incredibly hard to try and get their loved ones “to see they have a problem.” When it inevitably doesn’t happen, those family members become more stressed out, frustrated, and even angry.
In turn, they work harder to get their loved one on the road to recovery, only to be continually let down. It can quickly become a horrific merry-go-round ride that never stops long enough to let you off.
Related Reading: How to Help Someone With Drug Addiction
In “therapist school” they teach us not to work harder than the client. I am here to tell you that family members of those struggling with addiction need to be taught the same concept.
The reality is denial is a protective factor for each of us – you will fit into those jeans again one day, he/she is sorry this time, I will go back to school one day, and on and on and on. Denial is part of the human condition, which is why it’s so hard to overcome. Throw in the fact that drugs and alcohol make people feel good, and you have yourself the perfect recipe for a denial disaster.
How to Overcome Denial in Addiction – With Baby Steps
Remember when I said overcoming denial in addiction was necessary for a few reasons? Let’s discuss the most significant reasons overcoming denial is essential to beginning or maintaining recovery. Here are some examples of denial and how they’re dangerous:
“Half in Denial”
Just like 12-step programs tell us, the first step is to admit to having a problem with alcohol or drugs. Why? Well, simply put, you cannot start to make changes until you recognize there is a problem.
No one starts a diet and exercise program if those jeans still fit, right? It’s the same concept in addiction; if there is no problem, there is no need to change anything. There has to be recognition that a problem exists.
The critical thing to remember is that the person struggling with the drugs or alcohol has to see it is as a problem in their lives. While that doesn’t necessarily mean they must “hit rock bottom,” they have to see that there is a problem with their behavior.
What I frequently see is an individual struggling with substance starting to think to themselves, “I just need to stop drinking on weeknights because I’m having a hard time getting up for work.” I call this half-denial. The person still hasn’t acknowledged the magnitude of the problem, but they at least are acknowledging some level of problem. As a therapist, I can work from a place of half-denial.
While I do not work harder than my clients at their recovery, I will certainly meet them where they are. If an individual comes to me and says they want to reduce drinking, that’s great! We’ll acknowledge this as a win, then I will try to move them further into recognizing that they should maybe stop drinking altogether.
Being willing to accept that some behaviors need to change is a huge step forward when talking about addiction. So, “half-denial” is a good start and can be capitalized on when an individual is beginning their recovery journey.
“I’ve got this”
Another critical arena for overcoming denial in addiction is the importance of addressing it throughout all the stages of recovery. Just like “da Nile isn’t just a river in Egypt,” denial is not something people only experience at the beginning of their recovery journey. It is neither uncommon nor unheard of for people to get to a certain point in their recovery and believe they safe and no longer have an addiction.
This might be the most dangerous kind of denial in recovery. Just because you haven’t had that drink or that pill in x amount of months or years, doesn’t mean it is no longer a problem. This is where we see individuals relapsing because “I can have just one drink/pill/bump/bag.”
When we have addictions to substances, our brains do a great job of rationalizing for us – “hey, I’ve done an awesome job, I deserve this to celebrate.” And so the addiction, through our old friend denial, creeps in to comfort us.
Related Reading: Why is Addiction Considered a Disease?
With this type of denial, it’s essential to focus on what positive outcomes the person has seen since they started recovery. And, folks, I cannot stress this enough, shame and guilt are NOT the way to get someone out of this type of denial. These “I’ve got this” types of thoughts are not the result of weakness; they are the result of addiction.
“I’m not drinking/using anymore, I’m fine.”
Along this same vein as “I’ve got this” is that individuals can be in denial about changes they need to make outside of stopping usage. Have any of you heard the term “dry drunk”?
Simply put, a dry drunk is a colloquialism for an individual who is technically in recovery because they have removed the substance. But they have put no work or effort into addiction’s behavioral health/emotional side. Trauma, depression, anxiety, etc., and some pretty challenging behaviors and attitudes at times can underlie addiction.
This type of denial is what I see the most in my clients. They believe everything is fine because they’ve removed the substance. Yet everyone thinks they are a jerk. No, this isn’t “just who they are.” These are symptoms of either emotional distress resulting from chemical changes made to the brain during the individual’s active addiction or a co-occuring disorder like anxiety, trauma, etc.
I believe this is the most challenging type of denial to get an individual out of, clinically speaking. I can use facts and evidence on how drinking or drug use has caused problems. But it is much more difficult to convince another person that they are emotionally not “ok.”
I’ve learned that the best tactics to use in these scenarios typically are identifying values, looking at relationships. But, more importantly, not forcing it onto the individual. As I said at the very beginning, you cannot force an individual to recognize “they have a problem.” The same holds true for this type of denial.
The Damage of Ongoing Denial
Ultimately, denial is a coping mechanism that allows you time to adjust to challenges or distressing situations without emotional or psychological overload. However, staying in denial can interfere with your life. When someone is in denial, they are:
- Not acknowledging a problematic situation
- Not facing the facts of a problem
- Downplaying potential consequences
Denial is a normal human condition, and it takes work to get through. And sometimes you or your loved one may need help to work through it. But once you do, the possibilities are endless, even outside of addiction recovery.
Related Reading: Why Overcoming Addiction is Possible
If your loved one is in denial about addiction, approaching the topic may be difficult, or downright impossible. You can’t force the conversation, but you can listen and provide support. And when you feel like you can’t do this alone, consider meeting together with a mental or behavioral health provider.
If you are in the Chicagoland area, contact us for addiction counseling at Life Care Wellness by calling (630) 423-5935. Our Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselors (CADCs) can provide the support and guidance you and your loved one need to find recovery with addiction.