Loved Ones Group Newsletter
The Power of Denial by Ed Hughes
We frequently use the word “denial” in our description of a person’s inability to admit to their problem with drinking or drug use. We might say a person is “in denial,” meaning they are being dishonest with themselves and others, or that for whatever reason they are unable to see the obvious.
Denial is actually a very common human characteristic, not at all reserved for people with problems relating to addiction. Denial is the common tendency to reject information that is contrary to the way we would prefer to view things.
The rejection of unwanted facts, so that we can keep thinking and behaving the way we want. Sometimes these unwanted facts come from our minds, such as when we see something we really want to buy at a store, but then we hear our own minds say that we can’t afford it. But rather than listen to this inner voice, we begin to argue with ourselves (rationalize) until we come up with an acceptable justification for moving ahead and doing what we want to do.
Have you ever heard of someone bringing home a boyfriend or girlfriend that mom and dad didn’t like? I asked this question in a public meeting one time and a woman raised her hand and said, “I sure did, and I married him. And mom and dad were right,” she joked, with her embarrassed husband sitting next to her.
What is the normal reaction of the person told by mom and dad that they don’t approve of the boyfriend? The reaction is certainly not to agree with mom and dad and end the relationship. No, it is usually an argument about how they are wrong (defending), and in cases where perhaps one is not able to argue with mom and dad, then maybe sneaking to see the boyfriend/girlfriend will be the choice. In any case, we are not very accepting of information that flies in the face of what we really want. This is part of being human.
Now, what happens when this normal human experience called denial comes in contact with something as powerful as drug addiction? What happens is the addicted person becomes mentally blind to the reality of their situation and unable to see the destruction their disease is inflicting on them and others. To the world the addicted person looks terribly selfish, inconsiderate, manipulative, and dishonest. But these are only symptoms of the addicted person’s increasing disconnection with reality. Addiction acts like a filter on the person’s brain, filtering out advice, logical suggestions, and truth. The denial process eventually creates an inability for the addicted person to make reasoned choices, or accurate self-awareness in the form of insight into what is happening to their life.
All of this is very frustrating to family, friends and community. It seems impossible to “talk any sense” to the addicted person. Denial is a powerful barrier to admitting the presence of a problem and getting help. In order to get well, there needs to be at least a small chip in the wall of denial. This is usually created when the consequences of addiction are experienced by the addicted person, rather than others. Consequences become the opportunity for helpful information to get through, making an impact which in turn can create the beginning of recovery. Denial will begin to diminish if and when the person becomes abstinent from all drugs of addiction, and denial will continue to diminish as a recovery process is initiated.
It is also common for loved ones to experience denial. It is very difficult for a parent, friend or spouse to fully accept the realities of someone’s addiction. Most often this denial is removed in layers, with the first layer being recognition that your loved one is addicted and needs help beyond your own ability to help. Breaking through denial also means breaking through our reluctance to ask for help. This first step can be a powerful one on the road to recovery, if the loved ones continue to challenge themselves to deal with their own faulty thinking and need to accept the realities of addiction.
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Ed Hughes is one of the originators of the Loved Ones Group. He is a licensed, Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor for the State of Ohio, and served as Executive Director of The Counseling Center, Inc., from 1989-2013. He also served as CEO of Compass Community Health from 2013-2016. Mr. Hughes earned a B.A. in Sociology from Ohio University and a Master’s of Public Service Counseling from Western Kentucky University, and has written a companion book titled Baffled by Addiction.