by Sandy Nevills Reiff

I was asked to write an article about denial and how it can sabotage some of our river guides each season. Guides respect diversity – diversity in experience, talent and expertise. It may be time to respect those people who choose not to or cannot use alcohol with control. Here’s a description of denial and how it operates. If we each know how it works, we don’t have to be a part of it.

What is denial?

In general terms, denial is a psychological process by which people protect themselves from something threatening to them by blocking knowledge of that thing from their awareness. It is an unconscious process, which can be seen, for example, when a person is suffering from an obviously terminal illness, but seems to be genuinely unaware of that fact. Denial acts as a buffer against unacceptable reality.

The denial of chemically dependent persons consists of their lack of awareness of their excessive and/or inappropriate use of chemicals and the resulting harmful consequences. It refers to the fact that chemically dependent people have no ‘insight’, no basic understanding that they are having difficulties. The reason for this blindness is that, along with the gradual development of the illness of addiction, a denial system insidiously develops which protects them from seeing that this is happening.

Denial is a core component of dependency. The development of a denial system is a cardinal and integral feature of chemical dependency. It is one of the major symptoms of this disease and develops along with more visible symptoms, i.e., harmful consequences. To a greater or lesser extent, it can be found in all chemically dependent persons. Denial is the fatal aspect of alcoholism and other drug dependencies. It impairs the judgment of affected individuals, results in self-delusion, which keeps them locked into an increasingly destructive pattern. It is the denial system which, for example, permits a chemically dependent person to ignore a physician’s advise of “stop or you will die”.

Denial has many faces. “Denial” is a shorthand term for a wide repertoire of psychological defenses and maneuvers that chemically dependent people unwittingly set up to protect themselves from the realization that they are chemically dependent. These defensive maneuvers, all of which distort reality, can appear in many different forms. Some of the most common are:

Simple denial: Maintaining that something is not so which is in fact so, e.g., insisting that chemical dependency is not a problem despite obvious evidence that it is a problem and is so perceived by others. The chemically dependent person’s dishonesty is a form of denial. He or she frequently does not tell the truth but is unaware of this.

Minimizing: Admitting to some degree of a problem with chemical usage, but in such a way that it appears to be much less serious or significant than is actually the case.

Blaming (also called projection): Denying responsibility for certain behaviors and maintaining that the responsibility lies with someone or something else. The behavior is not denied, but its cause is placed “out there”, not within the person.

Rationalizing: Offering alibis, excuses, justifications, and other explanations for behavior. These serve essentially to provide a reason other than chemical dependency to explain behavior related to chemical usage. The behavior is not denied, but an inaccurate explanation of its cause is given.

Intellectualizing: Avoiding emotional, personal awareness of the problem of chemical dependency by dealing with it on a level of generalization, intellectual analysis, or theorizing.

Diversion: Changing the subject to avoid a topic that is threatening, e.g., personal chemical usage and related behavior.

Hostility: Becoming angry and irritable when reference is made to personal chemical usage and related behavior. This is a good way to avoid the issue as it serves to back people off – when he or she talks about a certain topic, that person is going to change the subject or avoid bringing the topic again.

Denial is automatic. Denial in its various forms is not usually a matter of deliberate lying or willful deception. In most instances, chemically dependent people do not know what is true or false concerning their chemical usage and its consequences, and they are blinded to the fact that their view of the situation does not conform to reality. The denial system distorts their perception and impairs their judgment so that they become self-deluded, incapable of accurate self-awareness.

Denial is progressive. The denial system becomes increasingly more pervasive and entrenched as the illness of chemical dependency progresses. In the very early states, it is minimal, and with encouragement, such persons can usually view their problem fairly, realistically with few distortions. However, by the time an individual’s illness is sufficiently advanced that the problem begins to appear serious in the eyes of others; an elaborate system of defenses shields him or her from seeing what is really happening. When a person passes from the middle to the late state of chemical dependency, the denial system is usually massive and extremely difficult to penetrate. A terminal stage alcoholic, for example, may be dying from cirrhosis yet deny any serious history of drinking.

Origins of the denial system

The denial system’s primary function appears to be to protect the affected person from the realization that he or she is alcoholic or dependent on some other drug. It also prevents chemically dependent individuals from not admitting the fact of their illness to themselves but to others, but particularly and primarily to themselves. Because it involves dishonesty with one’s self, it automatically results in dishonesty with others.

The reason why a denial system develops in relation to the illness of the chemical dependency appears to be rather complex. At least in part, they are as follows:

Protection of the addiction. Initially the person who is potentially dependent on alcohol or some other mood-altering drug has found that becoming intoxicated is a good experience, that it brings pleasurable results. With the passage of time, such a person becomes increasingly dependent on that experience, developing a need and eventually a compulsion to repeat it, until ultimately drinking or other drug use becomes the focal point of his or her life. All of this individual’s being, conscious and subconscious, becomes preoccupied and directed toward obtaining more of the favorite chemical and again repeating its effects. This need so conditions and controls the person’s thinking and awareness that he or she cannot imagine life without it. Anything which threatens continued use of the chemical is rejected. The denial system thus comes into operation to prevent chemically dependent individuals from seeing that the alcohol or other drug which they so desperately need is in fact destroying their lives, that what began as a pleasurable experience has turned into a deadly illness.

If it were not for denial, the pain and shame of the harmful consequences of chemical usage would be too much for chemically dependent persons to bear. Denial preserves their sense of self-worth and dignity, but with the end result that they are out of touch with reality.

Denial blocks recovery

Denial is the major barrier to recovery from chemical dependency. Due to its operation, most people who seek treatment for this illness are doing so because of external pressures, not because they are recognizing or admitting in any meaningful way that they have a problem. The extent of any given individual’s denial varies considerably. Some are totally blind to the existence of their illness. Others may be admitting it to some degree, but virtually always with a failure to fully appreciate the extent, seriousness, and/or personal nature of the problem. Unless something happens to weaken the defenses which comprise the denial system, they will not be willing or able to accept help in the task of recovery.

Denial runs a parallel course with people who are part of the dependent person’s personal or professional network. There are four identifiable states in the family or network of the user. Check the above denial symptoms and see if they apply to yourself or anyone you know, determine whether you have inadvertently enabled the person to become more and more ill.

In the first stage of denial, the network tries to hide the problem from themselves and others outside their circle.

The second state is when involved persons try to control the persons intake. This may include being sympathetic and trying to persuade the person to control their use; trying to get the person to switch to another substance or threatening them with reporting them to some person in authority. These plays always fail because the efforts are toward externally controlling the behavior of someone else.

The third denial stage is typified by chaos. The problem now becomes so critical it can no longer be hidden or denied. They may be losing credibility with their outfitter and beginning the spiral of scrambling to find employment in other companies with decreasing results.

The fourth and final stage is when others try to take complete control of and complete responsibility for the dependent person. This increases the emotional invalidism and usually ends with alienation and resentments by all.

So, what can you do to help someone who’s on a destructive slide?

DO . . .

  1. Openly face up to the fact that this may be addiction which must be dealt with honestly and forthrightly.
  2. Accept addiction as a treatable illness. Recognize when someone says they can’t use they aren’t saying they’re better than you – they may be trying to help themselves.
  3. Encourage the individual to seek help. The Whale Foundation is here for everyone in the community.
  4. Familiarize yourself with all the various sources of help which are available.
  5. Realize that recovery may often be a long-time process requiring patience and understanding.
  6. Familiarize yourself with the nature of addiction. Don’t abandon the person because they are struggling.
  7. Be Firm in your relationship.

DON’T . . .

  1. Don’t allow the problem drinker/user to lie to you and accept if for the truth. In doing so, you encourage the process. The truth is often painful, but get at it.
  2. Don’t allow the problem drinker/user to outsmart you. This teaches avoidance of responsibility. It will undoubtedly result in the loss of respect for you at the same time.
  3. Don’t let the problem drinker/user exploit you or take advantage of you. If you do, you become an accomplice in the evasion of responsibility.
  4. Don’t lecture – moralize – scold – praise – blame – threaten – argue – pour out liquor – lose your temper – or cover up the consequences of their usinG. True, you may feel better, but the situation will be worse.
  5. Don’t lose your temper, thereby your effectiveness in helping.
  6. Don’t accept promises. This is just a method of postponing pain, if an agreement is made, stick to it.
  7. Don’t allow your anxiety to compel you to do what the problem drinker/user ought to be doing for himself.
  8. Don’t suggest using another substance as a substitute to feel better.
  9. Don’t shame someone if they choose not to drink (e.g., you’re not a man – too good to drink with us?).

Most river guides have seen someone go into the spiral of substance abuse and depression. Each person can help by respecting and trusting guides who, either through genetics or disease process can no longer drink.

Think back – have you known anyone who left the river, not because they want to, but because they couldn’t stay sober in a climate, which didn’t support their nonuse? Let’s not lose anyone else.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

Philo of Alexandria