One of the reasons that early recovery is so tough is because we tend to try to do it on our own and refuse to ask for help. Of course part of this is due to our denial and there are actually several stages of denial that keep people stuck in recovery. One of those stages of denial is simply about the fact that we think we can do it all ourselves, if only we really wanted to quit drinking or using drugs. Eventually we break through that level of denial and realize that we are going to need to ask for help if we are going to change our lives.
But our denial keeps us stuck in other ways, too.
Let’s look closer at how the mind of the alcoholic really works.
Very early addiction or alcoholism
When we first pick up our drug of choice we are not necessarily in denial yet, because we are not yet experiencing negative consequences in our lives.
Things are still OK. We are using our drug of choice and we are happy in our lives and there are no major problems yet. Sure, the problems are down the road for us, but there is no way of really predicting that for sure, and many people do experiment with drugs or alcohol and avoid becoming addicted. So it is too premature to call this state of being denial at this time.
But obviously we are still setting ourselves up for problems later on at this time, even though we cannot really know that. What we are really doing is laying down the foundation of good memories with our drug of choice that our mind will then refer back to over and over again throughout our addiction.
Our brain is creating this baseline of happiness that it is associating with our drug of choice. We are setting ourselves up for a big lie, and the lie is essentially saying “I can be super happy whenever I want just by using my drug of choice.” At this early point when we are just starting to experiment with our drug of choice and times are still good and the chaos is minimal, this is when our brain is taking snapshots of the perfect buzz, and this is what the brain will refer back to when it tries to convince us of the lie–that we can be happy whenever we want just by using our drug.
So we are not really in full blown denial yet at this point, because our addiction has not really reared its full ugly head just yet. We may be using our drug of choice with increasing regularity, but we are not yet experiencing negative consequences from doing so yet. That comes next.
When consequences start to develop from our disease
This is when our denial begins, as soon as we start to realize negative consequences from our disease.
Now at first, these consequences may be very small, but they are still worth noting and they still require you to go into denial in order to continue to justify your addiction.
For example, it may not be “wreck your car and end up in jail” consequences that occur at first. It might just be that you are out partying and miss one of your child’s special events, or maybe you notice that you are late to work a few times, something that has never happened to you before.
Maybe you experience your first blackout at some point.
In order to continue using your drug of choice at this point, you have to make a rationalization. You have to acknowledge the consequence and then make some sort of mental allowance for it so that you are not really blaming things on your drug or alcohol use. This is how denial starts out. You might reason “Oh sure, a few little problems have crept into my life, but these are surely not the direct result of my drug or alcohol intake, these things happen to other people too, everyone comes in late to work a few times, and therefore I am not going to make any drastic changes to my life at this time.”
Or you might reason “everyone drinks and eventually everyone goes a bit overboard with it here and there, everyone has to go nuts and have fun at some point, so a crazy drinking episode here or there is nothing to get worked up about, it is not like I am sleeping in the gutter with a brown bag next to me!”
This is denial in action. You are using rationalization in order to minimize the consequences of your disease. So you do acknowledge that your addiction has produced some negative consequences, but you do some mental gymnastics in order to rationalize them away. You also compare yourself to others and use the idea that “everyone is doing it” and thus try to minimize the addiction as well.
All of this is part of denial and it is all part of your effort to make it feel OK in your own mind to continue to self medicate.
At this (relatively early) point in the addiction process, the addict or alcoholic is still basically thinking to themselves, whether consciously or subconsciously “I will say whatever it takes but no one is going to take my drug of choice away from me. I know I loose control at times but I am miserable or cannot function without my drug of choice, so no one is going to talk me out of using it. It’s not that bad yet. I deserve to have my drug of choice in my life and I’m going to keep using it.”
I can remember very distinctly how my mind was operating at this point. I was extremely defensive about my drug of choice because I really believed the discovery of it and my ability to self medicate with it was so amazingly wonderful. I equated my discovery of drugs and alcohol with “the best thing that has ever happened to me.” I did not want to picture my life without drugs ever again.
And without really verbalizing it, I had this idea in my mind that anyone who tried to take the drugs and the alcohol away from me was going to be in the for the fight of their life. I was determined to hang on to this wonderful new “gift” that I had found, no matter what. Not that I thought about this a lot or anything, I just really loved what the drugs were doing for me and I could not believe I had lived so long without discovering drugs and I was convinced that this was the answer that I had been looking for my whole life. So I had this defensive position going into the whole thing that really contributed to a very deep level of denial later on.
At this point, only minor consequences are popping into our lives, and we can pretty easily rationalize them away. But at some point our addiction turns a corner, and it becomes harder and harder to deny the fact that we have a serious problem. Up until now, we have been able to claim that we are a casual drug or alcohol user, and that we are “normal” and that other people use drugs and alcohol just like we do. But after we get to a certain point and enough negative consequences pile up in our lives, we eventually reach this point were we can no longer claim to be normal, we can no longer claim to just have a small issue with our drug of choice, and it is plain as day to ourselves and to everyone else that we are a complete mess due to our addiction.
Reaching this point does not mean that we are cured or that we are on the cusp of real recovery just yet. All it means is that we have broke through a very small part of our denial. We can now admit that “yes, we have a serious problem with our drug of choice.”
But this does not insure that we will take action in fixing the problem. Denial can run much deeper than this. We may have a long ways to go yet.
We realize we have a serious problem but we are still in denial
So at this stage we can no longer deny that our addiction has made our life into a mess. We openly admit that we have a serious problem with our drug of choice.
Typical consequences at this point will include things such as:
* Lost jobs due to our addiction.
* Broken relationships due to our addiction. Some may have children taken away.
* Lost cars, lost homes, total loss of all our savings, etc.
* Legal problems such as drunk driving charges or possession of illegal drug charges.
* Give up on a career path or on education, drop out of school/college, etc.
You may not have all of those problems at this point but you will probably have experienced at least one of them.
So our denial has moved into a new phase at this point and we have to adapt our mental process in order to keep justifying more drug or alcohol use. Unbelievably, even in the face of these heavy consequences it is still possible to do so.
Now your rational might go something like this:
“I know my life is a mess and I know that I have a problem with my drug of choice. But I don’t care. I am miserable without it and so I have to have it. I keep screwing up but there is no other way for me to live and be happy. If I try to get clean and sober I will kill myself out of sheer misery. Recovery (or meetings, or AA, or rehab) does not work for me. I have tried and it does not work. So my only choice is to continue to self medicate.”
Notice too that at this point in the cycle of addiction, most people have been exposed to some form of treatment or recovery at least once. Some people may even have experienced a bit of clean time during this process but still ended up relapsing because they were not in a state of full surrender yet. They were still in denial and possibly hanging on to some sort of reservation about their disease and so they did not stay clean and sober for the long run.
So in effect our denial and our mental reasoning has merely shifted. We used to be saying or arguing:
“I am not really an addict or an alcoholic because everyone else drinks or uses drugs too, and I am not really experiencing huge problems from it, so therefore I am not an addict and I do not have a serious problem.”
But now we are saying or arguing:
“I guess I do have a problem with my drug of choice, I cannot deny that any more, but I need it just to function and be happy. Obviously these people who got clean and sober did not need the drug as much as I do. I know I have a problem but I am powerless to do anything about it. Recovery solutions (rehab, AA, therapy, etc.) do not work for me because I am somehow unique and/or different from other addicts and alcoholics who have managed to recover in the past.
So our denial simply shifts.
At first, we deny that there is a problem.
Then, we admit that we have a problem but we still deny that we can recover, or live a happy life without our drug of choice.
Many addicts and alcoholics are still hanging on to one more idea at this point:
The idea that they actually could fix their own problems with addiction, if only they really wanted too. But they just don’t want too at this point, so they deny that others could help them to fix their problem. They know deep down that it is a problem of motivation (they have not reached 100 percent surrender yet) so they believe that if they wanted to get clean and sober, they could still do so all by themselves, without outside help.
This is the next level of denial. When we believe that we have a problem, but that we could possibly fix it all by ourselves, if we only tried. For the true addict or alcoholic, this is another lie. We cannot fix our own problem, at least not in early recovery.
We realize that we cannot fix our own problem but we are still in denial
So this is the last refuge of denial for the addict or alcoholic. They entertain the idea that they could probably fix their own problem with addiction if they really want too.
Maybe they have been to treatment or therapy a few times in the past, but they know that they did not really want to get clean and sober for themselves at that point.
So they hang on to the idea that they could, if they tried, overcome their addiction on all on their own.
This phase of denial can last for months, years, or decades. The same is true of any phase of denial.
After some time though, the alcoholic or addict will start to realize that they have actually been trying to control their drug or alcohol intake.
They will admit to themselves at some point that they really have tried to fix their addiction, in one way or another.
Some will have tried abstinence. Some will have tried to limit or curtail their chemical intake. Most people will have tried pretty much everything that they can think of in order to be able to hang on to their drug of choice while still staying in control of their life.
This is the crux of denial: that the addict cannot both enjoy their drug use while also controlling. They can do one or the other, but not both.
They hang on to the idea that they USED to be able to do both.
In the beginning, they could do both. They could both enjoy and control their drug or alcohol intake. They used to have that “perfect buzz” where everything was right in the world, no real problems existed, and the future looked great.
That was before they started experiencing consequences from their addiction.
And this is how denial works and why it is so tricky to overcome. The mind of the addict will hang on to the memory of that perfect buzz, even in the face of massive chaos, complete misery, and huge consequences from addiction.
The addict could be sitting in jail after a wild night of drunk driving, and they might still be blaming other people, other circumstances, and external events for their predicament. They may actually believe at that point that their fate is not their own fault, and that the world has conspired against them to land them in jail with a drink driving charge. This is the pinnacle of denial, that a person can believe that life has simply treated them unfairly when they end up facing these direct, heavy consequences from their drinking.
They are the victim, in their own minds. The world has conspired against them. They have been unfairly provoked into the things they have done and in the events that have happened to them.
This is, from what I can tell (and from what I have experienced) the deepest state of denial. Actually it is not so bad to be at this point because at least now we have progressed as far as we can into madness. The only way to go from here is towards rationality and recovery. The next step is to finally see through the whole mess, to finally realize that our whole life is a total mess and that we lack the ability to fix it for ourselves, and to finally surrender 100 percent to the idea that we are an addict, we are an alcoholic, and that we need real help if we are going to dig ourselves out of our problems.
This is the final stage, where we break through all of our denial. We fully accept our addiction at our innermost level, and realize that we need serious help.
The only thing left is the decision we have to make: do we want to live in recovery, or die in addiction?
If we choose to life then all we have to do is ask for help, and follow directions. It really is that easy….and that impossibly difficult, all at the same time. Easy because we just have to do what we are told after we surrender. Impossibly difficult because reaching true surrender is a very rare and tough thing to do.
Full surrender and becoming willing to ask for help and take direction
If we have broken through all of our denial and arrived at this point then things are about to get better.
We ask for help and then take the advice we are given, simple as that.
If an addict or an alcoholic appears to be at this point, but they do not take the advice given to them and follow through with it, then they are obviously not fully surrendered yet. They are still in denial and still hanging on to some sort of reservation.
If they have, on the other hand, truly hit bottom and fully surrendered, then they have turned a corner in their addiction and recovery process and are on the road to a new life.
All they have to do now is to change EVERYTHING.
This is actually not too difficult so long as they surrender fully and become willing to follow advice from others. In fact it can be a very smooth and easy time in their life, so long as they embrace the idea of change.
So those are the “phases” of denial as I understand them and as I myself progressed through them. Hopefully they can help people to see where they are at in their own process of surrender.