Denial As Part of Addiction

Some people live a long time displaying the obvious signs of an alcohol or drug problem. The negative consequences of substance abuse can pile up over the years: reprimands at work, job loss, legal charges, family arguments, broken promises, a wrecked car, unpaid bills. Yet, many people with a clear problem act as if nothing is really wrong. How can this be?

In treatment and recovery circles, this is called “denial“. Denial is very common in addiction. It’s a basic psychological defense mechanism that keeps people from facing the fear or anxiety about their real situation. Denial is refusing to admit the truth about reality.

The trouble with denial is that it delays one’s admission of a problem and their eventual acceptance of the need to change course. With cancer, this can be deadly. With addiction, it can be deadly. Denial is a dangerous state of mind that keeps good people stuck in self-defeating behaviors when they need to be taking action to correct the underlying problem!

Denial allows people to stay sick with the illness of addiction. More importantly, denial allows the illness to get worse and to progress into more severe stages. Overcoming denial is a very important step when dealing with substance abuse issues.

So how do you help someone who is still stuck in denial even though the signs & symptoms of a problem are clear? There are several things you can do, and several things you should not do:

  1. Maintain your composure when bringing up the issue of alcohol/drugs, and try to stick to facts without blowing your top or becoming judgmental. Excessive anger and judgment will likely close the discussion down before it even begins.
  2. Express your concern and care for the person. Acknowledge that they have a right to make their own choices, but point out that their choices do affect those around them (spouse, children, parents, others).
  3. Review specific things you have noticed that are warning signs of a problem. Elaborate just enough so that the person understands what you observed and why it concerned you. Often times, substance abusers have no recollection of what they said or did due to being in a substance-induced memory blackout. Therefore, you may need to describe what you have observed.
  4. Outline your hope and expectation that they take a serious look at making a change. Use an invitational/supportive tone in urging them to get an appointment with a treatment professional. Or, you might even ask them if it is something they had considered. Remind them that meeting with a counselor for further discussion is private & confidential.
  5. Keep it simple. Don’t lay out a long-term master plan as that might overwhelm the person who may be feeling upset in the moment or embarrassed. On the other hand, if he or she seems interested or ready for help, take immediate action. Have them set-up an appointment as soon as possible. Offer to go with the person to the appointment. Talk about the appointment with a positive attitude & expectation.

These are just some basic first steps. There are many possible scenarios and additional steps for helping someone to look at their substance abuse issues. We can’t review them all now, but we can begin to explore avenues for how to approach someone who is stuck in addiction.

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