Father Joseph Martin, a well-known lecturer on alcoholism, said it best: “What causes a problem, is a problem.” I like that because it’s straightforward, simple and concise. But when dealing with alcohol and drug issues, there is a twist. It is called denial. Other issues that cause problems usually do not exhibit this troublesome characteristic. If we go to the doctor because we are not feeling well and the diagnosis is diabetes, we take our medicine in order to feel better. If we spend too much money on “fun” things and can’t pay our bills, we cut back and get on a budget. If we don’t take our medicine, we can get sick. If we don’t pay our bills, we can get behind on our responsibilities. This can create a problem. We know what’s causing it and what to do about it.
When it comes to drinking or taking drugs, it is not that simple. Denial is a very cunning and baffling phenomenon that distorts and skews reality. Simply put, denial does not allow the person to really see the problem. The person may really believe there is no problem, or if there is evidence, they excuse it away by means of rationalizing, justifying, blaming, defocusing or just minimizing the whole situation.
This, in turn, becomes a problem for family members or loved ones of the addicted person. They can slip into their own denial by minimizing, covering up and enabling the individual. Or they may try to control the addict’s behavior by nagging, scolding and threatening them. The more they engage in this effort, the more the dependent person seems to rebel and tries to prove everything is fine. Why is this? It is because the dependent person has developed arelationship with alcohol/drugs. Two components of this relationship are trust and love. They like the way it makes them feel when they use or drink and it works every time, so they begin to trust it. Eventually that feeling of “liking it” can turn into “loving it”, and the substance becomes the object of their affection.
When you try to tell dependent people that their interactions with alcohol/drugs are harmful or causing a problem, they use denial in order to protect that relationship – often denying being in denial! The reason for that is because if they could see or understand the reality of the situation, they would have to do something about it. But if the mind can create a state of denial, the relationship can continue. Much like the person you may know who is involved with someone who is not healthy for them – what happens when you try to warn them about this unhealthy person? If the feelings are strong enough, they will deny your reasoning and will just think that you are trying to break them up.
If the denial remains intact and the relationship with the substance continues, main life areas can become negatively impacted. Problems at work or school can increase, as can money troubles, legal problems, conflicts and fights with family members; sometimes physical and mental damages can occur. The addicted person will have difficulty in seeing how these problems are related to his or her usage. If family members protect the addict from the pain of consequences as a result of the addiction, then the denial grows stronger. Many times addicts and alcoholics blame other people or circumstances. Rarely do they blame their woes on the object of their affection: alcohol or drugs.
What can be done about this problem of dependence and the denial that goes with it? The first thing is to understand that the solution is a process that does not happen overnight. Awareness and education are key instruments to start the journey of recovery. Understanding denial and how it works can aid in working through it toward reality. Learning about the disease concept of alcoholism can equip a person with the information needed in order to deal with a person who suffers from it.
Acquiring information from the Internet or talking to professionals or other individuals who have found a solution can be very beneficial. Support groups can be a vital part of the recovery process. What I hear most frequently is, “I really thought I was the only one going through something like this”. It is the silence, lack of knowledge and unwillingness to take action that allows the illness of addiction/alcoholism to flourish. Long-term recovery (which means not using or drinking for a significant length of time or being negatively impacted by someone else’s using) is a very real and a very possible result for family members and addicts.