Help Me Stop psychotherapist, Ted Ferguson, writes about what denial is, and why it is relevant to addiction and the process of recovery.
I’m thinking about that dreaded word or concept: denial. In all honesty, most of us have at least some awareness of how denial plays out in our life. For some of us, denial is linked to some rather unpleasant traits, which we’re holding on to, and playing down in various ways. For others, we’re becoming more aware that we’re hanging on to harmful behaviours by our fingernails! This is particularly relevant to those of us who struggle with addiction.
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So, why is it so difficult to contemplate denial in our own lives and circumstances?
Let’s consider denial together, shall we? We need to ask ourselves this question. What is denial, and why is it so important with regard to alcohol addiction and drug addiction? Denial is a natural and normal human mechanism, deployed by the brain to protect us from being exposed to a potentially painful reality. If we allow that reality to be exposed, we may have to confront and deal with uncomfortable emotions. This may involve needing to make a big change in our life, and as we all know, change is scary and difficult. It always results in a loss, as well as a reward.
Being in denial in our addiction, and having to face a reality, can perhaps be described as having an existential crisis. We use denial as a means of clinging on to a harmful, destructive, miserable lifestyle – a way of living that detrimentally impacts not only ourselves, but the people who love us the most too.
I heard the prominent addiction specialist, Dr Gabor Mate, quoting a female heroin addict, just 25 years old, who had been ravaged by her addiction to heroin. She had lost almost everything in her life that was healthy, edifying and purposeful. This young heroin addict was a patient of Dr Mate’s in his treatment centre in Vancouver. Dr Mate apparently said to the young patient, speaking from a position of frustration and desperation: ‘If you will not accept that your addiction is killing you, then you are going to die.’ The woman turned to Dr Mate and replied, ‘It’s not dying that I am afraid of! It is facing life that terrifies me.’
So, for many addicts, including alcoholics, even though they have lost almost everything worthwhile, they refuse to shift from their position of denial. This is because facing life on life’s terms, without alcohol and drugs, seems a worse prospect than dying a premature, lonely death.
Denial is a shock absorber for the soul
Denial can overwhelm us when we fear that we’re about to lose something that is essential to our happiness. Denial can also rear up when we have to deal with something destructive that we are terrified to let go of. Denial is like a shock absorber for the soul.
But denial can also be the first step towards acceptance of a situation. The challenge is not to get stuck in it, but instead to recognise it and move forward. The goal is to work toward a position of acceptance of our addiction, including acknowledging all the misery that it brings. Often that requires professional help for people to see, understand and accept the true nature of addiction. Our intensive face-to-face Dayhab programmes and our Online Rehab programme help people to realise what’s really going on, which is the foundation to making and sustaining the changes needed to recover from addiction.
Is denial just a negative position, or are there positive aspects that serve a purpose?
Denial is both our protector and our enemy. Denial can be the first step towards acceptance of a situation. Acceptance can be described as an antidote to neutralise the toxicity of denial. So, the challenge is not to get stuck in denial, but to work towards a position of acceptance. It’s about coming to terms with who we are, and what we need to accept. This means we’re in a position to deal with the realities of the problem that we’re facing.
The six stages of grief and loss can be particularly useful in working through issues with denial, so we do not get stuck in this position. Recognising where we’re at on this ladder, often with specialist support, can help create the shifts we need.
1. DENIAL, often ‘I’m right and you’re wrong‘
2. ANGER at the self
3. BARGAINING, wishful thinking
4. DEPRESSION, feeling the pain
5. ACCEPTANCE that something is missing but I am okay
6. RE-INVESTING, I want more for myself
Denial is the precursor to change
It’s important to note that denial is the first step on this ladder towards change, and it virtually always comes with a loss. When we accept this, we have the capacity to grow.
But, how do we actually become aware that we are in denial? We often don’t realise that it is happening until it is over, when we can look back at the process. The most important thing is to become sensitive to its presence. As with all therapeutic endeavours, awareness and openness are essential skills to use when working through denial. Professional and specialist addiction treatment can help you to break the cycles of denial in your life around the impacts of your addiction, which opens up the window for meaningful change. Once you can see and feel what’s really happening, you are on your way.