Denial is defined as avoiding the awareness of some painful aspect of reality by negating sensory data. Now, if that sounds like the definition from the back of some old, dusty Psychology textbook, you’re not wrong! In less confusing terms, denial is a defense mechanism. It manifests as an unhealthy coping skill in which an individual refutes or ignores the existence of a problem in order to avoid confrontation or reality.
Unfortunately, when it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, denial can lead to some serious consequences (e.g. severe medical complications or even death).
For those of us who are personally affected by a loved one’s substance abuse, denial can be frustrating. The writing on the wall is there, and it seems so obvious, right? You can point to the DUI, the missed days of work, the increased health complications or even the bloodshot eyes.
However, it seems like the person chooses to bury their head in the sand purposefully so that they can continue to engage in their destructive behavior. And that right there is why denial is deadly. Without recognition and the acknowledgement of the problem there can be no solution. After the problem is recognized, the person can receive treatment and begin on the path to recovery.
Examples of Denial
In my professional opinion, denial is the most common defense mechanism amongst addicts and alcoholics, as well as their family members. As Clinical Director at Stonegate Center, I’ve sat across many mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and spouses affected by addiction. Although each case is different, the theme of denial permeates throughout.
So, how can we spot someone in denial? For starters, we must identify the common examples of denial listed below:
- Ignorance. “I don’t have a problem.”
- Rationalization.“I can quit if I really wanted to. I’m still able to make it to work, aren’t I?”
- Justification. “I’m just doing it because I’m stressed right now. I’ll stop after work dies down.”
- Comparison. “It’s not that bad. Everybody I work with drinks like this at Happy Hour.”
- Narcissism. “Treatment won’t work for me. I can manage my drinking on my own.”
- Deflection. “My dad drinks more than I do.”
Often times clients regret not being able to see their problem with drugs and alcohol earlier, and I empathize with them. But the truth is: denial is sneaky. Some people realize they have a problem a lot earlier, but their denial acts as a smoke screen to prevent them from seeking help. When denial takes over, the addiction drags on for much longer than intended and loved ones often bear the brunt of the addict’s consequences.
In some cases, clients are well-aware of the effect addiction has on their life. However, they subconsciously avoid the stark reality of admitting their problem because an admittance means change, and change is hard.
Let’s face it, no one wants to admit they are an alcoholic or a drug addict. But, don’t for one second think denial is a one-way street! It’s also extremely difficult for family members, themselves, to admit that their own son, daughter, or spouse is suffering from addiction.
With the stigmatization of alcoholism and drug addiction in our culture, it’s no surprise that people are ambivalent towards the deadly effects of denial. The media doesn’t glorify someone who admits they have a problem and seeks help. Don’t believe me? Go check out our previous blog article on Addiction in TV.
Family members tend to blame themselves for not recognizing the patterns of alcoholism earlier. But this only perpetuates a shame-based message that allows the addiction to grow in scope and severity.
If a loved one accepts responsibility for their family member’s alcoholism or drug addiction, they also unjustly assume that they, too, are responsible for curing their loved one’s disease. My experience shows that some parents will stop at nothing to “fix their child.” I’ve seen families go into debt to pay legal fees, hospital bills, and countless stays in treatment all in effort to “cure” their loved one from the disease of addiction.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a body shop. You can’t take your child to a healthcare garage and get him “tuned up.” This thought process is problematic for two reasons:
- There is no “cure” for alcoholism, and
- Trying to accept full responsibility for the disease in attempts to “cure” it completely denies the presence of God’s omnipotence.
How to Help Someone in Denial
A disease as deadly as addiction requires cutting-edge medical and psychological treatment. That’s a given. But people tend to overlook the benefits of incorporating one’s faith, amongst other aspects, into the treatment approach. SAMHSA notes that there are Eight Dimensions of Wellness. These include:
While most of the focus tends to be directed towards one’s physical health, Stonegate Center does a phenomenal job of integrating a spiritual solution. We believe that long-term recovery can be attained by finding an optimal, healthy balance between one’s mind, body, AND spirit. By doing so, we can promote self-actualization, or a renewed sense of purpose, within our clients.
Once denial is overcome and acceptance takes over, an individual and his loved ones are afforded the opportunity to heal. More importantly, we believe in the promise and power of the 12-Step traditions. In working the program, we are better able to realize the power and full-potential of God. And, situations that previously baffled us, will soon be conquered.
What Makes Stonegate Center Unique?
Over the past 5 years, I have yet to come across a roadblock as deadly as denial. There’s no need to sugarcoat it, denial is scary. It’s the only stage of recovery that actively works to convince an individual that they are “okay.” And when paired with drug and alcohol addiction, denial can kill.
Even after completing 90-days in a residential treatment program, the potential for relapse still exists. Anecdotally, we’ve heard stories of people who revert to their old ways and maladaptive thought patterns – denial being one of the most common offenders.
Think back to the examples of denial listed above. Alcoholics ignore, rationalize, justify, compare, think they are unique, or deflect. Stressors often arise, and an alcoholic not working a solid program can often relapse after having the thought that “I can have one drink and be okay.” After a momentary lapse of reason and a failure to address the issue head on, the client will once again enter the vicious cycle of addiction that landed them in treatment in the first place. The sense of desperation that they once had when the entered treatment is now gone, and they have begun to abandon all hope.
They deny, deny, deny. And that’s why I firmly believe in the title of my blog. As bold and eye-catching as it is, it’s hauntingly true… Denial is deadly.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees or cures when it comes to treating alcoholism or drug addiction, but there is a solution found in forming a deep and meaningful relationship with God, compounded with top-tier medical and clinical expertise.
I’m proud to be the Clinical Director of Stonegate Center, and my goal is to help my clients understand that self-reliance seldom suffices to keep someone sober. My challenge to parents, spouses, and siblings is to relinquish the fraudulent power that we think we have over the alcoholics and drug addicts in our life. The truth is, it takes a village of caring individuals willing to sacrifice what they have in order to help those struggling with addiction. We must hang up our superman cape and allow God to do what we are not able to do for ourselves.
Satchel Stillwell is the Clinical Director of Stonegate Center. He has worked in the field of counseling since 2013 and has had work published in the Fort Worth Child magazine. Upon completing his Master’s in Counseling at DBU, he began serving the male population at Stonegate Center as a Licensed Professional Intern in 2014. You can usually find Satchel watching military history documentaries or playing with his three lovely children when he isn’t at Stonegate Center.