Addiction Feels Like Living in a Different Reality
What is it like to experience addiction denial?
During the early years of my drinking, I struggled to understand why other people didn’t share my enthusiasm for alcohol. It seemed so obvious to me that it was the missing link that made life an enjoyable experience. Why wouldn’t everyone else want the same thing too?
When other people then started to complain about my alcohol intake, I felt sure the problem was with them rather than with me. They just couldn’t bear the fact that I was having such a good time – probably because they were jealous or too hung-up to enjoy themselves. I honestly believed that if these people would only lighten up a bit, they would not only quit their complaining about my drinking, but they would also join me at the bar.
The denial around my drinking made it seem as if I was living in a different universe than most other people. I was in the sane universe, and they were somewhere else. Even when the negative impact of what I was doing appeared obvious to my loved ones, I just didn’t get it. I always had an excuse or justification. This meant that for so long as the denial remained, anyone trying to help was facing an almost impossible challenge.
A History of Denial
Our understanding of denial as it relates to addiction problems owes a great debt to the work of Sigmund Freud. He described it as a psychological defense mechanism that operated unconsciously to protect our ego from harmful realities. Denial is often described in negative terms, but it can play a positive role – e.g. if we are given a terminal diagnosis by our doctor, denial can stop us from feeling overwhelmed and give us time to process the news.
Types of Denial
Denial can occur in different ways including:
Refusing to accept responsibility (strategic hopelessness).
Avoiding the subject.
Denial and Cognitive Dissonance
Denial is closely associated with another psychological theory called cognitive dissonance that can also be helpful in understanding addiction. A state of cognitive dissonance arises when there is some type of internal conflict due to our beliefs and opinions – e.g. we have two beliefs that contradict each other.
Our ego has a need to appear rational, so when there is some type of dissonance it leads to a state of anxiety. The obvious example of this would be drug abuse where we know about the dangers, but we also have a strong urge to continue with the behavior. The ego can use several strategies to resolve this cognitive dissonance including:
Simple denial – “drugs aren’t dangerous”.
Minimization – “the reported dangers of drugs are exaggerated”.
Terminal uniqueness – “the normal rules don’t apply to me”.
Rationalization – “I understand the dangers of drugs, but life would be unbearable without something to get me through”.
How Denial Keeps Us Trapped in Addiction
Denial about our addiction problem means we stay trapped in a prison without even realizing we are being held captive. We become satisfied with the crumbs of happiness provided by the drug, and we always have a justification/excuse for the negative consequences of the behavior.
The saddest part of being caught up in addiction denial is we believe that this is the best life has to offer. We can’t imagine a future without drugs, so we assume it is not an option for us. The denial means that when we hear reports about people who have recovered from addiction, we respond with cynicism and mistrust.
Podcast Episode 36: “Denial – How Can We Fix Ourselves If We Don’t Even Realize We’re Broken?”
Top 10 Examples of Addiction Denial
“I could quit if I wanted to”.
“My drinking/drug use isn’t that bad – my loved ones are just making a fuss over nothing”.
“I’m just going through a bad patch”.
“If my partner/children/friends/boss treated me better, I wouldn’t need to drink”.
“I need something to help me cope with my incredibly stressful life”.
“The real problem is that other people hate to see me enjoying myself”.
“Other people just need to lighten up”.
“I’ll quit if things get bad enough”.
“I’m not as bad as …”
“Giving up would mean a boring life”.
Hitting Rock Bottom – When Denial is Too Painful to Continue
Hitting rock bottom means reaching a point where it is no longer possible to deny the impact of drugs on our life. It is like waking up from a nightmare that we didn’t even realize was a nightmare until we woke up. The pain of addiction has become too much to ignore, and all the previous justifications/excuses appear hollow.
Important:The belief that we need to wait for rock bottom to happen is a dangerous misunderstanding. We could easily die long before such a magical day arises. Rock bottom is not an event but a realization. We can reach this point at any stage during the addiction process if we are willing to be honest with ourselves. The assistance of a therapist/counsellor can be a useful here to help us wake up to reality.
How to Help a Loved One Caught Up in Denial
Denial can be an incredibly strong defense mechanism, so it is important to be prepared when confronting a loved one about their addiction problem. Here are some suggestions for how to go about this encounter effectively:
- Avoid confronting this person if he/she is intoxicated.
Stick to facts and don’t exaggerate (loved ones will often be looking for an excuse to dismiss our concerns so don’t make this easy for them).
The best time to approach loved ones is when their denial is weakest (e.g. after they have messed up badly or they are suffering from a bad hangover).
Avoid blaming as this just puts the other person on the defensive.
Choose the time for the encounter carefully (e.g. a bad time might be when your loved one has an excuse to leave).
It may be helpful to involve other family members or friends when confronting the loved one (this is known as an intervention).
Speak calmly and avoid displays of anger.
Offer a possible solution (e.g. do some research on rehab option before you confront your loved one).
Giving an ultimatum can be a good idea (e.g. “either you stop drinking or you need to move out”), but only if you are prepared to follow through on the ultimatum.
Please also check out our Family Guide to Addiction and Alcoholism
Can an Addict Who is Still in Denial Benefit from Rehab?
To recover from addiction, we must be willing to change, and this willingness usually only comes after we can clearly see the reality of our situation. That being said, it does not mean we need this level of clarity on our first day in rehab. In fact, a key focus of the early weeks in a rehab program is helping clients see beyond their denial.
There are plenty of examples of clients who agree to attend rehab to appease family and friends, but then go on to fully embrace recovery.
Denial and Relapse
Just because we have awoken to some of the realities around our addiction problem doesn’t mean we are immune from further denial. Our old ways of thinking can be waiting in the background for an opportunity to return. This is far more likely to be the case when we have failed to be completely honest with ourselves or we have reservations about recovery (e.g. I’ll stay clean, so long as my partner takes me back).
One of the benefits of belonging to a recovery community is the other members can be good at spotting the warning signs that our recovery is weak, and we are at risk of relapse. Those who have experienced addiction denial themselves can be the most skilled at spotting it in others.
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