It’s normal for people with addictions to deny they have a problem with alcohol or drugs. Denial serves an important purpose in substance use disorders. For people with addictions, drugs and alcohol are their best friends and their worst enemies. And though substance abuse may be tearing their lives apart, it’s also playing a protective role for them.
Addiction denial is complex. It’s not about simply being blind to the negative consequences of drinking or using drugs. In fact, many people with addictions are well aware of the problems substance abuse is causing them. Here are some types of addiction denial and the purposes it serves.
People with addictions may seemingly live in denial but it usually runs on a spectrum. For example, if you’re shooting up heroin every day just to prevent withdrawal symptoms and you’ve lost your job and house, you’re probably aware your drug use isn’t “normal.” On the other hand, if you’re a high-functioning alcoholic and you’re managing to keep your life together, for the most part, you can convince yourself that you’ve got everything under control. An addicted person may be operating under some form of self-deception or outward denial to loved ones, even if they know they have a problem.
In either case, addiction denial is often a defense mechanism because you’re terrified of life without substances. This occurs for a few reasons:
- Whether you’re aware of it or not, alcohol or drug abuse is the way you’re coping with overwhelming emotions or situations that you don’t feel ready to explore. This aversion to taking a look “under the hood” of substance use can be so strong that some people in recovery have said when they were using, they would have rather died from drugs than address the psychological pain and distress behind them.
- Substance abuse rewires your brain’s reward system to think it needs drugs and alcohol just as much as it requires life-sustaining practices like drinking water, eating food, sex, and sleep. In a sense, drugs and alcohol hijack your brain, sending you messages that you need them to survive and therefore you must do anything to continue using them.
- Addiction impacts everyone in its path. The guilt and shame of what you’ve done while abusing substances and the pain you’ve caused loved ones can feel too much to bear.
For people who don’t think their addictive behaviors are a problem, they may be experiencing confirmation bias. This is the tendency to filter out any information that contradicts your beliefs and is usually unconscious. It’s a form of self-deception that allows you to stay active in your addiction by downplaying or ignoring negative consequences. For example, maybe your alcohol abuse has landed you multiple DUIs and ruined relationships with loved ones, but you still have a job so you use that to justify to yourself and others that you don’t have a problem.
Alcohol and drug addiction can change parts of your brain. Some research suggests that regular substance abuse causes dysfunction in the insular cortex. This can impair your self-awareness and thus hamper your ability to fully realize the extent that alcohol and drug use is having on you and others.
Denial of addiction can also be fueled by a lack of care for the future. When drugs and alcohol are calling the shots, you’re spending most of your mental energy on planning the next time you’re going to drink or use, and how you’re going to make it happen. Foresight into negative consequences that will come with substance abuse does not outweigh your immediate desire to use drugs and alcohol. It’s easy to compartmentalize the negative consequences of drugs and alcohol altogether when you’re in active addiction.
Denial plays out in certain behaviors and tendencies. Denial may lead you to:
Blame – You attribute your alcohol or drug use to other people or situations. “If my job wasn’t so hard, I wouldn’t need to unwind all the time with alcohol,” or “If my partner wasn’t so demanding, I wouldn’t need to use drugs.”
Minimize – You downplay your drug or alcohol use. “Yeah, I may overdo it sometimes, but I have never been arrested or overdosed, so it’s not a serious problem.”
Compare – You can always point to a “worse case” than you. “I smoke pot and drink every night, but John does it at work and he uses pills too.”
Rationalize – If you or a loved one points out your substance use, you can come up with good reasons to justify it. “Yeah, I’m drinking a lot, but it’s because I’m under so much stress right now. It’s temporary.”
Avoidance – You always change the subject when your substance use comes up, or you stay away from people who’ve questioned your drinking or drug use.
Watching someone you love struggle with addiction is devastating. You can’t do the work for them. You can love them, provide emotional support, and help them get into treatment when they’re ready, but they have to want sobriety, or at least find that desire once they’re in treatment. ` Many people enter an addiction treatment center when they can no longer avoid the consequences of living this way.
What you can do is detach with love. This is a common phrase in the addiction recovery community, and it means that you continue to support and love them, but you don’t support their destructive behaviors. Detaching with love may look like:
- Not giving them money, helping them with rent, or paying their bills when they are using.
- Not making excuses for them when they mess up at work, school, or in relationships.
- Not bailing them out or helping them with any legal trouble due to substance use.
- Not allowing them to live with you if they are using drugs and alcohol.
You can even voice this to them with something like, “I love you and support you, and I hope I’m the first person you call when you’re ready to get help, but I will no longer support behaviors that contribute to your destruction.”
You may also consider getting them in front of a medical professional. Sometimes hearing about the effects of substance abuse from a trusted outsider can prove effective. An intervention is also a good option. Run by professionals trained in helping people accept treatment, an interventionist can help you with effective and supportive communication. They are usually in recovery as well and can speak candidly with your loved one about addiction, why treatment is the answer, and what drug rehab and sobriety are like.
We Can Help
Addiction recovery is hard work, but it is well worth it. If you or a loved one is struggling, reach out. Footprints to Recovery offers evidence-based treatment that is also engaging and motivating, which keeps you invested in treatment and recovery. Our treatment programs include medical detox, and residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and outpatient treatment. Call for a free, confidential consultation today.