Observe the technique involved . . . . It consists of creating an artificial, unnecessary, and (rationally) unusable term, designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concepts—a term which sounds like a concept, but stands for a “package-deal” of disparate, incongruous, contradictory elements taken out of any logical conceptual order or context, a “package-deal” whose (approximately) defining characteristic is always a non-essential. This last is the essence of the trick. – Ayn Rand
Denial is a constant buzzword heard in the world of addiction treatment, and without properly analyzing it’s usage it becomes easy to take the idea seriously, but as you’ll see, it’s a destructive anti-concept which only serves to muddy the waters of addiction and stand in the way of real progress.
The original psychological concept of denial was conceived of by Sigmund Freud, as the explanation of a defense mechanism by which a person’s own mind would subconsciously hide the facts of reality from them as a way to perhaps protect their ego, or avoid necessary but painful realizations and/or life changes. In a way, it’s as if a person in denial is lying to themselves, but according to the concept, when we are in denial we’re pathologically rejecting reality. That is to say, a person who is in denial isn’t consciously lying because they don’t even know the truth as their own mind has hidden it from them.
The above may or may not be a real phenomenon, but it doesn’t really matter for our purposes here, because “denial” in the addiction world, is used in a far different way which contains only a shadow of the original concept. The term has become an all purpose tool used by the recovery culture:
- if you think you can stop abusing substances, then you’re in denial.
- if you don’t think you need the 12 steps, you’re in denial.
- if you disagree with any demands of the recovery culture, you’re in denial.
- if you choose moderation, you’re in denial.
- if you are using substances at all, and anyone is concerned about you, rightly or not, you are in denial.
- if you refuse help, you are in denial.
- if you seek help, you are in denial.
- if you don’t believe you have a problem, you are in denial (whether you are right or wrong doesn’t matter)
- if you disagree with someone about the severity of your problem, you are in denial.
- if you are unsure whether you want to change, you are in denial.
- if you are on the fence in any way, you are in denial.
- if you accept the consequences of your substance use, and choose to continue using, you are in denial.
- if you are consciously lying, you are in denial.
That last one is perhaps the most interesting, because denial is supposed to be a subconscious process, and lying is conscious, so it is the exact opposite of the true concept – yet the recovery culture is happy to label it as denial. This is because the term has no real meaning for them, it’s simply an all purpose tool designed to allow them to label anyone as sick, to make people shut up and listen, to breed self-doubt in the target and pull them into their way of doing things. Whether or not you really exhibit denial is of little concern to them, what matters is that the charge of denial allows them to put you in the subservient role of the sick person, and them in the higher status role of being the only one who can see the truth. This game doesn’t stop at the person with the substance use habit though, it often extends to family members and friends who are also said to be in denial about the full scope of their loved one’s problem. They too are considered to be sick, labeled as enablers, and in need of treatment for codependency. The concept of denial enables all of this, but it does little to actually help anyone.
Denial is popular because it can mean anything to anyone, it’s all-purpose nature is what makes it both believable and useless. Let’s take a look at some common situations in which it is applied.
Disagreement as Denial
The charge of denial is made whenever a substance user disagrees with any position the helper takes. Let’s look at some exchanges between a Helper (H) and a Substance User (SU):
H: You’re drinking too much. You need treatment.
SU: I think I do go overboard sometimes, you have a point, and I’m going to cut back. But I don’t think rehab is necessary.
H: You can’t do it on your own, you’re in denial. You need to go to rehab.
What we have here is a disagreement about severity and solution. From this exchange, we have no idea who is correct. Can SU cut back on their own? Is rehab necessary? The answers to these questions don’t matter to the Helper – he simply assumes denial where there is only evidence of disagreement – but any addiction professional would back him up on his diagnosis of denial. The charge of denial releases H from the effort necessary to have any type of meaningful conversation about drinking with SU. It simply shuts down open thought and communication, and seeks to replace SU’s judgment with H’s judgment. SU has acknowledged that he drinks too much sometimes, this is an inroad to talk about a possible goal of changing the pattern of substance use, and exploring alternative behaviors – but the bridge to this road is burned immediately with the flames of denial.
Sometimes, SU may not be using too much drugs or alcohol. H may have an exaggerated view of the situation. They disagree. Unfortunately for SU, he’s already been determined to be in denial, is suspect, and no matter the reality of her substance use, it will simply be assumed that she is “minimizing” as part of her denial. It’s a no win situation to be accused of denial.
Moreover, it’s not just disagreements about severity which get labelled as denial. When someone does get into a program for substance use problems, they may disagree with any number of it’s tenets – many of which are highly questionable. Some may not think that they need to “surrender their will to a higher power”, or “admit that they are powerless over drugs/alcohol”, or see the need for daily meeting attendance. Upon resisting any of these ideas, they’ll be told they’re in denial. If they try to argue their point about why the idea in question would not work for them, then the argument itself is also considered to be further evidence of even deeper denial. Legitimate disagreements about highly debatable points become a sickness. Again, it’s a no win situation, because the H goes in assuming that any disagreement is a sign of denial. Blind obedience is all that’s called for – independent thought is scorned.
Lying as Denial
What about lying, isn’t that a form of denial? As much as lying can be a denial of truth/reality, this isn’t the same as the psychological phenomenon of denial. It is the exact opposite.
H: You were using drugs last night, weren’t you? We’re done, I don’t want you in my life anymore.
SU: No, I wasn’t. I just had a drink.
H now relays this tale to an addiction expert who proudly proclaims that SU is in denial. The problem is that SU is well aware that he was using drugs. He has not fooled himself, he has only attempted to fool H, by lying, as a means to avoid negative consequences and keep H in his life. There are countless situations where SU may lie, and countless reasons why he may do so, and they will usually not involve any self-deception whatsoever. SU is stonewalling in order to get what he wants. This isn’t to say that lying is right or good, but just that it isn’t denial – it is not a subconscious defense mechanism, it is a deliberate, conscious, and purposeful act to lie. And again, this is a no win situation – for everyone involved, because it just muddies the waters. By being focused on denial and the idea that SU is sick, H is distracted from her concerns – namely, that she doesn’t want to remain in a relationship with a drug user and/or liar. SU is hurt, because when H reports back to tell him that he’s in denial, she either gives him an excuse for his behavior (that he’s “sick”) or she puts him even more on the defensive. Neither of these lead to an open honest discussion which would be the only thing to really sort out the situation.
Poor Judgment/Lack of Judgment as Denial
Now this is the specifically “I don’t have a problem” territory. The scenario is simple:
H: You have a problem with drugs.
SU: No I don’t.
H: Yes you do. You’ve been arrested for drunk driving and drug possession. You’ve stolen money from me. You’ve been selling all of your possessions for drugs. You’ve failed out of school, and now you’ve lost your job because a binge left you to sleepy to make it to work on time again. You have a problem.
SU: I don’t have a problem.
H: Yes you do, you’re in denial.
H’s frustration level is certainly warranted here. She’s made a good case for a problem and the need to change. The question remains though – is SU really in denial? Does SU really not know that all of these negative consequences are happening, that they’re a result of his habits, and that they show a pattern with no signs of slowing down? Does SU not know that things will probably stay bad, and get worse? I think he does know these things. Most everyone I’ve known with these extreme patterns of substance use problems has known the reality that it is indeed a problem, and a serious one at that. If these people are in any sort of denial, it pertains to the reality that they could have a better life if they changed their behavior. But that isn’t the recovery culture’s version of denial.
The bottom line is that this person who is resisting engaging in a meaningful conversation about their substance use knows how bad it really is. They will voluntarily choose even worse situations and consequences in order to keep up their habit. They often run away from home into voluntary homelessness in order to keep using. They commit crimes they know will catch up with them in order to keep using. This type will do anything they can to get the high. Two important factors are involved here, 1) they’re invested in using cheap thrills as a means to happiness, 2) they are either unaware of the options available to them which would bring them more happiness and personal satisfaction in the long run, or they are not motivated to implement the work needed to find such satisfaction in life. Accusing them of being in denial does nothing to bring these issues to the forefront. Denial, as a blindness to the existence of a problem, doesn’t exist here. What exists, is poor judgment or even a lack of judgment about the options to their current pattern of behavior. You can see that they’d be better of with a different lifestyle, but they may believe that drug and alcohol use is the only thing that will make them happy, or the best way to find happiness. They may judge the high as being more valuable than anything else – so that from their point of view, while the consequences suck, they are still “worth it” to the SU. This is of course an error in judgment, but it’s not denial.
There are plenty more examples and scenarios we could explore – because denial is a blanket term, but I think those should cover the main uses of it.
So how exactly is denial an “anti-concept”? Well, as we said, there is a real psychological definition for denial, but this isn’t really how it’s used in the addiction world. In addiction, the concept of denial steals it’s credibility from the real concept, but then it’s used in a whole host of inappropriate or approximate ways. Witness that as used in the addiction world it IS NOT defined by the essential characteristic of being a subconscious defense mechanism which hides the truth from the afflicted. It is loosely and inaccurately based on the dictionary definition of denial; it is used to refer to the act of lying; it is used explain away honest disagreements; it is used to describe acts of poor judgment. The use of the term distracts us from seeing these things for what they are by gathering them all under a non-distinct umbrella. Why can’t we deal with lying as lying? Address poor judgment as poor judgment? Or deal with disagreements by actually discussing the contentious issues at hand?
We can’t deal with these issues head on and accurately for what they really represent because the recovery culture decided long ago that you can’t reason with a substance user, that they are fundamentally dishonest, that they have been robbed of free will, and that they’re diseased. They gave up on any rational approach to addiction and instead decided to control and command people. Denial is one tool in their mind control arsenal which allows them to do this. Sadly, for the most part, it still doesn’t really work.