Substance abuse is a difficult condition to diagnose in those who experience it. No two people will experience addiction in identical ways even if the same substance is involved. Additionally, drugs like alcohol and prescription drugs carry a dangerous cachet of safety due to their social acceptability. Many people who abuse alcohol and illicit drugs, unfortunately, tell themselves various lies in order to continue their habits and to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. 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 the user to instinctively maintain the addiction and avoid anything that threatens the next fix.
Denial raises countless obstacles to substance abuse treatment. First and foremost, denial prevents an individual from acknowledging his or her substance abuse problem, thus effectively prolonging the 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 actions related to the addiction.
High-Functioning Substance Abuse
Many people fall into cycles of high-functioning substance abuse, or continuing an addiction while maintaining 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 sufficient problems to convince the individual to seek help.
High-functioning alcoholism and other forms of high-functioning substance abuse are 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 due to the inability to save a patient, leading to 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 personal and/or professional life to justify the substance abuse. This typically continues until the individual can no longer make excuses for the behavior. For example, a business executive has very stressful workdays and comes home each day and consumes a cocktail to unwind. Eventually, this pattern starts to occur daily. Then, one cocktail becomes two or more, until eventually the executive starts drinking over the weekend and finding himself or herself unable to cope with job-related stress without alcohol. In this scenario, the executive may proffer various lies to rationalize the behavior:
- “I pay all my bills on time and show up for work every day, 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 but 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 due to addiction, unable to keep a job or make ends meet. This notion 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 the addiction. For example, if a parent refuses to accept that 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 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 that refusing to help him or her will destroy the relationship. Some may feel guilty, as though they are somehow responsible for the addiction because of past actions, and in their minds enabling is a way to make amends. 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 who is 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 the addiction has impacted their lives. They express the desire to see their loved one 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 which, if handled incorrectly, could potentially prolong the addiction by making the loved one feel attacked.
A professional interventionist can help a family prepare for an intervention and guide the discussion in a way that offers the best chances of success. Professional interventionists such as those at Family First Intervention travel to meet families struggling with substance abuse in a loved one. They offer guidance to begin a constructive conversation and 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.