Sound familiar? If there is an active alcoholic in denial in your life, then I am sure you are nodding your head. Denial – the action of declaring something to be untrue. Have we all used denial at some point in our lives? Have there been times in our life that it seems as though others are seeing something we simply cannot or will not see? We kind of push that little voice of reason and truth to the side and go ahead with the behavior anyway? Sure for some denial is a defense mechanism that serves a very important purpose, it protects them perhaps from what they are not ready to see. In the grieving process, denial is the first stage for some. This defense needs to be there in order for that person to function. The problem for many is that there comes a point where the defense mechanism of denial no longer protects the individual from harm, but rather healing.
For addicts and alcoholics much of the drive to drink stems from the feelings they are experiencing in the moment or the anxiety created by anticipation of the feelings they are trying desperately to avoid. Many of the alcoholics and addicts that I treat are intellectually intelligent people. They appear to have the ability to understand things, to make sense of things…as long as those things are not about their drinking or the impact their drinking has on others. Denial is the most primitive of defenses. It is one that needs to be broken down in order for the alcoholic to begin to look at their issues. The most pain that denial causes is for the loved ones of the alcoholic. The husbands, the siblings, the parents, the friends, the children…..they all see what is happening, while the alcoholic continues to live in their fantasy world. They continue to say they can “manage their drinking”, they “don’t drink that much”, that “you are too controlling”, “I have a job and a house, I am not an alcoholic”….Denial. It is the defense that allows the alcoholic to remain delusional about what is really going on. Is it protection? Yes but protection from getting well – the acknowledgement of their disease, admitting their powerlessness, attaching to the shame of the things they have done. Without these first steps, the alcoholic cannot begin the process of recovery. It is so clear to all others around them what needs to happen, how if they stopped drinking and got help and support, perhaps treatment, things may get better. For the active alcoholic this is a frightening and almost debilitating endeavor.
It is usually those closest to the alcoholic that break through the denial and many times it is through having boundaries and refusing to accept unacceptable behavior. It can be a counterintuitive action – setting these kind of boundaries. Many wrestle with the idea that they are “abandoning” the alcoholic, “punishing” the alcoholic, and more often than not that is exactly what the active alcoholic wants you to believe. Here is the TRUTH. It is YOU that is standing still, that remains consistent, that is there and will always be there – it is the alcoholic who walks away, who abandons YOU and themselves, chooses alcohol over everything else. While the active alcoholic may lash out, may be angry, and may try to manipulate the situation to make you the problem rather than themselves – the boundaries must be set and must be held. Over time if enough people in the alcoholic’s life send the message that their behavior is harmful, is hurtful and is unacceptable there is the chance for change.
The most frightening part of having an alcoholic in denial in the family is that there is no guarantee that things will ever change. The truth is we are all powerless – the only person that can make the change is them. What you need to remember is what you can change, what you are not powerless over and what you can do differently.