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Denial Ain't A River In Africa

Posted Sep 30 2008 7:04pm

One of the most interesting–and potentially deadly–things about addictive disease is the denial. There’s a saying around the 12-step rooms (and around treatment centers) that addiction is the disease that tells you that you don’t have it. How true.

Denial can take a number of forms, from minimizing (I only have a couple of beers, maybe twice a week; I can quit any time, I just don’t want to; I only use drugs and alcohol socially) to making excuses (If you were married to that so-and-so you’d need a couple of drinks occasionally too!) to comparing (He drinks a lot more than me, I’ve never been in jail, I’ve never…) and so forth.

One of the least recognized ways that I convinced myself that I was doing OK was selfishness. Most of us understand that our use of chemicals* hurts others, and most of us have enough common decency to feel badly about it. That is not to say that these feelings were nearly strong enough to cause me to stop, but they caused considerable discomfort. Since one of the prime excuses for turning off our brains is discomfort, it is easy to see the connections.

On occasion, however, I came face to face with the facts–or else needed to avoid doing so. Someone might have mentioned that I seemed to be drinking more. My reaction might have been one of the above, or simply the remark (also common to people who ride motorcycles without helmets) that it was my life, and I wasn’t hurting anyone else.

This assertion is clearly ridiculous, looking back from nearly two decades of sobriety, but when I said it back then, I really meant it. My further response was usually to distance myself from whoever said it, taking the position (perfectly reasonable to me) “if they don’t like the way I live my life, f**k ‘em!” (Who wants to hang around with a bunch of people who are always looking over your shoulder, waiting for you to screw up, right?) That particular form of denial is called, not too surprisingly, avoidance, but the selfishness is the truly interesting one, because it forced me to ignore so many obvious facts.

To begin with, as the poet said, “No man is an island, entire unto itself….” I had a wife, an ex-wife, and two daughters who considered my continued existence important, not to mention a mother, two brothers, a sister, and a host of other relatives, friends and co-workers. Those are the folks who would have had to deal with the fact of my (unnecessary) death or disability, and some of them would, in the latter case, have had to care for me for perhaps the rest of my life. Sort of silly to say that your life’s your own when others own such a big piece of it, isn’t it?

Then there’s the rest of the death and disability part. Someone would have had to clean up the mess, both immediate and the resultant financial and inheritance issues. They almost certainly would have had to do that while grieving, and perhaps through some well-deserved anger as well. The insurance premiums of everyone in my class of insured would have gone up. If I were disabled, someone would have had to pay for the care I’d have needed for however long. In the case of my death, my kids would have been deprived of knowing me as adults, able finally to appreciate me for all of who I am, and my granddaughter would never have met me at all. My plans for trips to the zoo, the marsh to look at birds, reading to her, helping her to learn about the world–all of those would have been as nothing. My wife would have been deprived of her best friend, my mom and siblings of someone dear to them.

Yeah, it was my life, and I could do with it as I pleased.

Looking back, I’m tempted to exclaim, “what could I have been thinking,” yet I know perfectly well what was going on in my head, albeit unconsciously. I was protecting my drug of choice, and protecting myself from the fear of what might happen if I didn’t have it always available to me. I managed to convince myself, for quite some time, that the feelings and well-being of the people closest to me didn’t matter.

Addiction works on a portion of the brain that is not subject to logic–a more primitive part that is involved with survival issues. The reaction of that portion of the brain to the removal of addictive substances is basic: we need that, or we are going to die. This is below the level of cognitive thought, like the startle reflex and the instinctive shying away from an anticipated blow. We can’t think it away. It begins to be retrained when we become convinced that if we continue to use we well suffer. Short of that, little is likely to happen. Combine these primal instincts with the physical and overt emotional discomfort that accompany withdrawal, and most of the cards are stacked against the addict.

In the time since I got sober I’ve seen this powerful force messing with people’s heads innumerable times, in the rooms of my 12-step groups, as a worker in the addiction treatment field, and on the street. I want to grab people and shake some sense into them, and yet I know that never works. I wasn’t ready until I was ready, and until something more powerful than me began to break the denial down. It’s the same for all addicts.

That’s how powerful denial is. That’s how powerful addiction is.
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*When I use the terms “addiction,” “drugs” and “chemicals,” I am also referring to alcohol and alcoholism. There is no essential difference, apart from legality. Alcohol is not only a drug, it is one of the most deadly.

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