Substance abuse is a difficult condition to diagnose in everyone who experiences it. No two people will experience addiction the same way, even if they abuse the same substance. Additionally, drugs like alcohol and prescription drugs carry a dangerous connotation of safety due to their social acceptability. Unfortunately, many people who abuse alcohol and illicit drugs tell themselves various lies to keep their habits going and to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. In many cases, denial can be the biggest roadblock to overcoming substance abuse.
Understanding Denial In Addiction
A person struggling with an addiction will tell him or herself various comforting lies to maintain the habit and avoid taking responsibility. Remember, this is not exactly a conscious choice. Once a person develops a dependency on a substance, the repeated abuse alters the way his or her brain works, and the chemical hold of addiction will compel him or her to instinctively maintain the addiction and avoid anything that threatens the next fix.
Denial causes countless problems when it comes to substance abuse treatment. Primarily, denial prevents an individual from acknowledging his or her substance abuse problem and effectively prolongs addiction. Denial also inhibits growth during rehab. Even if a person accepts the need to go to rehab, this does not mean he or she is ready to accept responsibility for his or her actions related to his or her addiction.
High-Functioning Substance Abuse
Many people fall into cycles of high-functioning substance abuse, or maintaining an addiction while retaining a semblance of a normal life. A high-functioning substance abuser may continue on a cycle of addiction for many months or even years before the issue causes enough problems to convince the individual that he or she needs help.
High-functioning alcoholism and other forms of high-functioning substance abuse are very common among employees in high-stress positions. Some employees may abuse stimulants to stay energized and productive while others immediately turn to alcohol and other sedatives to unwind after stressful days at work. People who work in difficult fields like medicine and law may face higher rates of high-functioning substance abuse. For example, a trauma surgeon who loses a patient on the operating table may feel deep regret and guilt for his or her inability to save a patient and start coping with these situations by abusing addictive substances.
Denial is a major contributing factor to cycles of high-functioning addiction because the individual with the problem uses success in his or her personal and/or professional life to justify his or her substance abuse issue. This typically continues until the individual can no longer make excuses for his or her behavior. For example, a business executive has very stressful workdays and comes home each day and has a cocktail to unwind. Eventually, this starts occurring every day. Then, one cocktail becomes two or more, until eventually the executive starts drinking over the weekends and finding himself or herself unable to cope with job-related stress without alcohol. Throughout this process the executive may tell him or herself various lies to rationalize this behavior:
- “I pay all my bills on time and show up for work everyday, so I don’t have an addiction.”
- “Someone in my line of work could never handle my workload while addicted, so I am not addicted.”
- “One drink after work every day does not make me an alcoholic.”
- “I have a family and kids and we make ends meet, therefore I am not an addict.”
- “I’m one of the top performers in my department, and a substance abuser could never reach this level of productivity.”
- “I just need a little to unwind.”
- “I only drink top-shelf liquor.”
These are just a few common examples of how high-functioning substance abusers try to justify their habits. Unfortunately, when most Americans think of a person with a substance abuse problem they imagine an individual whose life is in shambles, unable to keep a job or make ends meet, whose life is falling apart due to addiction. This is divorced from reality and unfortunately prevents many people struggling with addiction from acknowledging and confronting their habits.
Enabling And Addiction
Denial can also interfere with a person’s ability to recover from substance abuse by way of enabling. Anyone related to a person with a substance abuse problem could potentially fall into the trap of enabling, or inadvertently helping the person maintain his or her addiction. For example, if a parent refuses to accept his or her child has developed an addiction, the parent may attempt to “help” the child by paying his or her living expenses, lending money, or covering for the child in various other possible ways. These actions may appear helpful on the surface, but in reality they prevent the addicted individual from experiencing the consequences of his or her actions.
Most people, especially the spouses, children, parents, and siblings of a person with a substance abuse disorder, naturally want to help when they see a loved one struggling. They may feel as though refusing to help him or her will destroy their relationship. Some may feel guilty, as though they are somehow responsible for the other person’s addiction due to past actions, and enabling is a means of making amends in their minds. Denial can cause enabling behaviors to continue unabated to dangerous levels.
The Value Of A Professionally Guided Intervention
The intervention can be a critical turning point for a person struggling with addiction in denial. An intervention is a gathering of those closest to the struggling individual, and these people come together to tell him or her how his or her addiction has impacted their lives. They express their desire to see him or her recover and offer their support, but they must also make it clear that all enabling behaviors will stop, and he or she must enter rehab. This can be a jarring experience, and if handled incorrectly could potentially prolong an addiction by making the subject of the intervention feel attacked.
A professional interventionist can help a family prepare for an intervention and guide the discussion to encourage the best chances of success. Professional interventionists like those at Family First Intervention travel to meet families struggling with substance abuse, offer guidance to get a constructive conversation started, and help coach intervention participants to ensure the intervention stays focused and positive. A professional intervention could be the turning point that can help a person with an addiction overcome denial and admit the need for treatment.