Denial: The Stepchild of Ignorance and Shame
Alcoholism killed almost 100,000 people in the United States last year, according to The Centers for Disease Control. At the same time, the report said more than 50,000 people were slain by drug overdoses. More than half of them were young people between twelve and twenty who took prescription drugs.
The government report disclosed that the growing rate of mortality was due mainly from alcohol or drug poisoning, binge drinking, drug sprees, addiction-related accidents, hypertension, liver cancer, and strokes.
“These statistics,” the report went on, “highlight the ongoing public health impact of excessive drinking and drugging in the United States.”
Focusing only on fatalities and their causes, the report didn’t discuss the other serious impacts the disease of addiction has on the millions of active alcoholics and drug abusers in America, such as rapidly declining health, job losses, growing debt, and dysfunctional families.
While the CDC study also didn’t examine to any degree the reasons why alcoholism and drug abuse continue to grow unabated, experts in the addiction recovery field are adamant that denial plays a major role. That’s why we should do away with that glib and supposedly humorous old saw that “de-nile” is not a river in Egypt.
No, it’s no joking matter. It’s far more serious. For when it comes to addiction, “denial” is a frightening, insane frame of mind that kills thousands of alcoholics and drug addicts every single year. To put it in even stronger terms, denial of one’s addiction is an almost incomprehensible, powerful force in the face of the stark and harmful behavior associated with the disease itself.
I know that to be a fact from my own personal experience. Denial almost took my life.
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How It Happened.
For far too long I refused to admit what others close to me saw as obvious—that I drank too much, was messing up a great career opportunity as a newspaper writer in New York City and was hurting those closest to me, my family and friends who loved me. Also at that time in my life, science hadn’t yet discovered that alcoholism was gene-related—that because my father was a terrible alcoholic I had about a sixty percent chance of following in his staggering footsteps. And I certainly did, mostly out of ignorance, shame and a great deal of false pride.
I had known from childhood that every time my father drank too much liquor there was always a great deal of trouble in the house. My mother would be screaming until she hauled my siblings and me out of bed in the middle of the night to drag us off to grandma’s house. We’d stay there until my father took another pledge of abstinence that was soon to be broken.
Despite all this, when I was first offered a drink as a young newspaper reporter, I took it to fit in. Almost instantly, alcohol opened new vistas in my life and enabled me to do things I couldn’t do sober. I thought I could handle it—that I would know when I had enough and stop. I was unaware that I wouldn’t be able to stop until I was right outside the Gates of Hell.
Psychology refers to denial as the refusal to admit the truth or reality of a situation. Therefore, if individuals like me do not believe that drinking is a problem, they will be unlikely to change their behavior regardless of what others may say or what problems may enter their lives. That’s why denial presents the greatest obstacle to recovery.
The truth is, most people will experience at least some level of denial about things they find difficult or uncomfortable to discuss. But alcoholics and drug addicts develop a much more rigid type of denial that can be difficult to penetrate. This is especially true once the person “crosses the invisible line” so to speak—once they lose the ability to choose whether to drink or not to drink, to drug or not to drug. That’s when the disease takes over physically, mentally, and spiritually and there’s no turning back.
As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, once a cucumber becomes a pickle, it can never again be a cucumber.
One of the reasons that denial is so difficult to penetrate is because most addicts don’t believe they are lying about their disease. Their denial can be so strong they just can’t see that drinking and/or drugging is their real problem. They become masters at justifying their actions—perfectionists in the art of self-deception.
For example, I felt a few drinks simply helped me unwind from all the stresses of the job and family life. After a while, however, I had difficulty explaining even to myself why I couldn’t remove my rear end from the stool in Monahan’s Bar and go home for dinner.
I clung to the belief that there was no way to have any fun without a few drinks—that life would be just too boring. I was sure I was a much better writer, a much better dancer, and a much better lover with a few drinks. And I also came to feel that people who did not drink or take drugs were strange, unfriendly, and not very good company. So I only hung around with drunks like me.
Then as my own self-created pressures grew into serious problems, I felt totally justified drinking at people—those who judged me, bartenders who cut me off when they thought I had enough, those who put too many demands on me, my City Editor who was threatening to fire me, and the federal government that wanted to tax me to death.
Soon I began to feel like the whole world was ganging up on me, from my family to my job. They wanted me to stop doing the only thing that gave me a little peace and comfort—my drinking. So out of anger, self-pity, and resentment, I drank more.
Most Dangerous Type Of Addict.
Addiction is a progressive disease. For a while I seemed to function normally. I went to work, managed the bills, interacted with my family and generally fulfilled my everyday responsibilities. Even as my drinking increased, I didn’t see a problem with it. That was the beginning of my denial. And that’s what many recovery experts call the most dangerous type of addict—a high-functioning drinker or drug abuser who doesn’t fit the “drunk” or high” stereotype. At the same time, they say that type of addict isn’t difficult to spot if you know what to watch for. Here are a few signs:
- They start skipping social events uncharacteristically.
- They begin to miss deadlines at work or call in sick.
- They have a sudden lack of focus or change in attitude
- They state too often that “I can stop drinking anytime I want to.”
- They suffer from typical signs of addiction such as insomnia, paranoia, or shakiness.
Unfortunately with high-functioning types, it’s not only the alcoholic or drug addict who is in danger of denial. Family and friends often fail to see the danger signs. They refuse to believe that their loved one has a problem, and even congratulate him or her on the ability to function under the influence. As a result of their own denial, these families are shocked when their high-functioning addict gets into a serious auto accident while drunk or high, loses his or her job, or some other catastrophe occurs.
The Stigma Of Addiction.
There is one other important factor closely involved with the disease of addiction that often fuels denial both for addicts and their families. It’s the terrible stigma that’s still associated with the active alcoholic and drug abuser.
Stigma is one of the meanest and most difficult aspects of addiction because it not only creates or enhances denial but makes it harder for individuals and families to seek help. In spite of today’s allegedly more open-minded society, stigma is still the reason there is so much social and legal discrimination against people with addictions.
It is the continuing ignorance in society that imposes the stigma and its resulting damage on addicts and their families because so many still believe that addiction is a character flaw or weakness that probably can’t be cured. This stigma is still so deeply rooted that it continues even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that addiction is a treatable disease that can lead to wonderful new sober lives in long-term recovery.
It’s painful to say, but the usual way addicts finally get beyond their denial is by hitting rock bottom. Many have to lose almost everything that is near and dear to them. There are a few things, however, that those close to the alcoholic or drug abuser can do to try to break through the barrier of their denial.
- First, you can tell them without sounding critical how his or her drinking is negatively affecting you and also harming others close at hand.
- Second, explain how much you care and want to help in any way you can.
- Third, chip away at their denial by addressing their excuses from a place of compassion rather than from judgment.
But don’t be surprised or upset if your loving understanding only leads to anger and resentment on the addict’s part. That’s simply a defensive mechanism. If all else fails and you fear for the addict’s health or life itself, there is one other approach to try: formal intervention.
Rather than creating more resentment by gathering family and friends together to confront the addict, you might seek the assistance of a professional interventionist to assist in the process.
In the end, however, while stigma and denial can lead to great peril for those addicted, it is only the ignorance and shame these negative forces create that can lead to ultimate disaster and death. But remember, it is never too late, for help is always close at hand.