Denial is a safety net for everyone. We deny our problems when we feel overwhelmed by what is required to resolve them; we deny that we are mortal when we fear the death that is the only certainty we all share. We deny that we are facing situations that do not allow us to continue to do what we want, no matter what that may be. Denial is a construct that is firmly embedded into our culture from birth through death. It is a construct created to protect us from harsh realities that we would rather not face. Denial can be seen as an ego defense that shelters the person from truth they feel inadequate to deal with.
As a concept used in treatment of addictive disorders, it was popularly coined in the early-to-mid 1980s when treatment became more widespread and the conversation about addiction became more open. It was used then to describe the denial of an addict and the severity of their drug/alcohol use and problems surrounding it.
The overuse of the word is apparent to all who hear it nearly 30 years later. We know all the slogans and catch phrases created to make it more widespread and socially acceptable to be “in denial.” However, as an ego defense, its use has only increased, not diminished over time.
Denial in the field of addictions’ treatment means that the addict is going to minimize and decentralize their addiction by looking at it as everyone else’s problem, as blaming those around him for his use and abuse of substances, as negotiating to lessen the impact of his abuse and use of substances, and to attempt to protect himself from the ultimate treachery of having to face life without the only measure of comfort he has known, that of using and abusing those same substances. While it is apparent to everyone around him that his addiction is spiraling out of control, he will continue to defend it with whatever weapons he may possess. The sharpest tool in his kit at this juncture may well be his denial of the problems his addiction are creating for him and the social environment he inhabits. Therefore, as trite as the word may be in today’s vernacular, it is important to remember the impact the addict finds in using this old weapon for his seeming survival.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.