I have lectured at many residential rehab facilities, spoken at board meetings and participated in a podcast for the Al-Anon 12-step recovery program, and without fail, I am always asked, "What is the most difficult thing for someone to do regarding their loved one's addiction issues?" My answer is ridding oneself of being in denial about one's own denial.
Family members can be confused and befuddled about what to do to help the alcoholic/addict, and because of that, it is sometimes easier to believe or hope that although the addiction exists, maybe it really doesn't and will work itself out. Of course, only the drinker can stop drinking, and only the user can stop using; however, it is a family problem, as well, and as long as you have a connection with the alcoholic in your life (whether in recovery or not), then burying your head in the sand about the reality and gravity of the situation is as irresponsible and unhealthy as the alcoholic/addict denying that he or she may have a problem.
Here are seven reasons why family members continue to be in denial about their denial:
1. Embarrassment and shame. Relatives, friends and acquaintances may view them as bad parents or as uncaring people unable to "control" their husband's, wife's or child's behavior. They may be looked upon as having been negligent in the upbringing of their child, or as not being a considerate, sensitive or compassionate wife or husband, which may in turn be interpreted as a marriage on the rocks. Even the "I told you so" or "this is the kind of person you seem to attract" will keep the denial in full force, just to save face or prove them wrong.
2. Believing that it's a private issue. It's nobody's business, and one doesn't air personal, dirty laundry. Everything will be worked out as a family in the privacy of the home. The problem here is that the family doesn't have the tools or commitment to work out the issues at home. Or, the family is splintered regarding the extent of the problem, so there is no unity, and infighting is all that is left. The crisis is therefore swept under the rug.
3. Rationalization. He/she isn't in trouble at work or with the law, so things aren't that bad. It's just a passing phase, nothing to worry about. Everyone needs an outlet or escape these days. It's how he or she unwinds or deals with a tough day.
4. Laziness. Someone else will handle the problem. The other spouse will deal with the child, the other sibling will deal with the parent, and the wife/husband is too exhausted with his or her own issues to take on more headaches.
5. Not wanting to make waves. The family doesn't want to be disciplined or scolded by the alcoholic/addict for getting involved with such a volatile subject. The punishment of being denied love/affection from the loved one, or the possibility that they will leave your protective care, is too much to gamble. If one is dealing with a spouse who is the breadwinner or primary caregiver, then the ramifications of making waves is too high a price to pay, and the outcome not worth the gamble. Anger, punishment, resentment and alienation of affection are all strong motives to keep the harmony. Peace at any cost, and bumping along the bottom hoping that maybe tomorrow will be better, is all you think you have.
6. Believing that the alcoholic/addict will get help and that all will be fine. You relish in their commitment to sobriety, and all you have to do is be encouraging. A couple of AA meetings or even professional counseling starts, and things look good, and there is a sigh of relief -- for the time being. Though this goes on time and time again, it is easier to deny the instability of the commitment than deal with it head on.
7. Fear of an ongoing commitment. How involved do you really want/have to be? If the family member seeks professional guidance, then they are now enmeshed and have to work on their part of the recovery and not just sit back and wait for their loved one to take action on their own. Why pay for counseling or read books if one is not going to heed the advice? Old behaviors that have been part of the family member's actions, possibly for years, now will give way to different thinking and procedures. Fear of not being able to follow through with new boundaries and expectations, coupled with the fear of unknown actions/reactions from the alcoholic/addict, keeps one with the denial blinders glued in place.
Of course, no matter what one does, we can't stop the alcoholic/addict from a life of self-destruction if that's the direction they are hell-bent on going. Nevertheless, we are not helping them overthrow the addiction or begin recovery if we continue to be in denial about our denial. To pretend that this disease doesn't exist, or not accepting the harsh reality of the situation, can be as irresponsible as not attending to a loved one who is bleeding profusely or is physically ill, just because these may be viewed as having an "acceptable" disorder.
If I can be of service, please visit my website www.familyrecoverysolutions.com, and I invite you to explore my new book "Reclaim Your Life: You and the Alcoholic/Addict" at www.reclaimyourlifebook.com, or on Amazon. In addition, please visit my blogs in the Personal Perspectives section of psychologytoday.com.