What Does It Mean When You Are in Addiction Denial

[Originally published on Helium Network 03-12-2013]

Alcoholics Anonymous has quite a few unofficial slogans, and one of them is, “Denial is not a river in Egypt.”  It’s a tongue-in-cheek barb directed towards people when they are not facing reality.  As catchy as that is, however, it does not really portray what denial is or why it is a problem.

What is denial really, though?  Is it always bad?  How does it help or hinder an addict?

According to MediLexicon, denial is “An unconscious defense mechanism used to allay anxiety by denying the existence of important conflicts, troublesome impulses, events, actions, or illness.”  It is a coping mechanism that is used to soften the blow of an uncomfortable reality.  That gives the person time to adjust their thinking and their feelings.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “a little denial can be a good thing.”  They even describe it as “healthy” during a time of adjustment due to a painful situation.  However, staying in a state of denial is definitely not a good thing, as it can interfere with dealing with those issues which require action.  Some problems will only get worse without attention, and denial only prolongs those situations.

For someone to admit they are powerless over something and out of control can be bitter to swallow.  It tends to stick in a person’s pride, and this is often aggravated by the stigma associated with addictions.  In addition, for some, there may be legal, religious or career consequences or considerations that may make it more difficult for an addict to admit that there even is a problem.

As the saying goes, the first step in solving a problem is admitting that there is one.  Effective steps to work on an issue are highly unlikely if the problem is ignored or misidentified.  That’s why the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), an arm of the National Institute of Health, states in the “5 Stages of Treatment”, “The art of treating addiction in early treatment is in the defeat of denial and resistance, which almost all clients with addictions carry into treatment.”

Since denial is a natural reaction to stressful and painful events, overcoming denial can be very difficult.  Group therapy seems to be the most effective in breaking down the barriers of resistance.  If others in the group can admit their issues and describe situations that the addict can relate to, then it gives the addict the opportunity to make the necessary connections between their behavior and the signs of addiction.  Some therapies may include individual counseling as well, but most programs include group therapy if not make it the centerpiece of therapy, especially in the earlier stages.

Support groups can be beneficial in this endeavor as well.  They are not formal clinical groups, in most cases, but they are often relied upon as part of an addict’s recovery program.  Addicts can share what works to keep them clean and functioning.  Often, in aiding other addicts, they are strengthening their own sobriety.

Denial is not simply on or off, either.  The Azure Acres Recovery Center identifies different types of denial and different stages.  Types of denial might be full, partial, intellectual or spiritual.

They also give three stages of denial, however:

  1. Stage one denial is when a person really does not believe they have a problem.  This is typically what is thought of in popular thought.  There are always reasons, excuses or justifications for their behavior.

  2. Stage two denial is when a person doesn’t see the need for ongoing support after treatment has ended.  The fact is that virtually all addicts will require some type of support system or they will relapse.  Yet, this is one of the most pervasive types of denial.  In spite of the fact the addict has already demonstrated their powerlessness in the face of their addiction, they still want to retain some sense of power.

  3. Stage three denial is perhaps the most difficult to recognize.  It is the denial of the need to go to any lengths to recover.  Azure puts it as, “Total abstinence from alcohol and drugs will produce sobriety. Practicing the living principles in the 12 Steps will produce recovery. Sobriety with no recovery will usually lead to relapse; it is only a matter of time.”

Often, recovery programs are criticized for being inconsistent or even contradictory.  This can feed right into the addict’s desire to reject a given program, and thus unconsciously clear the way to return to a life of addiction.  However, the very life of an active addict is inconsistent and contradictory.  The addict’s way of life relies upon dishonest and unreal views of life.  It requires denial in order to be active.  This leads to all sorts of inconsistency and odd behavior, so it should not be surprising that recovery programs might at times seem so as well.

The real danger is not that the addict will change to another program that seems to make more sense, but the danger is that they will drop out of all recovery programs altogether and use whatever ascribed weaknesses as an excuse to not continue.

Does the addiction cause the unrealistic view of life, or is it the unrealistic view of life lead to the addiction?  The beginning point may be debated from now until the end of time, but perhaps the answer to that question is not as important as is the understanding that they feed upon one another in a cycle that will not end until broken.  Hopefully, what will break the cycle will be recovery and not any of the other alternatives.

At the end of the day, though, addicts are not the only ones afflicted with denial. In fact, the Bible reveals that the entire world is “deceived” (Rev 12:9), that is, it does not recognize and suppresses evidence that there is a problem.  Facing the truth is as much the road to being reconciled to God and being healed from eternal death as it is the road to recovery from addiction.

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