“She ate something that made her sick,” rationalizes the mother of an alcoholic. “He just went a little overboard,” says an uncle about his passed out nephew. It is not uncommon to hear parents and loved ones attempt to justify an addict’s damaging behaviors. From an outsider’s perspective, these reactions seem counterproductive. However, for a family that deeply loves their struggling brother or aunt, facing the reality of an addiction can be emotionally overwhelming.
The mixture of feelings families may feel toward their afflicted loved one can lead to family denial. Families might feel resentful while protective, hurt but loyal, afraid but heroic. These emotions contrast and confuse; denial unconsciously becomes the solution, or perhaps more accurately, a coping mechanism.
Next to this bundle of emotions, denial can also mitigate the financial worries that come with helping a loved one. By remaining in a state of denial, the family is free from the time-consuming and costly burden of seeking medical treatment for their family member. Additionally, denial protects the family from the social burden of having “an addict” in the family. It may be a form of saving the family’s reputation.
As you can see, denial is a powerful mechanism that inhibits healing. To enter into the recovery mindset, family denial must first be dismantled. Like a thick vine hurting a tree, denial blocks growth.
4 Strategies for Pushing Through Family Denial
1. Facts. Write down facts connected to the addiction. Once the gravity of the addiction is documented and organized it is much easier to see the problem clearly. We may be able to compartmentalize or ignore memories of recent arrests, but on paper, the arrests become unbiased and factual, showing the problem in a more logical light.
2. Communication. Be open and curious about the “alleged addiction.” It’s easy to fall into denial when you don’t ask questions. Simple questions like, “What took you so long in there?” or “Why are you so sleepy?” can help disable denial for both the family and the addict. This helps the addict see his/her impact on his/her environment. His/her behavior is not unnoticed. Also, being curious can shed light on the depth of the addiction.
3. Respect. By respecting each other, a family can strengthen their sense of trust and closeness. Once trust is established, the road to recovery is less painful. Avoid judgmental thinking; focus on understanding and kindness. It is important that a family not associate addiction with shame, otherwise both the family and the addict are less likely to face the addiction.
4. Learn. Families must prioritize knowledge and strategy rather than emotions like fear or resentment. By recognizing that knowledge instead of denial enables improvement, family members can become empowered and more likely to succeed at reaching or encouraging recovery.
Denial blurs reality; it makes accurate diagnosis or recovery impossible. The first step to healing is noticing the wound. Getting through family denial is crucial for recovery. Do you have questions? Feel free to contact us for help.