Knowing someone or living with a person who is in denial of addiction can be very frustrating, especially if the person’s addiction is obvious to you. It can also be frightening to see your loved one imploding and feeling helpless to get them out of it because they are not acknowledging anything being wrong with them or their addiction. Helping to work though the denial of one’s addiction is no easy task, depending on how entrenched their denial or defenses have taken shape. Denial can be both a conscious and an unconscious process where the goal is to help the person you care about become more aware of how their addiction is hurting you and themselves. In a previous tip, Understanding Denial in Addiction, I listed ways to help you better understand denial. In this tip, I will share some things you can do for helping someone in denial so they become more open to staying sober and getting the help that they need.
How can you help?
One of the first steps in helping someone in denial of addiction is to gently point out ways in which the person tends to defend the behaviors that may be protecting themselves from seeing the negative consequences of their addiction. Whether it be making statements that minimize the addiction (i.e. “it’s not that bad”), rationalizing or making excuses for the behavior (i.e. “I was bored” or “I had a bad day”), or even engaging in other forms of defending their actions such as justifying the addiction, projecting blame onto others, getting hostile when the subject is brought up, or even glamorizing the addiction as if there is nothing wrong with it, are some of the other ways the person with the addiction can build up walls. The addicted person can be protecting their behavior for many different reasons. It is suggested to keep in mind when a person’s addiction is brought up, they may externalize blame onto others, including you, making it very easy for you to be defensive back rather than maintaining an emotional distance during this time. An effective way to approach the addicted person is when you suspect they are sober or in the morning when they first wake up. Early mornings are usually the best time, especially after a night of heavy use where the addicted person may already be feeling remorseful. Putting the focus on yourself and your own observations is best such as saying “I need to talk to you.” I am really concerned about how you behaved last night night when you were high/using. I saw you being very defensive with [friend/family member] and I know that is not part of your character because you really care about others. What are your thoughts about what I just shared?” This approach can allow the addicted person to“hear” you and not feel judged.
Another way of helping someone in denial of addiction is to maintain your own awareness of their addiction. Although this may seem obvious, it is very easy to “look the other way” and not want to deal with it. In other words, denial can also re-emerge in your own thinking about the addiction. Some examples of this include: comparing out to others (thinking you and your loved one’s addiction is not as bad as others), downplaying your own feelings about how the person’s addiction is negatively impacting you (it is not like it is this bad all the time and I need to be supportive), or ignoring it because you don’t feel like arguing about it. For help with this aspect of the problem, it is suggested that you establish a group of friends who you can talk to for support and who you trust will not pressure you to take any action before you are ready. One of the best ways to approach a friend is to focus on your own feelings first, such as telling them “I am feeling very depressed because I am concerned about [loved one].” If you frame your feelings in a non-judgmental way, you are likely to receive non-judgmental responses. If you do not have friends that you can confide in, a Twelve Step fellowship such as Al-Anon (for family and friends of alcoholics), Nar-Anon (the same type of family group whose loved one is addicted to drugs), or CoDA (Codependents Anonymous) are other resources that are available to you. These groups are in the community and free to attend. Twelve step meetings are designed to be very safe because there is no cross talk permitted which is giving advice or getting advice from others while the meeting is in progress. If you want to share at a meeting, just raise your hand and speak, keeping the focus on yourself. You can also purchase books that address codependency, living with someone in active addiction, or how addiction impacts the family. Furthermore, Keeping a log or journal about your feelings can also be helpful in keeping the focus on yourself and how your loved one’s addiction has negatively impacted you.
A technique that can also be tried is writing a personal impact letter with the information you wrote down in the feelings journal above. In this document, you as the family member are writing a letter to the addicted person letting them know how their addiction has personally impacted you. It is best done by detailing specific examples of when the addicted person was drunk or high and what transpired that left you feeling either scared, angry, depressed, or embarrassed. Keep the letter factual with specific dates/times so that there is little wiggle room for your experience to be disputed. Below is an example of such an entry:
On 11/23/19, you came home late from bowling with your friends and seemed drunk. When I asked you if you have been drinking, you denied it and started calling me names. You told me to mind my own business and when I attempted to leave you alone, you continued to follow me around the house pointing out my flaws. I felt scared and hopeless because I felt as though no matter what I did, I could not have a rational conversation with you.
This exercise is best done with the guidance of a therapist, but if you do not have one, it is a concrete way of linking the person’s addiction with a negative outcome. If you choose to do this exercise, be sure to have the addicted person read it out loud in front of you, but only during a time that you know they are sober. The goal of the impact letter is to help the person in denial of addiction to really see how their actions have negatively affected you and help motivate the addicted person to stop using and/or get professional help.
Lastly, an additional way of helping someone in denial of addiction is to make a conscious effort to not enable or ignore the problem. Enabling could consist of giving the addicted person money, making up lies or excuses for their use to others, or sacrificing your needs (i.e. wanting to go out with friends, exercise, see your own therapist) because you feel an obligation to take care of your loved one who may be feeling physically or psychologically ill as a consequence from their use. Ignoring the problem would consist of just going about your business and not mentioning anything about your loved one’s addictive behavior. Both enabling and ignoring only gives the perception that you condone the behavior and does not help the addicted person be motivated to change it.
These tips are designed to help both yourself and your loved one in denial of addiction. These are just a few examples, but there are many more. It is very scary to be in this situation because I know you want the best for the person you love, but sometimes it is “tough love” that is needed by you before the addicted person can learn to love themselves and stay sober. Please remember that you are not alone. I encourage you to reach out to a therapist or a support group to help guide you along this path. We can be reached at www.therapyinphiladelphia.com/contact to assist you with navigating these tough waters so you are not doing it by yourself.