The Oxford English Dictionary defines denial as “a refusal to accept that something unpleasant or painful is true”. Denial in alcoholism is often used to suggest that the individual refuses to accept the harm that alcohol is doing; but this grossly misstates the issue. This suggests that we choose to be stubborn rather than to accept the facts, whereas the actual difficulty is that we give insufficient weight to the truth; we do not deny the facts… we find them unconvincing. Denial is not stubbornly refusing to accept what we don’t want to hear, it is that our mind has contradictory ideas that it finds more convincing and these contradictory ideas and memories are created by mental functions that are distorted by regular and heavy drinking. Denial is a symptom of addiction.
People close to us try to convince us that our drinking is bad and that we should change it, but this has no apparent effect. Those observing or trying to help us are completely baffled by this… “why don’t they see all the harm that their drinking is doing?” They think we are being weak, stubborn or selfish. They see all the problems that our drinking is causing; to ourselves, to our families, at work or with the law and the solution is obvious to them… drink less! But they form this conclusion based on their own response to alcohol, and the way we see it is entirely different. We don’t disagree with the facts, we see the same problems as they do; we drink more than we should, we drink more often than we should, we spend time drinking when we should be doing other things, and bad things happen as a consequence of our drinking. For them that is the whole story, but we know some other things too. We know that “drinking is good!” and “drinking is fun” and we know these more firmly than anything else; this knowledge is false, but it seems real and is incredibly deeply learned. We also know from the balance of our memory that drinking represents fun and good times; the good memories of drinking are enhanced and the memories of bad experiences are suppressed. What is also becoming increasingly apparent to us is that we are unable to “drink less”; that ship has sailed. But we know with absolute certainty that a drink will make us feel better. We aren’t necessarily aware that we feel anxious, alone, miserable and distressed because of our drinking, but we do know that a drink will make all of these go away. These things are all products of our addiction and normal drinkers don’t have them. But they don’t simply compete with the evidence that our drinking is harmful, they are also more persuasive. The “drinking is bad” side of the argument has words, events, places and people associated with it; it is information and evidence based. But the “drinking is good” side of the argument doesn’t come as a neatly formed package of well-constructed argument. It doesn’t have words it has feelings; desires, urges, yearnings and cravings, and we can’t prevent them from coming. We can protest and challenge them as much as we like and we can construct the most persuasive of arguments but the feelings persist. The feelings are generated independently of conscious thought and they are impervious to reason; we can’t debate or negotiate with them and facts do not diminish them. Not only are these feelings untouched by evidence, they arrive first: we feel that having a drink is a good idea before our higher mental functions even begin to compile evidence that drinking now or drinking more might be unwise. But the feelings go even deeper. The feelings don’t just tell us that drinking is good they tell us that drinking is the only thing that is good and that there is no fun in life without alcohol.
We can’t imagine life being worthwhile without alcohol. Under these conditions we do not reach the same conclusion about our drinking as normal drinkers do. It makes no sense to us to stop drinking when, as far as we are aware, drinking is not only a good thing it is the only thing that makes us feel better.
We uphold the position that “drinking is good” far, far longer than is rational and objective. In fact we are neither rational nor objective when it comes to alcohol because our distorted minds lead us to flawed conclusions. But as our daily experience of life worsens the weight of argument steadily grows on the “drinking is bad” side and the distance between the opposing viewpoints becomes huge. On the one hand there is “alcohol is the only thing that makes life worthwhile” while on the other is “alcohol is destroying my life”. The dissonance caused by this conflict silently torments us and it is this discomfort that causes us to react angrily when someone is critical of our drinking; they are poking at what is already a sore point. When they do so we try to make our behaviour appear reasonable in whatever ways we can. Our drinking pattern draws comment and we have many responses ready to go at a moments’ notice:- “Everybody drinks”, “If you had my problems you’d drink too”, “It’s not illegal is it”, “Problem? What problem”, “I’m not that bad, all I want is a little relief”, “I’m not hurting anybody but myself”, “I can stop any time I want to”, “I’m not nearly as bad as other people”, “Nobody is going to tell me what to do” and “I can handle it myself”. But while we try to minimise any criticism directed at us we can’t completely dismiss the evidence out-of-hand; facts are facts. It is perfectly apparent that our drinking is bringing unwanted consequences and we try to do something about this. Stopping drinking completely is an unthinkable idea because in our own minds alcohol is the only source of fun we know; stopping drinking means taking away all enjoyment from life. So while we can’t consider stopping drinking we can keep trying to drink less and we make many, many attempts to do precisely this. We try everything we know to change our drinking; we change what we drink, we change where we drink, we try to limit the amount we drink at any one time, we try to only drink at certain times or on certain days, we try to stop for a spell… but nothing works. We repeat this time after time trying one way then another to bring our drinking under control but the result is always the same; we end up drinking exactly like we did before. Controlling our drinking is not an option available to us because it cannot be done; the gross imbalance and power of the reward system, our altered mental state brought on by alcohol-tolerance, and our biased memory make this impossible. Even though we can come to the intellectual decision that we have to drink less this has no impact whatsoever on the reward system because the reward system operates before, and entirely independently of, conscious thought. The reward system is completely unaffected by our intellectual decision to try to reduce the amount and frequency of what we drink. It still wants us to drink, it still wants us to drink more, it still wants us to drink now and it uses dopamine to compel us to do so. When we try to reduce our drinking and defy cravings then the pressure of the cravings mounts and they keep coming. Our minds pitch “drinking is bad” (supported by evidence) against “drinking is good” (supported by feelings) and the persuasive strength of feelings makes “drinking is good” prevail. But this conclusion leaves an unsatisfactory gap. There are facts on the “drinking is bad” side but few equivalent facts to support the “drinking is good side”, so our mind steps in to try and find facts that fill this void.
Our mind actively generates plausible rearrangements of facts to justify drinking and by doing so reduce the dissonance. Whenever we try to manage our drinking our mind actively works against us and sabotages any attempt to either reduce what we drink or stop for a spell. Our mind actively encourages us to drink and it supports denial. While we attempt to avoid shame by telling other people things that make our drinking appear more acceptable our mind creates plausible reasons that encourage us to drink again: it creates evidence for the “drinking is good” side of the argument. Drinking more at a time when drinking is causing us so much difficulty isn’t easy to justify, so there are only a limited number of ways to spin this positively and most alcoholics experience exactly the same arguments within their own minds:-
“Just one won’t hurt” This justification is a trap; just one will hurt. If we have one drink then we have placed ourselves in the presence of alcohol and this causes drinking triggers to fire relentlessly. Not only do the cravings come as soon as our glass is empty they come with incredible intensity as the power of the craving depends on how close we are to alcohol. So once we start drinking we are powerfully compelled to have another and our intent to have “just one” is crushed.
“Perhaps you weren’t that bad” Sustained sobriety is built on three pillars; that it is necessary to stop drinking, that it is possible, and that it is worthwhile. This justification strikes at the idea that stopping drinking is necessary. The abject misery of our existence while drinking is actively faded with the passage of time and with it so does our resolve. The necessity of our course becomes less certain, but actually, nothing has changed… it only appears to have done so. This justification appeals to the idea that we can enjoy drinking if we only control it properly this time. But this idea is truly preposterous. We cannot control our drinking. We have attempted this countless times and failed every time. Another attempt will not bring a different result.
“You’ve done well, you deserve a drink” This idea comes when we’ve decided to give drinking a rest for a period, whether it’s a few hours or a few days. Withdrawal begins when we don’t drink and this raises fear, restlessness, anxiety etc. This is when this idea pops up, but it is both an excuse and a lie. Having a drink is not a good way to reward ourselves for not having had a drink… this is a lie, and inventing a reason to celebrate is an excuse.
“Poor me!” Self-pity corrodes our determination to not drink: “Poor me, poor me… pour me another drink!” If we start feeling sorry for ourselves then we dwell on our problems and when we dwell on our problems then related issues are also brought to mind. Soon our life appears to be nothing but problems. When we feel sorry for ourselves we bring on distress and once we have become alcohol-tolerant then distress is one of the most commonly activated and powerful drinking triggers that we have. We bring on intense cravings when we feel sorry for ourselves and we do this entirely within our own minds; no external stimulus is involved.
“No-one will know” This justification is a complete misdirect. The “no-one will know” justification is not about alcohol, it is about shame. Our real problem is that alcohol is destroying our lives, whereas shame is about being seen to be drinking in ways that others don’t approve of. The idea is that if we drink and don’t get seen then we can avoid being shamed. This justification causes us to drink secretly, which allows us to drink more without accumulating shame in the short term but it also deepens our addiction and adds more to our burden of lies, guilt and secrets. Drinking secretly does not avoid the angst; it moves it to later on and makes it worse.
The last justification is also one of the most insidious: “A drink will make me feel better.” This one is the most challenging to deal with because it is completely true. Drinking will make us feel better in the short-term but it makes the problem even more severe in the longer term. This justification however explicitly targets one of our vulnerabilities: we strongly discount the value of something later over the value of something now. It is enormously convincing.
The reward system continues to operate precisely as it did before regardless of what drink-related conclusions we have reached. It operates entirely independently of any conscious thought processes and our brains launch unbelievably compelling cravings when we don’t drink. If we resist the cravings then our mind generates plausible seeming reasons why we should drink, and why we should drink now. Once we start to drink then we are in the presence of alcohol (we are close to it) so the intensity of the cravings is magnified and we are vigorously encouraged to continue.
We cannot moderate or control our drinking. Once our brains have become alcohol-tolerant then we already lack the means to manage how much we drink. This is an absolute truth; no-one has ever managed to overcome this. It was written in 1939 that “Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet.” This is still true. Despite countless failed attempts to moderate our drinking we still keep trying because the thought of being without alcohol is so appalling to us. But we can’t control our drinking and we never will because we lack the means to do so. There is a simple and obvious proof that we have lost control of our drinking, but denial prevents us from recognising it: if we could control our drinking then we would have done so a long time ago.
For as long as our minds uphold the ideas that “drinking is good” and “drinking is fun” then we also collect any evidence that supports this. Our minds arrange denial around three fundamental ideas: stopping drinking is not necessary, stopping drinking is not worthwhile, and stopping drinking is not possible. While these ideas prevail then stopping drinking serves no purpose. But these three ideas all have something in common and that is that they are all false; they appear real, but they are false. The idea that stopping drinking is not necessary is supported by evidence that other people drink, some people drink more than we do and that we don’t look like alcoholics: alcoholics live under bridges, are dirty and drink from brown paper bags. That stopping drinking is not worthwhile is supported by the feeling that there is no fun in life except in drinking. If we stop drinking then we believe we are destined to be miserable for the rest of our lives; we have a terrible fear-of-missing-out. And the idea that stopping is not possible is based on our own experience… it doesn’t matter what we try, or how hard, we always end up drinking the same as before. Denial is woven from a fabric of lies, yet even though these ideas are false we believe them completely and dissonance continues to polarise until we end up trapped in a position where we can’t stop drinking, but we can’t carry on either.
All alcoholics face this time of extreme inner conflict when the primal insistence that we continue drinking is challenged by irrefutable evidence that our continued drinking is disastrous. We are presented with what seems an impossible choice, but normal drinkers can’t see this position. They look at all the harm that our drinking is causing and to them the choice is both simple and obvious: stop drinking! But it is far from obvious to us. We do not think we should stop drinking because our memory tells us otherwise, our feelings tell us otherwise and the justifications echoing in our brain tell us otherwise. When someone suggests that we should stop drinking then what we hear is that they want us to give up happiness for the rest of our lives. What our brain says is that drinking is fun, drinking is the only fun we know, so to be completely without alcohol is unimaginable to us. To us a life without alcohol means a life without fun… forever, and that is a terrifying thought. Who would willingly choose this option? To be willing to give up fun forever requires that the alternative is even worse. So we continue to drink and the alternative does precisely that, it gets worse.
Eventually our denial begins to break down. The first of the three ideas to fail is that “Stopping drinking is not necessary”. This idea is supported by the hope that if we just try a little harder then we will be able to control and limit how much we drink and how often. What we are really seeking is a way to carry on drinking but without all the trouble that comes with it. We persist with this belief for as long as is humanly possible, because if we acknowledge that we are unable to control our drinking then the remaining alternatives are utterly appalling; we either carry on drinking and things get worse and worse and worse, or we stop drinking and are condemned to be miserable for the rest of our lives. But eventually we become so desperate to escape the misery of our entrapment that we will try almost anything to break free of it and that is when denial collapses. When denial is broken, then and only then, does recovery become possible.