Allies CEO and Founder Dr. Dominique Simon-Levine helps us understand how denial functions in addiction, and shares a few skills from the CRAFT approach. You’ll also learn about recognizing when your addicted Loved One expresses a “wish” or a “dip”—those chinks in the armor of denial—and what to do when you identify one.
What does it mean to be in denial? Could it be that every time you see your Loved One trying to control their use, what you’re actually seeing is a chink in the armor of their denial?
What if it’s only momentary, a small blip of acceptance—perhaps just enough for that first day of low or no use? Well, that’s all right. Notice it. Be glad it happened. Remember that you never get to day two in recovery without passing through day one.
Understanding what denial is and how it functions in addiction is one key to opening the door of recovery. If you’ve ever weighed the pros or cons of stopping a habit, whether it be a drug, cigarettes, ice cream, or horse betting, you’ve passed through denial on your way to figuring out those pros and cons.
It’s human nature to delay facing a painful truth, particularly when it has to do with mental illness or addiction. We often hear people say that their Loved One is “in denial” about their behavior or substance use.
But what exactly do we mean by “denial,” anyway? At its most basic level, denial means ignoring a problem, minimizing the concerns of others, or blaming outside factors for our behavior. This is the kind of thinking that fuels continued use of drugs and/or alcohol.
Denial is a huge factor for most people struggling with addiction
As one person recovering from addiction told us, “Being [in] denial” creates a more acceptable reality. But being in denial isn’t all or nothing. I can cover/enhance my reality with drugs, but that reality comes back in spades when I am not high.”
Many of our Loved Ones who struggle with addiction engage in denial by minimizing the effects of their addiction: “I can still go to work, I’m okay.” “Most people think I’m funny when I’m drinking. It really isn’t a problem.” Some will use denial to blame their situation on others: “I’d be just fine if you didn’t bother me about it” or “When you bug me about it, I want to drink more.” Or they blame it on their situation: “I’d be fine if that accident hadn’t happened” or “Things would be different if my partner respected me.” Still others are in denial about the effects of their addiction on others: “My use isn’t any of your business. It’s not hurting our family.”
When your Loved One talks like this, you may think there is no getting through that wall of denial. They seem entrenched in their position.
Can someone with addiction ever get past denial?
But denial is usually more complex and fluid than most people think. It can come from many sources contributing to our psychological make-up. Rather than black or white, denial involves constantly shifting shades of gray.
Scientists have a term for one symptom linked to serious mental illness: Anosognosia. The term, from the Greek, literally means “to have no knowledge of a disease.” Anosognosia impairs a person’s ability to understand and perceive his or her illness (take a listen to this fascinating discussion of how it can affect our Loved Ones). Anosognosia is the single largest reason why people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder refuse medications or do not seek treatment. It sounds a lot like what many call denial.
Denial can make someone feel safe—even as it damages them
Let’s underscore something vital: Denial is an innate coping mechanism, an attempt to protect ourselves from overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, or loss. Internalized, guilt, shame, and loss are corrosive. Being in denial may cover them up—but it doesn’t really help the person heal. For some, that corrosiveness ends up expressing itself in behaviors like addiction to drugs and/or alcohol.
Importantly, being in denial means that the person is unable to see clearly the outcomes of their conduct. They are not in touch with the consequences of behaviors they allow themselves while armored up with denial.
But whether denial is based in our biology, upbringing, or some degree of illness, it is not some black, static wall. I contend that denial needs to be seen and assessed every day—especially when working to reach a Loved One with addiction. When your Loved One is holding on tight to denial, you feel like there is no way to communicate with them, and you may feel like nothing will ever get better.
It’s frustrating and heartbreaking. But there is a way out of denial and toward recovery, and you can help your Loved One get there.
Consider assessing denial in your Loved One every day. Use the CRAFT approach.
Although denial may be partly a natural defense mechanism, the science of CRAFT shows us that there are moments when denial is low and Loved Ones can connect a consequence to their own use. You can learn to recognize when there is even a small opening in the wall of denial your addicted Loved One has put up.
Even that smallest opening can provide a key opportunity. You might notice it as a new effort to control their use. Sometimes the chink in the armor of denial sounds like a “wish” or a “dip,” as seen in Module 8, segment 1.
The sooner you learn the skills, the sooner they can help
The key lesson from the video is: When you learn to hear a “wish” or a “dip” from your Loved One, you may find that there is some space to offer assistance—and it’s important to be ready with what to say, and with specific resources to suggest for recovery. Learning and practicing CRAFT makes you better informed and skilled at addressing addiction in your family. If you are in relationship with someone who seems completely oblivious to their addiction, don’t despair. You can learn to draw out your Loved One, and to engage them into wellness programs and treatment.
Please don’t wait for the closed door of denial to magically fall open. Module 8 explains how to tell when your Loved One is wishing for a change. As a father of a Loved One with addiction once told me, “I had to learn how to gently coax the little animal out of the woods.” Once the father learned the skills of CRAFT, he was able to help his Loved One turn that “chink in the armor of denial” into a real opening and opportunity on the path to recovery.
Module 4 trains you to know when and how to talk (and how not to talk) with your addicted Loved One, and to be ready with suggestions for resources.
Together we can help you to better understand the patterns in your Loved One. Don’t despair. While the potential for denial resides in all of us, we can learn when that denial is low, and engage a loved one to treatment and wellness.