Sometimes people don’t see the things we want them to see: their boss is taking advantage of them at work, their significant other is cheating, or an outfit is not as flattering as they might think. These situations are fairly minor in comparison to a loved one in denial about his or her addiction. To an outsider, it looks insane that a person who keeps a bottle of beer by their bedside and another next to the shower just to get through the morning is unaware they have a drinking problem. But to the person struggling with addiction, it’s just a normal way to get through the day.
People in denial of their addictions are not stupid, but their judgment is clouded because they are in the throes of a potentially life-threating disease. To maintain their current lifestyle, which is ruled by the addictive substance, they are in the grips of a state of mind that allows them to avoid the consequences of their behavior.
Some of these behaviors include:
Complete denial that the problem exists at all. Either the person says they don’t drink and tries to hide it from you (most often unsuccessfully), or claims they only drink socially and it doesn’t cause any ill effects.
Provides excuses for why they drink and are convinced they make logical sense. For example, the person may say that you make them drink because of the way you act, or they drink because they have a stressful job, or due to chronic pain.
Assigning the blame to someone else. This could manifest itself in a couple of different ways. Most often, the alcoholic will compare himself or herself to someone who drinks more, or uses harder drugs and say the other person is the one with a problem.
Justifying why the drinking should continue. The person could argue that they have been able to keep a job, or are more fun when they drink. Often stating that they’re saving money by drinking alone at home instead of going out to bars, shows or movies.
A lot of alcoholics struggle with the concept of uniqueness. They think the negative things that happen to other chronic drinkers won’t happen to them. When the consequences of their alcoholism catch up with them, these conscious or unconscious denial strategies fail. The alcoholic is then left with the stark reality of their life, including feelings of pain, shame, guilt, and self-hatred.
The best way to truly help the person struggling with addiction is to let them get to that place of reflection in their own time. This doesn’t mean you have to wait until the person is living on the streets without a penny to their name. In fact, you can help the process by letting the addict suffer the consequences of their actions before they become too insurmountable. For example, allow them to sit in jail for a night with a public intoxication charge instead of rushing to bail them out; don’t lie to their boss if they’re too hung over to go to work.
Since alcoholism is a progressive illness, it will only get worse over time unless the alcoholic has motivation to recover. The longer a person drinks, the greater the consequences to that person’s health, social life, and finances.
The earlier you begin to practice detachment, the better. Don’t forget to get some help for yourself, since detachment isn’t easy. Many family members receive comfort through Alcoholic’s Anonymous, whether or not their loved ones are in recovery.
It’s unlikely the alcoholic will thank you for helping them get through their denial anytime soon, so don’t expect it. You’ll have to wait for that until sometime down the road on their journey toward recovery. Instead, focus on your own wellness.
About the Author
Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.