Understanding And Confronting Denial In Addiction
Suggesting to a loved one that they may need treatment for substance abuse is never an easy conversation. But it can be even harder if your loved one doesn’t even want to admit that they have a problem—in other words, if your loved one is in denial.
What is Denial?
Denial is a well-documented defense mechanism often seen in people who are in the grips of addiction. This mechanism is thought to occur mostly unconsciously, and to occur when someone feels unable to face the negative emotions that would ensue if they were able to face the full truth of their situation.
When the full truth of their situation is a full-blown addiction to drugs or alcohol, it is easy to understand why these negative emotions might be too much to bear. This is because when someone who has regularly been numbing themselves with drugs or alcohol realizes and admits that they have a problem, they will have to face the fact that they have no other option than to get sober, which will cause them a great deal of anxiety and sadness if they feel that they do not know how to cope with life without using substances.
Admitting that they have a drug problem may also invoke a great deal of shame, as they are essentially admitting that they have been unable to handle this problem on their own, which could be very threatening to their ego. It may also involve coming to grips with guilt as they face the full truth of the negative consequences that their addiction has caused.
Signs of Denial/ Common Denial Tactics
Denial of a substance abuse problem can take many different forms, but here is a list of some of the most common ways that an addict may try to deny that they have a problem.
An addict may point to the fact that they are still able to function, or that their problem isn’t as bad as it could be, as justification for why they do not have a problem or do not need treatment.
E.g: “Lots of people drink everyday/use drugs sometimes. What’s the big deal? “
This minimization can extend to downplaying the risks and consequences of their continual drug use. E.g:
“It’s just a little DUI, I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal of it!”
“Yeah, I know that some people overdose on heroin, but that’s not going to happen to me.”
2. Claiming Control
It may too threatening for a drug addict to admit they are not actually in control of their substance abuse even if this is the case. Thus, they may consistently claim that they can stop anytime they want to while demonstrating no ability to curb or set limits on their consumption.
One way that this might manifest is an addict pointing to the fact that they were able to go for a short period of time without using as evidence that they are fine while conveniently downplaying the fact that they went right back to their problematic habits afterward.
Or, they may point out to their ability to maintain certain limits, eg, “I never drink or use drugs while at work or while driving,” or “It isn’t as if I shoot up every day” as proof that they are in control when other aspects of their behavior show that this is not in fact the case.
Someone who is exhibiting denial in the course of a substance abuse problem may also deny responsibility for their problem, or deny that their problem necessitates an intervention or treatment, rather than denying that they have a problem per se.
For instance, they may point out the benefits their substance abuse gives them while ignoring all of the pitfalls. They might claim that they cannot stop using because drugs helps them to relax, socialize, or be more productive. They may also try to assert that they have no choice but to use drugs because they have a traumatic past or suffer from a mental illness.
While these are potential factors in causing or reinforcing someone’s drug abuse that should be respected and taken seriously, they should always be addressed through appropriate mental health treatment or other healthier coping skills rather than used as by an addict as an excuse for continual drug abuse.
Are You In Denial?
It’s also important to remember that the phenomenon of denial is in no way limited to people suffering from addiction. Denial as to the seriousness of the situation can also occur in the loved ones of someone who has a substance abuse problem.
It can be scary to admit to yourself that someone you care about has lost control of their use of drugs or alcohol, and, depending on your relationship to them, it might also bring up feelings of shame, guilt, or helplessness.
For instance, if your child or spouse is suffering from addiction, you may deny to yourself that they have a problem, or deny the seriousness of that problem, to avoid confronting issues in your relationship or the idea that you have been a bad parent or partner.
In truth, your loved one may be abusing drugs for all kinds of complicated reasons that have nothing to do with you, and the fact that you are committed enough to try to help them to be considering formal intervention services shows how much you actually care about their well-being.
The danger here, though, is that your denial will allow you to justify enabling behavior, which you might minimize or rationalize in much the same way the addict rationalizes their drug abuse. Helping an addict to function despite their serious substance abuse or even simply not intervening if they pose a clear danger to themselves or others could allow them to continue indefinitely on an incredibly destructive path.
What To Do If Someone Is In Denial
Denial is a relatively common stage in the process of coming to grips with an addiction problem, and the fact that your loved one is currently in denial in no way means they will be never be able to come to grips with their substance abuse and eventually achieve a full recovery.
However, if you wait for them to reach that point on their own, the terrifying truth is that they may cause irreversible to damage to their health, invoke lifelong legal consequences, or, in the worst case scenario, lose their life to an overdose or an intoxication-related accident before they are ready to face their disorder on their own.
This is true even of an addict who does not deny that they have a problem but continually claims that they are going to get help “eventually” or “when they are ready” despite the fact that negative consequences are amassing in the meantime.
Thus, it may be necessary for you to confront them about their problem rather than wait for them to come to their senses. If you do go this route, try to approach them when they are in a calm, sober state rather than when they are intoxicated or emotional, and try to come at the matter from a reasoned, rational place rather than focusing on your own negative emotions or condemning the addict for their behavior.
Instead of trying to invoke guilt or shame, emphasize the concrete proof that their behavior is out of control: for instance, you can try pointing out the number of alcoholic drinks they are having per day, or making a list of all of the negative consequences their drug addiction has caused them. Then, calmly explain why you are concerned and the risks that they face if they continue on their current path, and offer any emotional and practical support you can to help them in pursuing the appropriate treatment.
If this all seems a little overwhelming, you should also know that you don’t have to go at this alone. If you are worried about a loved one who is currently struggling with addiction, you could also enlist the help of one of our skilled intervention counselors to act as a buffer between and to help you find the most effective way to convey your concern.
In extreme cases, if your loved one remains unresponsive and deep in denial even after a professionally guided confrontation, our intervention counselor will be able to guide you through the process of filing a Marchman Act petition.
This Marchman Act petition will, if successful, require your loved one to be involuntarily committed to a drug treatment program, in which mental health professionals will be able to gradually chip away at their denial and help them find a path toward lasting sobriety.