Denial: The Addict’s Enemy
“Denial is the most cunning, baffling, and powerful part of my disease…When I look back now, it’s hard to imagine I didn’t see a problem with my drinking. But instead of seeing the truth when all of the ‘yets’ (as in, that hasn’t happened to me—yet) started happening, I just kept lowering my standards.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 328)
Alcoholism is a sneaky foe. Like cancer or heart disease, we often do not recognize the danger lurking beneath the surface. However, in the case of cancer or heart disease, once we receive a diagnosis from a professional, we are likely to believe the news and then decide a course of action for treatment. The alcoholic, by contrast, may be told by family, friends, and professionals that a drinking problem is apparent, but still cannot see it.
And it isn’t simply a willful obstinacy. Alcohol impacts the structure and function of the brain, blocking any realistic understand of what is happening. To the alcoholic, their pattern of life seems normal even if it includes daily drinking, black outs, a fortune spent on liquor, and perhaps a few run-ins with the law.
“Alcoholics are people whose drinking got them into a ‘blind alley.’ They haven’t been able to learn anything from their drinking experiences. They are always making the same mistakes and suffering the same consequences over and over again. They refuse to admit they’re alcoholic. They still think they can handle the stuff. They won’t swallow their pride and admit they’re different from ordinary drinkers. They won’t face the fact that they must spend the rest of their lives without liquor. They can’t visualize life without ever taking a drink.” (Twenty-Four Hours A Day, Jan. 23)
For many alcoholics, it is impossible to fathom that instead of having control of their drinking, drinking has taken control of them. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the unwavering sense of knowing what’s best for them, what they need, and what is objectively right cannot be shaken. Everyone else is crazy, over-reacting, or trying to bring him down. Alcoholics in such a state are resistant to rational discussion of the issue.
Alcoholics are also masters of justification and excuse-making. Rather than strive for what we should be, we pat ourselves on the back that we aren’t as bad as we could be, or as desperate as someone else. If the alcoholic is able to acknowledge personal error, an excuse or justification for the behavior will soon follow. Phrases like “I’m sorry,” “I was wrong,” or “I need help” are rare.
This kind of denial is a genuine hurdle to recovery and the enemy of the addict because it perpetuates the mindset that all is well, or that it is, at least, not so bad. Convinced there is no real problem or danger, the alcoholic is likewise unconvinced of the need for treatment.
“We had become hopelessly sick people, spiritually, emotionally, and physically…Many drinkers have said: ‘I hadn’t gone that far; I hadn’t lost my job on account of drink; I still had my family; I managed to keep out of jail. True, I took too much sometimes and I guess I managed to make quite an ass of myself when I did, but I still thought I could control my drinking. I didn’t really believe that I was an alcoholic.” (Twenty-Four Hours A Day, July 7)
If we refuse to believe we have a problem then we are also refusing to accept reality. This is tantamount to rejecting the greatest help available to us. We cannot get well if we will not accept that there is a problem. Our higher power can help us as we work the Twelve Step Program, but if we persist in denying the existence of a real and deadly problem, then we cannot in good conscience admit that we are powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable.
Is recovery impossible if you still struggle to believe you actually have a problem? The answer is no. Recovery is possible, but you are not yet at Step One. Ask your higher power to show you the true nature of your condition, to help you see yourself rightly. Then wait and watch. Your answer will come if you are open to it.