The Role of Denial in Addiction

Although his father had severe alcohol use disorder and both his grandfather and his uncle had died as a result of their alcohol misuse, Borchert succumbed to social pressure when people told him drinking liquor will “make a man out of you.” 

Many years later not much as changed. “In a society where we rationalize and justify drinking and drugging, it’s hard for people to see what actually happens when you take it too far,” wrote recovering alcohol Michael Arnold not long ago in Drowning in Addiction

When the husband of former ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas began to notice her alcohol misuse and asked her to cut back, she  found it “hard, very hard.” Although the inevitable problems began to pile up, she continued drinking, convinced she could control it. Despite many warning signs, denial won out and Vargas spent years “on a campaign of mostly controlled drinking, sprinkled with bouts of sobriety and a handful of terrifying binges.” Only much later would she realize that “the biggest problem was that she still did not believe she was an alcoholic,” Vargas wrote in her 2016 memoir, Between Breaths

Acceptance and Change

Bill Borchert, Michael Arnold, and Elizabeth Vargas could have recovered from their substance use disorders much more quickly, had they accepted sooner that they were engaging in self-destructive, compulsive behavior they were unable to control. 

One of the devastating consequences of denial is isolation. “Your loved one may just be sick and tired of you and others confronting him or her about the substance abuse, so he or she may begin to pull away and seek out isolation,” writes Kelsey Brown on PsychCentral.com. “He or she may only choose to spend time with people who also abuse drugs or alcohol as a way to escape the ridicule.” Naturally, that kind of isolation will only make matters worse.

While denial is a key obstacle to recovery, acceptance is the beginning of the healing process. This is the reasoning behind the traditional 12-Step introduction “Hi, my name is… and I’m an alcoholic” which is meant to demonstrate that one has accepted one’s addiction and is no longer denying or excusing it. 

That doesn’t mean everything stays as it is. Recovery—overcoming denial—is a fairly radical change of the addicted person’s entire life. That is the fundamental goal of 12-Step facilitation: to acknowledge the disease and then work hard every day to overcome it.