The Role of Denial In Addiction and Alcoholism
There is a reason why denial is considered to be the first stage of grief – we use it as a defense mechanism to prevent ourselves from dealing with unpleasant feelings that we’d rather avoid. And anyone who has been around an alcoholic or an addict (unless they are an alcoholic or addict themselves) has seen the perplexity of this line of defense firsthand.
Moreover, those looking in from the outside of addiction are often puzzled as to why people in the throes of the condition can so easily dismiss it’s impact on themselves and others.
Denial in addiction or alcoholism is one of the biggest hurdles to substance abuse recovery. And there are levels of denial – oftentimes, an alcoholic may not outright deny the problem, but rather, downplay its problematic features and dismiss others during confrontation.
There are certainly different levels of awareness, from straight up repudiation to apathetic acknowledgment.
Also, the level of denial is closely matched to a person’s readiness to change, and sometimes directly related to the severity of the addiction. In any case, denial may be so strong that it also affects the alcoholic’s family and friends, and they themselves don rose-colored glasses, so to speak, to avoid rocking the boat.
Sadly, many an adult has been thrown back when he or she realizes that a parent or close family member was an alcoholic. Although some children are viciously scarred from experiencing parental addiction growing up, others are fiercely protected, often by another family member (i.e. the other parent.)
Also, sometimes family members have their own issues, though perhaps not as severe, and therefore can’t bring themselves to confront the person without feeling like a hypocrite. Most often, these loved ones are well-meaning and approach the issue out of love and concern. The other word for this is enabling, and it is a habit that closely aligns with denial.
Unfortunately, enabling simply allows the disease to progress unfettered, without any attempts at intervention whatsoever. It does not serve to help the alcoholic or addict, and in fact, makes the consequences worse for both the sufferer and all of those around him. In this case, imagine the alcoholic as a tornado, spinning out of control – and as a result, everyone around her just steps out of the way.
Finally, society tends to do little to help people with substance use disorders out of denial. Addiction has traditionally been treated by the public as a moral failing or character flaw, and there is a huge stigma associated with it.
Fortunately, however, many contemporary addiction and mental health professionals have been working hard to change the perception of alcoholics and addicts, and research has revealed the biological underpinnings of the condition as being firmly seated in the category of disease.
In summary, overcoming all levels of denial is the critical first step to recovery. And for those around the addict, enabling simply has to stop. As a society, we need to stop stigmatizing addiction and treat addicts and alcoholics like human beings who have contracted a disease no different than cancer or diabetes.
Moreover, addiction is not a moral failing, but stigmatizing addicts is. Denial is an integral component of addiction, one which is not easily overcome by the sufferer. But loved ones can help through intervention, and with awareness and education, the rest of us can help, too.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology