Millions of Americans struggle with substance use disorder, colloquially known as “addiction”. Yet only a small fraction of us ever get help. For many of us, that refusal to get help isn’t about not having access to resources, but rather to refusal to acknowledge that we have a problem. If you have a loved one who’s addicted to drugs or alcohol, you’ve probably seen and heard things like “I can quit whenever I want”. Or “I could stop tomorrow, I just don’t want to”, or worse, ” I drink because of X” or “maybe if you’d stop nagging me, I wouldn’t have to”. More insidious is the denial pattern where individuals hide their substance use from others so well they don’t realize how much they’re using themselves.
The thing is, denial is normal. It’s one of the most common responses to drug and alcohol abuse. Socially, we stigmatize substance abuse a great deal. Despite the fact that substance use disorder is a mental health disorder and not a personal failing, we hide it, and that means hiding it from ourselves.
Unfortunately, recognizing that denial and helping your loved one to move past it is the first step to getting them into treatment. Motivation to recover is key to recovery which means you have to surmount that first hurdle of denial before taking any other steps.
These 7 signs of denial in an addict should help you to recognize when and if your loved one is in denial.
1. They Blame Others for Their Problems
Blaming other people or circumstances for problems is one of the most common symptoms of denial in an addict. Additionally, this symptom can show up in many ways.
- Circumstantial – “I only drink because my job is so stressful. I’ll quit when I get that new job. “
- Direct Blame – “If you’d stop nagging me, I wouldn’t have to use so much”
- Emotional – “I can’t stand that my partner broke up with me, just give me time”
These excuses can sound very reasonable and rational. If someone is going through a rough time economically, it’s fair they would want and need an outlet. This becomes problematic when the excuses don’t stop. If someone always has an excuse, always has a problem, always has someone to blame, they have a problem.
Additionally, it’s never healthy to blame another person. If you’re in a relationship or in a situation where you drink or use to deal with that person, the idea should be to cut that person out of your life, not use substances to deal with them.
Normally, blaming others is a first step in acknowledging that something is wrong. It’s unhealthy, but it means that person is already acknowledging something isn’t right. They’re just looking outwards for someone to blame for their problems.
2. They Refuse to Acknowledge They Have a Problem
Most of us have heard, “I can quit anytime I want” but few of us have heard when that will be. It’s true that some people simply don’t want to quit, even if they acknowledge they have a problem. More often, this tactic is used to mentally avoid acknowledging the problem. That can be incredibly dangerous, because it means they are convincing themselves that whatever substance use they are engaging in is safe and healthy.
That can happen through escalation. For example, someone starts out with small doses spread out over time. As the problem gets worse and they take more often and higher doses, they continue to treat the problem like they did when it was a small issue.
3. They Diminish Their Own Problems
It’s one thing to jokingly say “at least it isn’t heroin” or similar in response to someone bringing up your coffee habit. It’s another to consistently use similar arguments when someone brings up how much you’re drinking or using. Yet, many addicts in denial do exactly that. For example, you’ll hear phrases like, “I’m nowhere near as bad as our mother”, “At least I’m not doing meth”, “Didn’t you drink us all under the table back in the day?”, “I could be worse”.
These arguments are intended to undermine the scope of the issue, not just to you, but also to themselves. That’s why they often take the form of attacks, comparing your own or a loved one’s problems. This behavior is a sign of denial and a sign that they are resistant to acknowledging they have a problem.
4. They Lie About Substance Use and Might Even Believe It Themselves
Individuals who use a lot of substances have poor memories. But that’s no reason to directly like about something. For example, if you know someone is using or drinking and ask them, and they lie, it’s a big red flag. This is especially true if they actually seem to believe it. This is most common with lies about how much. E.g., if they say they only had one drink and you know they ended up blacked out, they might believe they just had a few drinks.
5. They Claim Their Substance Use is Necessary
Sometimes your loved one will acknowledge they are using or drinking too much, but they still won’t acknowledge it’s problematic. For example, you might hear phrases like, “I know, but I’m in pain, and I’ll just keep it up until the meds are gone”, or “Just until I get the new job”. These kinds of excuses legitimize substance use as having a reason – therefore validating continued usage. For example, if someone has experienced trauma, loss, an accident, or use a drug to function (such as Ritalin), they often use this kind of legitimization.
Unfortunately, just because someone has a reason to use a drug doesn’t mean their usage of it is healthy. This kind of denial is also insidious, because people self-medicate, tell themselves they deserve a break, and problems steadily get worse.
6. They Use Manipulation to Cover Addiction
If someone is using manipulation to cover their addiction, they are likely in denial. For example, if you go to your loved one concerned about their substance abuse, and they turn it around on you, you are being manipulated. Manipulation can involve redirection, changes of topic, sudden blaming of others, or convincing you that they have a reason. This behavior is unhealthy, and it can mean that they are in deniable and are using manipulation without actually realizing it.
7. They Hide Substance Use
If you find signs of substance abuse but your loved one is clearly hiding it, they might be in denial. This can become an issue, even for them. For example, alcoholics will often refill bottles of whiskey with cheaper whiskey – they eventually lose track of how much they’re drinking. If they hide bottles out of sight, the amount they drank if very frequently out of mind. The same goes for pills and prescription medication. The more they hide substance use or are even unaware of how much they are using, the more likely it is they have a problem. This kind of denial can be difficult to deal with and you might have to actually approach them with evidence of how much they’re using to get past it.
Most addicts eventually deal with denial in some form or other. If your loved one is in denial, it’s important to talk to them, discuss their problems, and try to move forward. If nothing helps, an intervention is always an option. However, if your eventual goal is to get your loved one into treatment, you should take care to offer to talk, to be there for them, and to support them (not financially) until they do move past their denial.