The title of this article is meant to be very tongue-in-cheek….I don’t actually want anyone to use denial in order to minimize consequences. Yet that is what we do at times, even during our recovery, after we have moved past the denial that kept us stuck in active addiction. So I think it is important to keep an awareness about denial and how it really works so that you are better prepared to deal with it.
A lack of awareness is one of the biggest potential problems that you can have in life. If you don’t even know about a problem that you have then you are powerless to try to act and overcome it.
How denial works in active addiction
The idea behind denial during addiction is pretty straightforward. Consequences start to crop up into your life as your drinking escalates, and your mind decides to make excuses for those consequences rather than to place the blame where it really belongs: on your excessive drinking. This is denial. You are denying yourself the truth so that you can continue to drink and self medicate without feeling bad about yourself.
To the struggling addict or alcoholic, doing this on a regular basis makes you feel like you are on a psychological hamster wheel. One of the reasons for this is because the “bad” parts of your drinking are intermittent. So every single day that you drink is not a complete catastrophe. If it were then it would probably be a lot harder for you to stay stuck in denial. But the fact is that most alcoholics and addicts have some successful episodes as well as some disasters. So they are constantly on a roller coaster when it comes to their own addiction. They may have a few decent days in a row where they drink and have no real consequences from it, and so they convince themselves that they can always drink like this, that they have finally “figured it out.” But of course they are only fooling themselves, because eventually they will lose control again, go totally overboard, and have all sorts of unwanted consequences again. Another layer of denial.
In early addiction the alcoholic will be in a very advanced stage of denial where they do not even believe that they have a problem whatsoever, and that they are no different from their fellow peers who can drink normally. This might be called “complete denial.” But I think it is important to realize that there are more levels of denial than just being totally oblivious like this. Let me explain using my own situation.
When I was struggling with alcoholism I went to three treatment centers before I finally was able to “stick and stay” in recovery. So when I went to the first treatment center I had a certain level of denial going on, and I was not really convinced that I was an alcoholic at all. At this point my drinking was an inconvenience, a minor problem.
By the time I went to the next rehab I was more willing to admit to alcoholism. There was no denying the label at this point. I would call myself an alcoholic at this time. But understand that even though I was willing to call myself an alcoholic at that time, I was still in some form of denial. Why? Because I was not yet willing to accept the 12 step program as my solution.
You may be saying “wait a second, hold on….that doesn’t sound like denial to me. You admitted that you were an alcoholic. Why do you have to accept a program as your solution in order to be free of all denial?”
This was how my own situation worked. I needed a massive amount of help in my life if I was going to overcome my addiction. My entire life revolved around drugs and alcohol and all of my friends and coworkers used drugs and alcohol with me as well. What I really needed was long term treatment, that was the solution that I had been resisting all along. To me, it sounded too much like prison. And part of that solution would have to involve 12 step meetings, going to AA, and I was frankly rather scared of the meetings.
So it was not that I had to accept AA as my solution in order to break through denial….it was that I had to accept something, anything as my solution. And it had to be a fairly extreme solution, like long term rehab, because my situation at the time was rather extreme. My life was entrenched in madness and I needed a total reset. So just going to a short term rehab probably would not have done the trick. I needed a massive change and that meant going to long term treatment and accepting their program without reservation. I had to take a plunge. No holding back.
Now understand that when I went to my second rehab (out of 3 total) I was at a point where I could fully admit and accept that I was alcoholic, with no real hope unless I got help. But I was still in denial because I was not willing to accept this radical solution to my problem. I was still clinging to the idea that I wanted things to be my own way, that I would not be happy unless I could self medicate, and that I was not willing to face my fears of meetings and living in rehab.
To be honest I had this horrible aversion to the idea of long term rehab. I thought that the concepts was atrocious in my mind. If you were going to live in rehab, why not just go to jail? That was how my thinking was at the time. Today I can look back and see how narrow minded this is, because I know that living in long term rehab is nothing like jail or prison, and is actually a total cakewalk in comparison. In fact, I highly recommend long term treatment to anyone who continues to struggle with alcoholism.
When I left my second rehab I was so close to breaking all the way through my denial, but I just wasn’t quite there yet. Apparently I had not had enough misery in my life due to my alcoholism yet. So I wanted to go back out and get some more misery rather than to follow the directions and advice of the therapists and attend long term rehab. Because the treatment professionals all knew that I needed long term help, but I refused to see this at the time. I just did not want to do it. I wanted to go try my chances at happiness with drinking again. So I went back out for another round of madness.
About a year later I finally surrendered for good. This time it was different, and I was able to make my recovery into a success. I had broke through my denial completely this time, and was fully willing to go to long term treatment this time. In fact, this time I asked the therapists at rehab if I could be placed in long term. They agreed and placed me there, and my life has never been better.
So here is what changed for me. I had finally broke through all of my denial this time. And that last bit of denial had to do with my own selfish desires to drink and to self medicate.
I had come to a point in my alcoholism where I had finally faced myself and realized an honest truth: it was not working any more. The alcohol was not doing what I wanted it to do any longer.
And I actually had this moment when I was drinking heavily, because to be perfectly honest I was not drunk at all. I was perfectly lucid. But I got this moment of clarity where I glimpsed the future. And it was a very sad moment, a moment of slow and dawning realization, and it was a bit of a horrible moment for me as well. Because I suddenly realized that I was on a hamster wheel. I suddenly realized that there was no happiness in my future. Only tiny glimpses of happiness that I would have to reach for, one drink and one drug at a time. And I could clearly see that most of those drinks and drugs that I would take in the future would not make me happy. Because the drinks I was taking at that moment had failed to make me happy.
There I was, drinking myself silly, trying to get smashed, and I was failing miserably. And in that moment I saw through the last of my denial. Not only was I an alcoholic, but I realized that I was never going to be permanently happy by drinking and using drugs each day. But this was the illusion that I had been telling myself all along! That I could take a magical drink or use a magical drug and I would become instantly happy!
Because remember back in the beginning, folks? That actually worked. When you first started using your drug of choice (be it alcohol or whatever), it worked like magic! You just used a bit of it and suddenly it erased all of your problems! It made you happy, regardless of your current mood. It even worked if you were having a bad day.
Over time this stops working so well. It stops working well because we abuse the stuff and it becomes our new normal. We are used to being drunk every day so it is no longer a treat for us. There is no way to be happy again by drinking unless you sober up for a week or so first. Then you can have one fun hour or two while getting drunk again “for the first time in a week.” Suddenly it will seem like fun again, but only for an hour or so. Really, if you don’t believe this, measure it some time! Your happiness is incredibly short lived with alcoholism and drug addiction. Our denial allows us to see past that and believe that our drug makes us happy for longer.
So my final revelation before I got into recovery was this:
“Alcohol no longer does what I want it to do for me. It has stopped working, and in the future it will stop working again. In fact I can see that if I continue to drink every day, I will only have mere glimpses of happiness with booze. It will never be a party every day like it used to be. It will never be fun again 24/7. It has become mostly misery, and there is no going back. So I can either accept this misery, or I can try to change my life.”
That was how I finally broke through my own denial. I glimpsed the future in a moment of clarity, and saw that I would never really be happy if I continued to drink.
Why denial is more comfortable than making a tough change
Now we all know what it means to give up drinking or drug addiction. You have to relinquish total control of your life, which is a smashing blow to the ego. It takes real guts to go through with this kind of change. It is not an easy change to make by any means.
And this is exactly why denial persists so much. Living in denial is easier than making the hard changes.
Living in denial is like being on a treadmill or a hamster wheel. You are constantly jumping through hoops (mostly mentally) in order to justify your addiction to yourself. If you keep doing this then eventually it becomes second nature to you and you no longer have to try very hard in order to do it. You just naturally defend your alcoholism out of habit. At some point, you make a decision that you have given your drinking the “OK” in your own mind, and if anyone attacks you about it you are going to defend yourself rather than examine your drinking. Mentally you drew a line in the sand and decided that you were sick and tired of people questioning your drinking and so you were just going to defend that drinking without hesitation.
We make this decision like this because it is easier than facing the truth. It is easier to defend our drinking and rationalize it away than to engage in self examination. This is especially true in cases of low self esteem, because then the person will be really against looking deeper into their own issues. If you want to get to the core of your drinking then you have to look inward and get really honest with yourself. Most people are not willing to do this. Therefore, denial persists.
How we can break through our denial to make positive changes
The best way to break through your denial is to simply recognize it for what it is.
Start measuring. In order to do this you are going to need to increase your awareness. Force yourself to start paying attention to your life more closely.
If you are completely oblivious to all consequences in your life then obviously nothing can ever change. Why would you make a change if you are not aware of any problems? Therefore you need to become aware of the problem so that you can see and understand a need for change.
If you do not see the patterns in your life and the bigger picture then it is going to be very difficult to break out of denial. If you cannot see the potential future and where your addiction may be leading you then it is not likely that you will make a change.
If you have admitted that you are an addict or an alcoholic then you are at least a step closer to full surrender. But you are not quite there yet if you continue to abuse your drug of choice. In order to make that last step into recovery, you are going to need to take some action. If you are not yet willing to ask for help and follow through on any advice you are given, then you need to work on your denial internally.
Without really knowing what I was doing, I actually started doing this during my own struggle with alcoholism, soon before I finally got into recovery. To be honest I was questioning myself in many ways, and wondered if I should not just throw caution to the wind rather than to try to control and limit myself. And I was starting to pay attention. I was starting to measure my happiness.
In order to do this you are going to have to raise your awareness.
If you want to get clean and sober but you cannot figure out “how to surrender,” then you need to raise your awareness so that you can break through denial.
How can I increase my awareness and overcome denial?
Why do you drink? Why do you use drugs?
Start asking yourself that question every day, and make sure you know the answer to it. I was drinking because it was my ticket to happiness. That was what made me happy. That was why I drank and self medicated. I believed that I could not be happy unless I was drinking.
You may have a different reason for drinking or using drugs. Maybe you tell yourself that you use in order to medicate physical pain. At any rate, you may have your own unique reason for using or drinking. Figure out what that is.
Now, start measuring how successful you are each and every day in terms of your drug of choice. If you drink to be happy, how is it working for you today? If you abuse pills to medicate physical pain, how is that working for you today? Obviously this only works if you are completely honest with yourself, and if you keep asking these questions every day.
If you do this then you will eventually be forced to realize that your drug of choice is a sham. It has stopped doing what you want it to do. This is addiction. It always ends this way, because of your tolerance. You get used to the drug, and it no longer works the old magic for you. Not like it did in the beginning. And your denial is simply ignoring this fact. That’s all it is. You are choosing to remember the old magic, when the drug actually worked.
But it is time to see past that lie. Now you need to measure. If you take your drug of choice every day and it genuinely makes you happy and you can still function, then why would you stop using it? I sure wouldn’t! But that is not reality. The reality is that your drug of choice is no longer working for you. And in order to see that you need to measure it. And the way to measure it is to ask yourself questions each day.
What you can do if you know that a loved one is stuck in denial
It is not possible to force someone to see through their own denial. However, you don’t have to help them maintain their denial.
And this is really the entire extent to which you can help any alcoholic or addict. Simply refuse to indulge their fantasy of denial. Call it out for what it is. Label their misery honestly. Don’t tell them it is all OK and that things will get better or any kind of fairy tale like that. Tell them the truth–that their drug of choice is making them miserable, and that they need to go seek professional help.