Handling denial: for the addict (who is anesthetized) and the loved ones (who are not)

I’ve spent a good long time talking to people who have addictions, years in fact, trying to be helpful as the addiction counselor. It was always a struggle, not between me and my client, but between the both of us and the addiction. Here’s a slice of what I learned, in honor of Alcohol Awareness Month.

Denial is no mystery. It works for the addiction, and its job is to keep the addiction going. It manifests in multiple ways.

The underlying belief is that the substance (or behavior like gambling, etc.) is the addict’s best friend. Therefore the one thing that everyone tells you to give up is the one thing that you believe is keeping you going. Since no one understands that, you have to circle the wagons to keep the interfering SOB’s out.

While the evidence that you are heading for disaster piles up, you are conveniently blitzed, maybe even in a memory blackout and therefore unable to register the events. You miss a lot.

Remember, denial’s mission is avoidance of the truth, which would necessitate change, and it will do whatever is necessary to hide it from view, even though everyone else can see it plain as day.

The addict grows a brittle shell, oversensitive to the slightest suggestion that something is amiss. Anyone who tries to get through the shell is automatically an enemy. So, the addict must turn on the people who tell the truth about what they see, the people who care about them the most.

How a loved one can handle the denial:

See it as sad and self-deluding instead of taking it personally. Denial may be infuriating and blatantly self-serving, but it is evidence of the battle going on inside between the addiction and the person in question. Addiction is very strong and has many weapons.

Point your anger at the addiction rather than at the person. Unless he or she is also truly a miserable wretch in addition to being addicted, rest assured that your condemnation is a mild version of what the addict is already accusing himself of, on some fleeting internal level. Too bad he can’t see or remember well enough to put it together, but denial is like a toxic fog that the addict can’t penetrate.

Believe it. While it seems outlandish that a person can look at the evidence, whatever forms it comes in – wrecked car, missed deadlines, disappointed children, embarrassing displays, on and on – and not see it, that’s the fog of denial for you. There is no logic to it.

Provide feedback as fact not judgment. Lots of I-messages (I was worried when you didn’t come home; I was disappointed that you missed Danny’s soccer game) instead of accusations (You miserable, irresponsible wretch).

Get yourself to a string of Al-Anon meetings. They are not going to tell you that you can solve the addiction. You can’t. They are saying that if you have an addict on your hands, you are in a boat with many others who have learned some good things that help to handle it. Just go, even if you went already and didn’t find it helpful. You are different now and it might hit you in a new way. And then go again. Look for the winners, people who have it together and seem to live in serenity even though they have an addict on their hands.

More on the shifting nature of denial next time. If you’d like to follow, please subscribe.

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