Denial Ain’t a River in Africa

One of the most interesting–and potentially deadly–things about addictive disease is the denial. There’s a saying around the 12-step rooms (and around treatment centers) that addiction is the disease that tells you that you don’t have it.

Denial can take a number of forms, from minimizing (I only have a couple of beers, maybe twice a week; I can quit any time, I just don’t want to; I only use drugs and alcohol socially) to making excuses (If you were married to that so-and-so you’d need a couple of drinks occasionally too!) to comparing (He drinks a lot more than me, I’ve never been in jail, I’ve never…) and so forth.

One of the least recognized ways that we convince ourselves that we are doing OK is selfishness. Most of us understand that our use of chemicals* hurts others, and most of us have enough common decency to feel badly about it. That is not to say that these feelings are nearly strong enough to cause us to stop, but they cause considerable discomfort. Since one of the prime excuses for turning off our brains is discomfort, it is easy to see the connections.

On occasion, however, I came face to face with the facts–or else needed to avoid doing so. Someone might have mentioned that I seemed to be drinking more. My reaction might have been one of the above, or simply the remark (also common to people who ride motorcycles without helmets) that it was my life, and I wasn’t hurting anyone else.

This assertion is clearly ridiculous, looking back from nearly twenty years of sobriety, but when I said it back then, I really meant it. My further response was usually to distance myself from whoever said it, taking the position (perfectly reasonable to me) “if they don’t like the way I live my life, f**k ‘em!” (Who wants to hang around with a bunch of people who are always looking over your shoulder, waiting for you to screw up, right?) That particular form of denial is called, not too surprisingly, avoidance, but the selfishness is the truly interesting one, because it forced me to ignore so many obvious facts.

To begin with, as the poet said, “No man is an island, entire unto itself….” I had a wife, an ex-wife, and two daughters who considered my continued existence important, not to mention a mother, two brothers, a sister, and a host of other relatives, friends and co-workers. Those are the folks who would have had to deal with the fact of my death or disability, and some of them would, in the latter case, have had to care for me for perhaps the rest of my life. Sort of silly to say that your life’s your own when others own such a big piece of it, isn’t it?

Then there’s the rest of the death and disability part. Someone would have had to clean up the mess, both immediate and the resultant financial and inheritance issues. They almost certainly would have had to do that while grieving, and perhaps through some well-deserved anger as well. The insurance premiums of everyone in my class of insured would have gone up. If I were disabled, someone would have had to pay for the care I’d have needed for however long.

In the case of my death, my kids would have been deprived of knowing me as adults, able finally to appreciate me for all of who I am, and my granddaughter would never have met me at all. My plans for trips to the zoo, the marsh to look at birds, helping her to learn about the world–all of those would have been as nothing. My wife would have been deprived of her best friend, my mom and siblings of someone dear to them.

Yeah, it was my life, and I could do with it as I pleased.

Looking back, I’m tempted to exclaim, “what could I have been thinking,” yet I know perfectly well what was going on in my head, albeit unconsciously. I was protecting my drug of choice, and protecting myself from the fear of what might happen if I didn’t have it always available to me. I managed to convince myself, for quite some time, that the feelings and well-being of the people closest to me didn’t matter.

Addiction works on a portion of the brain that is not subject to logic–a more primitive part that is involved with survival issues. The reaction of that portion of the brain to the removal of addictive substances is basic: we need that, or we are going to die. This is below the level of cognitive thought, like the startle reflex and the instinctive shying away from an anticipated blow. We can’t think it away. It begins to be retrained when we become convinced that if we continue to use we well suffer. Short of that, little is likely to happen. Combine these primal instincts with the physical and overt emotional discomfort that accompany withdrawal, and most of the cards are stacked against the addict.

In the time since I got sober I’ve seen this powerful force messing with people’s heads innumerable times, in the rooms of my 12-step groups, as a worker in the addiction treatment field, and on the street. I want to grab people and shake some sense into them, and yet I know that never works. I wasn’t ready until I was ready, and until something more powerful than me began to break the denial down. It’s the same for all addicts.

That’s how powerful denial is. That’s how powerful addiction is.

*When I use the terms “addiction,” “drugs” and “chemicals,” I am also referring to alcohol and alcoholism. There is no essential difference, apart from legality. Alcohol is not only a drug, it is one of the most deadly.

6 thoughts on “Denial Ain’t a River in Africa

  1. Bill Post author

    PLEASE do yourself the biggest favor of your life, get a sponsor, and go through the steps. I fooled around with “half measures,” and some of the effects are still haunting me, 23 years later. I’m dealing with issues right now that I could totally have avoided with a truly searching inventory, 5th step, and all the rest. Don’t mess around with this, Carly-Dee. The process has been developed with trial and error over more than seven decades. You are not going to reinvent the wheel, any more than any of the other folks who have tried to fool themselves.

    Take it from me. It’s worth overcoming the fear and getting it right the first time.

    Keep on keepin’ on — and GET A SPONSOR!



  2. Carly-Dee

    Thanks Bill :) I think I could benefit from more meetings. I don’t have a sponsor and I haven’t done the steps yet. A girl offered to go through the first 3 steps with me. I think this will really help. I just want to put this doubt to bed!
    I really relate to what you said, about being closer to your idea of what a real alcoholic is. yesterday someone told me (unsolicited) what I was like last year, before I quit. I didn’t really like what I heard but I don’t dispute what they said. I can’t! So I guess I just need to learn to be ok with that.
    I am 10months sober today :)


  3. Bill Post author

    Hi Carly-Dee,

    I used to ask myself questions like that. Then I’d stop and think back to when I was drinking, wanted desperately to stop, and couldn’t. A good look at the chaos it caused usually convinced me pretty quickly that I was closer to being a “real” alcoholic than I ever wanted to be again!

    Perhaps it’s time to hit some extra meetings, and check with your sponsor to see if she thinks you are ready to start working with a newcomer. Nothing like it to clarify our thinking about our own conditions.

    Keep on keepin’ on!



  4. Carly-Dee

    Great article. It makes a lot of sense. I’m going to be 10months this weekend and although I’m sober I still question whether I’m an alcoholic almost daily. I wish I could just accept it and start to build myself up again. I don’t know what to do really. I’ve heard the phrase dry drunk before. I’m just staying sober every day and hoping that one day the penny will drop! Thanks, as ever, for your blog. It’s brilliant.


  5. Bill Post author

    Dear Brandi,

    Your husband is simply mistaken. How many of the people you know outside of his social circle stay drunk and messed up all the time? Teachers? Clergy? The mailman? The people in the stores you visit? About one in ten people drink or use drugs heavily. That leaves a huge majority who are straight all or most of the time.

    His mom had it wrong. It takes a strong woman to leave. Among other things, she needs to be able to ignore coercion and bad advice from people who obviously don’t have her best interest in mind. You need to leave and immediately file for custody of the kids. It’s too late for your husband and his son — unless they decide they have to get better on their own — but perhaps not too late for the younger kids. Be absolutely honest with your lawyer, and there’s not a chance in heck of your husband getting custody.

    You also need to immediately hit some Al-Anon meetings. There you will meet other women who have been or are in the same situation, and will not only get support but information to help you cope with these issues.

    You cannot help your husband and his son, but you can help yourself and your own kids, and you have a moral obligation to do so. What will be, will be as far as their use of drugs, but you must do what you can to give them the best possible chances.

    Good luck,



  6. Brandi

    I have been married for almost 16 years and for almost 13 of those my husband has been drunk or on pills or drunk and on pills. He has not drank in a little over a month before that he had been sober for about 2 months. However now he is using more and more pills. Sleeping pills, Xanax, Valium, and a couple others. He has a script for some and some he buys off the street.
    A year ago his son had to move in with us because he lost his apartment, job, and son due to his alcohol, and pill addiction.
    Then I found out my husband was buying pills from his son and his son then took it as an excuse for him to come home messed up too. Now his son has lost his child again due to another failed drug test. But my husband says oh the cards are stacked against him. Be says it is the babies moms fault because she wants him to play her games?
    Then they tell me that I live in a.fantasy would that everyone dies drugs and my husband says that I better believe our kids 15 and 12.will fit sure drink and do drugs he says this like it is the way of life he does not want to help me try to prevent it?
    I stay so confused and feel so brain washed.
    one time I left cause my husband was drinking and lied. His mom called and said ” I talked to him and he was not drunk he was just a little high, you need to forgive and forget. You know it takes a weak woman to leave and a strong woman to stay”

    Could anyone offer any advise at what to do I feel like I an going CRAZY.
    I am living with 2 alcoholics and addicts!


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