Typically, denial is broken when the addict experiences so much pain as a result of their using that they wake up to the problem. This is typically referred to as “hitting the bottom.” Unfortunately, the bottom is usually so bad that it kills the addict. Sometimes an addict will swear they won’t use again after an unpleasant experience and attempt to control their using. This fails and memories of the unpleasant experience are hidden behind the denial mechanism. Typically, these moments of clarity are not all-encompassing enough to really break down denial. The first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is acknowledging that life has become unmanageable, that the addict cannot control their behavior and that their addiction is destroying them. This is the level of acknowledgement that is necessary for the addict to begin recovery. They have to recognize that they are really sick. If an addict gets help or joins a group of other addicts, this can often lead to them coming to the realization that they are sick, largely because the recovering addicts can typically connect with other addicts in ways that non-addicts don’t necessarily emulate well. In the early days of AA, members would go to addicts in hospitals and sanitariums and proselytize them into the program. Addicts were able to successfully engage other addicts in ways that others weren’t. They could cut through denial because they understood it from the inside.
The Fatal Component of Addiction is Denial
One of the more difficult to grasp concepts about addiction is denial. Denial is the component of addiction that is actually fatal. This seems counterintuitive, because addiction typically features all sorts of destructive patterns and practices that seem to the part of addiction that kills you, but the reality is that what kills the addict is the inability to recognize the severity of the situation.
Denial is a thinking mechanism that enables the addict to effectively lie to themselves. All sorts of terrible things happen to the addict, like health problems, legal consequences, relationships disintegrating, loss of employment, or financial problems. These are often directly connected to the addict’s behaviors. Even highly functional addicts experience problems, but deterioration is inevitable. Because their addiction demands more and more of their attention and energy, they are unable to invest in their social and work obligations. Regardless of how bad things get for the addict, denial prevents them from associating their difficulties with using or to recognize that they have developed a serious problem. It’s not intentional, but rather the product of their illness that keeps them focused on everything except the connection between addiction and their problems. Because of denial, the addict gets sicker and sicker without recognizing it. Eventually, it is the lack of recognition that prevents them from working to stop their addictive patterns and results in their death. Denial is fatal because it keeps the addict from seeking help. They anesthetize themselves against most of the pain of consequences by using and blame the rest on other causes.
There are other ways that denial can be broken. For example, interventions put the consequences and impact of the addict’s behavior in front of them in order to force them to face up to reality. They are told about the effects their addiction is having on their loved ones, which prevents them from avoiding the reality of the situation. Another way for breaking denial is by convincing an addict to start treatment through motivational interviewing or other therapeutic techniques, but ultimately they cannot make progress until their denial is dealt with. Facing the consequences of their actions is an important component of beginning recovery. As long as they are protected from the natural consequences of their actions, they cannot begin to wake up to the severity of the situation.