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Dealing with Someone That Is In Denial About Their Addiction

On my blog, I received a comment from a reader whose 31-year-old daughter had struggled with heroin and crack for years. My reader was a loving mother who had fought in vain to get her daughter to recognize her addiction. Her daughter would fall off the radar for months at a time, sending her mom into a state of limbo—wondering where her daughter was, and at the same time afraid to find out. Her mom wrote me: “I’m desperate to get inside an addict’s head and learn as much as I can about addiction. You, as a writer and an addict in recovery, can offer so much wisdom, experience, and hope.” This plea made me remember not only my own denial, which persisted for years, but also that of my parents, both of whom died of the consequences of their addiction to legal drugs. My dad died in 2007 of rampant GI cancer and cirrhosis. He died within a month of his diagnosis, and his grandchildren had to watch him disappear. My mother died in 1999 of the lung cancer she’d fought for five years; she was 58 years old. Fifty-eight. … If you don’t think nicotine is a real drug, you should watch someone die because of her inability to quit smoking it. It was recently reported that smoking kills more than half a million Americans every year, and 5 to 6 million worldwide. As the cancer moved into her brain, my mother lost her ability to think; she’d have seizures; and finally she could no longer move.

As kids, we had begged them to quit smoking. My father, a scientist himself, said there was no real proof linking smoking to lung cancer. How’s that for denial? … And of course there was no persuading him to stop drinking. Ever. Even when he landed in the hospital with pneumonia and, during a three-day fever of 104, he detoxed. “He’s having delirium tremens,” his doctor told me, as I watched my father twitch and toss on his ice-bed. It was touch and go, and they gave him three different IV antibiotics to combat the enormous double-lung infection. When he came home, he switched to non-alcoholic beer for a while—till his liver enzymes returned to normal. Then he started in again. For a long time I blamed myself for my father’s drinking. Kids are hardwired to feel that whatever destructive behavior their parents engage in (drinking, fighting, even hitting the kids themselves), it’s the kids’ own fault. And this guilt was part of the reason I used drugs myself. The guilt gave me migraines and all sorts of other physical tension and pain that I needed to not-care about so I could “function.”

Tips For Dealing With Someone’s Denial

Realize: Addiction is a family problem.
It affects not just the addict or alcoholic, but also everyone else close to that person. That means those of us who love an addict ALSO have difficulties relating to addiction—such as constantly thinking about other people’s problems, trying to figure out solutions for them and persuade them to follow our suggestions, and feeling compelled to take care of other people at the expense of our own well being and peace of mind. … People with addiction can’t recover by themselves—they need help. And because addiction is a problem that affects relationships, the people who love them also need help. Getting some kind of support is necessary. Al-Anon is a great start.

Keep the focus on yourself.
This was one of the first things my Al-Anon sponsor told me. “Keep the focus on yourself,” she’d say, when I’d complain about somebody else’s erratic or outrageous behavior. But it seemed so natural to me to look at this person who was acting out and causing me so much worry. It took me years after my own parents died to understand the reason I focused on them so much: I wanted them to take care of me, to show they truly loved me by meeting my expectations for treating me well. Recovery from the consequences of addiction required me to accept reality. I had to accept, as an adult, that my childhood in an alcoholic family would never be the one I would have wished to have. I had to learn to take care of myself, and not expect anyone else to do it for me. At first this seemed an enormous grief; eventually it became liberating. It separated me and my life from the others around me.

Learn to “detach” from others.
As people who love people with addiction, we learn to cling to others because we think we can save them from the pain of their problem. We stick to others even when their problem may not be addiction. By practicing detachment we learn to be driven not by others’ behavior, but by our own internal guide. We learn what we’re willing and unwilling to tolerate in a relationship, and we take care of ourselves rather than trying to change somebody else.


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Guinevere covers news, reviews, and stories about addiction and recovery at her top-rated addiction blog, Guinevere Gets Sober. She is a 46-year-old mom who detoxed from years of using a high level of prescription painkillers in November 2008, and she has been in recovery since then. A professional writer, she has published two books of nonfiction, as well as essays and journalism, and she has written about health issues for 15 years.

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