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What to say to an addict in denial?

Getting beyond an addict’s defenses

Addiction is chronic and progressive disease. When we are ready to address issues with drugs or alcohol, friends and family may be faced with great deal of confusion, frustration, and they may not know what to do.

It is a challenging task to try to help to someone that may not want to be helped at all. The person having the problem often fails to recognize that there is one, and trying to have a simple heart-to-heart conversation can sometimes seem offensive to the person in trouble. So, how can you get beyond the walls of defense?

Defense mechanisms may require professional help

Addicts in denial often use defense mechanisms and are unwilling to seek treatment. These mechanisams are really strong feelings that often require a more focused, structured approach. This is when the guidance of a professional interventionst, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, or addiction specialist is needed.

To help us understand more about the process, we called in a professional. Steve Danzig, LCSW, LADC, CCS, BRI-I is a masters level clinical social worker, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, a certified clinical addiction specialist and a founder of DANZIG Interventions and DANZIG Counseling Services. With his 20+ years of experience as a clinical social worker, he is more than qualified to understand the complexities of human behaviour.

Explaining denial and its solutions

In this Q&A, Steven helps explains to us the feelings of denial that addicts are going through – and the defense mechanisms they use – so you’ll be able to understand their behavior. Plus, Steve will talk more thoroughly about some strategies for addressing common defense mechanisms. Finally, he’ll explain when and why professional help is needed.

If you have a friend or family with addiction issues, please read the whole interview. We hope to provide you with some basic information on what you can do when faced with denial, but if you still have any questions, please address them in the comments section below. We will make sure to provide you with a personal, prompt response.

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ADDICTION BLOG: To begin, what is a defense mechanism?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: Defense mechanisms are used by many people, often unknowingly, throughout the course of a day. They may be even unnoticeable at times due to the individual not really knowing they’re using them. A defense mechanism is a way of someone diverting your attention away from the truth. Away from feelings, hurt, trauma, addiction, infidelity, theft, etc. They can be very subtle like a very plausible excuse for why something has changed or why they were late coming home, to verbally and physically violent outbursts. The objective of defense mechanisms is the same regardless. It’s to get people to stop looking at the issues the individual is facing. To hide something from you.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some examples of defense mechanisms that addicts use?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: When you are asking your teen if they used alcohol over the weekend and they give you a quick answer, “really? That’s just not me.” and then change the subject immediately after, “I did really well on that test.”, that is a defense mechanism. Folks will deny the existence of an issue. Project onto another person. In other words they may blame someone else for their issue, “well if you didn’t…then I wouldn’t have to…”

These are common, easily identified forms of defense mechanisms. There are other deeper levels which may indicate the presence of deeper psychological issues as well.

ADDICTION BLOG: Why do defense mechanisms surface in an intervention?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: In a formal intervention, the identified patient, “IP”, is typically an individual with a problem that needs attention. However, the IP either does not want help or does not yet recognize that there is a problem. Generally speaking an intervention goes very smooth or it doesn’t. The defense mechanisms surface immediately during an intervention. From the moment the IP enters the area where the intervention is being help, the defense starts. If the intervention is going to be difficult the IP will enter into a diatribe of reasons why the alcohol, drugs, food, sex, etc. is not the problem. It’s my relationship, my boss, my car, my classes, the list will go on and on as to why the person uses and somewhere in their mind they truly believe that if all of these life circumstances were different that they wouldn’t need chemicals to help them through their grueling day to day existence. The focus of an intervention is to help the IP understand that they may certainly have difficult situations in life, as we all do, but their response is exacerbating those issues in addition to creating so many more.

ADDICTION BLOG: How often are addicts convincing themselves that there is no problem? How does the brain do this?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: Someone with an addiction has mastered the art of convincing themselves that neither they nor the substance are the problem. The problem is everything else. The brain goes through a sort of restructuring when an addiction is present. I say addiction because there is a difference between someone who is dependent on a medication and someone who has an addiction. Addiction indicates the presence of the undesirable behaviors: lying, stealing, legal trouble, family issues, etc.

The brain is extremely complicated to say the least. The best way for lay people to identify with this process is to look at it as another personality of your loved one. Similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Once Mr. Hyde is let out he does not want to go back in, he wants to play, in his way. This is a very similar process to the brain functioning of someone with an addiction. Mr. Hyde is in charge now. The job at hand is to help Dr. Jekyll reemerge.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some good strategies for addressing denial?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: Addressing denial can be difficult. But the individual will always contradict themselves at some point. That is your opportunity to try and get to the truth. I tend to avoid the ‘throwing back in their face approach.’ When someone has verbally backed themselves into a corner, this presents you with an opportunity to try and get them to clarify what they just said. Be careful because no one likes to be backed into a corner. They will prepare for a fight. This is why you keep a level head and continue the discussion. Getting through denial is never a one conversation issue. It takes time and planting seeds.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are three (3) of the most effective statements that you can use? What’s worked for you in the past?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: 1. “You’re right”. I don’t believe most people want to say this to someone with an addiction. However, in their mind what they are doing is justified. The stigma around addiction is profound in our society. Most people address someone with an addiction as a sub-human. Even parents will get to this point. Someone who is addicted is always prepared for a verbal argument. They become disarmed when they are told, “you’re right”. This assists them in legitimizing their response to the hand they’ve been dealt. That is where change can begin.

2. “I don’t understand.” This statement would be in addition to the first. I say this because many times people will respond to their loved one by saying “I get it”, “I understand.” Addiction is an issue that the IP will tell you, you don’t understand. To a large extent they are correct. Once the individual has become dependent on a substance the brain chemistry has been altered, along with the way they think, act, process information, etc. This is an issue that impacts every area of an individual’s life save none. Most people just don’t have the perspective to identify with such an all-encompassing life.

3. “If you were in jail and had the key, wouldn’t you let yourself out?” It may seem trivial but this statement at the right time in someone’s life can be transforming. I heard this from a very wise woman many years ago. It plants a seed for folks that they might have something to do with their current situation. And that maybe they can do something about it.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some of the common excuses that addicts or alcoholics continue to make for their drinking or drug use during a relapse, for example? How can family members react to a relapse?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: If your loved one has recently come out of a treatment program. Have a contract. The family should be working with the counselor at the treatment center to come up with a contract for when your loved one comes home.

When someone has relapsed they will either come and fess up about it or they will begin the hiding, again. Unfortunately, relapse rates are very high among this population, but that doesn’t need to be the case. The excuses will mimic much of what the family experienced before the individual entered recovery. Coming home late, not knowing where money went, items missing from the home, etc. Most families will not want to believe that their loved one has relapsed, much the same way as they didn’t think that person had a drug problem. Part of a contract should be drug/alcohol testing. If you think your loved one has relapsed or is using again, give them a drug test. You WILL know by the answer they give you.

ADDICTION BLOG: Should a family always seek professional help to address denial? In what cases can/should a family deal with addiction on their own?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: If there is someone with an addiction in your life then you are already dealing with them. It may be on a daily basis, but you are unknowingly part of their support network. And not in a healthy way. Addiction is a family issue and involves everyone. A family does not always need to seek professional guidance on issues. However, If you are reading this article and saying, “oh my gosh, this is us” then it’s probably a good idea to consult someone in the addictions field.

Families can start dealing with an individual by asking hard questions and asking for the answer. As defense mechanisms go, you will have found yourself in a 20 minute discussion with your loved one and realize you still didn’t get an answer to the question you asked. When your loved one begins escalating in behavior verbally, it’s time to call someone. It means they are getting more protective of the issue and are working harder to push you off the trail.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some of the benefits of working with a professional interventionist?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: Benefits of working with a professional interventionist is that they will assess the information you give them and determine whether or not you need their services. I have received numerous phone calls over the years from folks who go straight to intervention when they find out someone has an issue. Many times they have simply not asked the individual if they desired to do something about it. A good interventionist will listen to what you say and can usually determine a course of action which may or may not require a full clinical intervention.

However, I have also received the same amount of calls from people over the years that did require professional services of an interventionist and did not utilize that option. Doing an intervention is not just about reading some letters and bullying someone into treatment. It is a very well-orchestrated rehearsed event that takes everything into consideration. Who will be there, who won’t, where will it be, who will read first, second, etc. These reasons and many more are why it is crucial to have an experienced interventionist to work with. You may only have one opportunity to get someone help.

ADDICTION BLOG: Also, what exactly is the role of friends and family in dealing with addiction? How can they best help?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: Friends and family are the first line of defense when a loved one is sliding down the path of addiction. Someone who is walking that path will increasingly separate themselves from friends and family. Friends will notice first. The individual will start “replacing” friends for ones that are more tolerant of drug use. Inevitably ones that are engaging in similar behavior.

  • If someone’s behavior does feel right, ask. If you feel like they are making excuses, ask. Ask other friends, ask family, ask the individual. If your gut/instinct is telling you something’s wrong, then something is wrong.
  • I have stood at many gravesites, many friends and many others because of addiction. In my youth I didn’t think there was anything I could do, so I did nothing. I learned a very hard lesson that I never will stand next to another grave saying “I should have…”
  • I think you need to ask yourself when you’re in that position; Do I want someone alive that might hate me? Or wished I’d done anything.
  • Do whatever you can. The disease of addiction kills daily. The numbers of people overdosing are completely out of control. You are not helpless.

ADDICTION BLOG: Can an intervention fail? If yes, what are the most common reasons for an unsucssesful intervention and how to prevent them?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: Interventions average about 95% successful when performed by a licensed, experienced interventionist, that the IP will go to treatment that day. Generally, the few remaining percent will go to treatment within a few weeks provided there is a plan in place for that contingency. Any interventionist that knows their work will prepare the family with a solid plan in case the IP does not go to treatment.

There are many reasons an intervention will not be successful. One reason is lack of information provided by the family. Usually this involves some co-occurring mental health issue. The family may minimize what is actually going on with the IP. Possibly out of fear that the interventionist may not want to do the job. If an intervention is appropriate then there will be a way to facilitate it. This is what we do.

Another reason for interventions not going as planned is that a family member may change their mind. This typically happens when an intervention is difficult. The parent or whoever feels bad, guilty, or that they’re ganging up on their loved one. And they change their mind. Once they’ve shifted their focus the IP knows instantly. They can feel the energy shift from that person and realize they have an ally. This is very bad.

These reasons are why you need to have an interventionist with experience, that knows family systems, theories, applications of different therapeutic approaches. They will be able to identify the family structure and hierarchy. All families have an alpha and so on. The interventionist needs to know whom to use, who has power and who is back-up.

ADDICTION BLOG: Is there anything else you would like to share?

DANZIG INTERVENTIONS: In addition to why work with an interventionist. One of the biggest reasons is to manage the intervention in the best way possible and selecting the proper treatment program. Over the last decade there has been a proliferation of treatment programs throughout the U.S. If you were to go online and simply look up treatment you will be inundated with the amount of programs. It’s easy to have a beautiful website in a desirable location. There are interventionist that work specifically with some programs and only refer to those programs. This is not a one size fits all. An independent experienced interventionist vets all programs he/she works with. They will make a recommendation based on your loved one and what is they best possible program that will address the needs they are bringing to the table. My philosophy around treatment selection and those programs that I refer to is; “If I wouldn’t send my kid there, I’m not sending yours”.

Leave a Reply

11 Responses to “What to say to an addict in denial?
Norma
6:29 pm October 1st, 2015

Do you have an opinion on GO Sober?

Jdh
7:38 pm October 25th, 2015

My girlfriend an i have been smk crack for 10yrs we met like this i got divorced after 22 yrs we always say we need to quit but everytime we get $ in our pocket its on an the paronoid is out the box for her now im becoming as paronoid asher it started out it was sex and fun now its scary an nerve racking out of controll

2:03 pm October 26th, 2015

Hi Jdh. It’s obvious you guys need help and I’m glad you are aware of it. Do you have families that would help you afford treatment? You can call the number that you can find displayed in the upper right corner of our site. It’s a free helpline and you will get in touch with our trusted treatment providers who will help you determine the best treatment programs and options that you need.

Leslie
3:42 pm November 6th, 2015

My husband had been using drugs mainly pot, but he does a past of using cocaine heavily. His a an alcoholic too and just recently I realized that he has a major porn/sex addiction. When got together 10 years ago I knew smoked pot, but didn’t know it’s an addiction and I didn’t know the others were too. Over the years he has revealed that he had a traumatic childhood. His father was an alcoholic too to who would verbally and physically abuse him and his older sister. His sister need up marrying a heroin addict who she thought was clean, he over dosed this past May. That sent husband into a dark place as well. That was his brother. We have fought hard and slot over the years. I was raised not to crap from people so I defend myself. Well this hasn’t worked out well with my husband. Cause I didn’t realize he had such a problem until recently. So I would fight/ argue with him cause I couldn’t understand why he would chose those things over and our kids. So we argued slot. I had never dealt with addiction before so I didn’t know how to handle it. We have gone through some real rough patches lately and he now blames me for his addictions. I took that to heart and blamed myself for so long. We are separated right. His mom has tried to confront him with no success cause as soon as they would leave I would get the anger. But he blames me cause of my anger. I realize I was so angry cause I didn’t realize the disease he has. He refuses to get help. His parents enable him and I did for while, but couldn’t do it anymore it was taking over our family and mainly our children. He doesn’t see anythingvwrong with what he is doing. He began to sell drugs too which frightened me. I want him to be healthy and happy if not for the marriage for kids and himself. Any advise?

P.S he has admitted that has a problem, but blows it off and continues on like this. He said he doesn’t want to face his demons.

8:25 pm November 10th, 2015

Hello Leslie. I’m very sorry about your problems with your husband. I’d suggest you talking with him about enrolling in proper treatment. If you have questions about addiction treatment and your options, immediate assistance is available. Call our free hotline to speak with a trusted treatment provider. Also, you may consider a family therapy, since addiction affects each member of the family.

Melinda
4:59 am April 25th, 2016

My brother is 46 yrs old. He began smoking Marijuana when he was a teen and his life has spiraled out of control ever since. It’s very heartbreaking, because he already had baseball scouts watching him when he was only in the 8th grade. He was an awesome pitcher and I have no doubt that he could have played professional baseball. The marijuana turned to crack and meth. There is not enough space to tell you all that he has done to screw his life up AND MY PARENTS LIVES TOO. He has lied so much to cover up the drug use. He went as far as to “lose” my Daddy’s truck. His story was that it broke down, he left it and when he went back it was gone. However, he never called law enforcement. My parents just let it slide, because they didn’t want to stress him out I guess. I truly believe that he owed money for drugs and had to let the dealer have the truck. That is only one of the MANY lies.
He has failed numerous drug tests. Just this week he was fired from the best job he has ever had, because he tested positive for marijuana, meth and cocaine. He told me, “the nurse that took my blood said that it was probably a false positive, because I have been taking Ultram and another medication for back pain. She said those two together will show positive for cocaine and meth”.
My husband is in law enforcement and I am in the emergency medical field. We are no strangers to the signs of drug abuse nor the lies they tell. During my brother’s last jail time, which was due to stealing and probation violation, I went before a judge and had him sent to a drug rehab…. Which he failed out of within less than two months. His excuse for testing positive for marijuana was, “I had to ride in a van with guys that are on my work detail and they were smoking it. I never smoked any. I was just around it”. He said the rehab counselor was wrong for kicking him out, because he had no control over it.
He has only spent time in the local jail for approx 7 mo and is now on probation for 10 yrs. EVERYTIME he has been arrested, lost a job, failed a drug test, etc…. He has had an excuse and most of the time someone else caused it or it was a misunderstanding. He is almost always the victim. He denies having a drug problem and denies using. I feel as if I am rambling, but I’m pretty sure you can understand what I am dealing with and my frustration. I know that I can’t help him until he is willing to be honest. What should I do? How do I deal with this? I can be so strong until I see his face and then my heart melts. He is the sweetest brother and would give anyone the shirt off of his back. Why can’t he see that he has a problem? Please help me.

KS
4:15 am May 7th, 2016

I knew my brother did cocaine occasionally but it has recently come to my attention that he has been doing it more frequently and on his own (maybe once or twice a week when he is drinking). I am worried that this is leading to a serious addiction. I asked him once if he felt he had a problem and he told me “yes I do it but only once in a very blue moon when my friends might have it”. I know that he lied and minimized his use. He then went on to say that “I told you the answer to your question and you should believe me”. How do I have a conversation with him and get him to realize that he does in fact have a problem?

Lynn
3:09 am June 7th, 2016

My son is 30, he has been sober for two years. Recently (3 months) we’ve noticed a change in his behavior he has shunned his 3 children, Is always broke, hyper, high strung, life is about him you can’t get him to talk about anything But himself, he disappears. He works hard & makes good money but is always broke. My grandson & ex husband have witnessed him purchasing bags of pills. When we confronted him about his behavior He freaks out sscreaming mad & take offs. What’s next. We don’t know what to do we fear for him & any one who intervenes.

Joanne
4:44 pm June 19th, 2016

My daughter and her baby girl (21 months)left my home 4 days age and has not come back, after 2 days of being gone, I found out where she is living and went there. The apartment she has the baby, is horrific dirty pit with no kitchen. The night before I went there someone overdosed on herion in the driveway. She overdosed 2 months ago while baby was with her Dad. The police say there is nothing they can do. I am so worried for that little baby. My daughter is in such denial saying she is doing nothing wrong.

Lydia @ Addiction Blog
1:26 pm June 29th, 2016

Hi Joanne. I suggest you call the Department of Health and Social Services in your area, and speak with them about your daughter and her baby.

T
9:46 pm August 16th, 2016

My husband went to rehab for meth and alcohol August 2013. Our daughter was born Feb 2014 and he was clean and sober for almost 18months. He has relapsed back into a regular thing. It’s been once a month sometimes twice since May 2015. Longest without meth (although he did drink) was near 60days. Our daughter is 2-1/2, we just bought a new house, he’s gotten a promotion, a new truck. Appearances make him think it’s all ok. Everything seems up and up, but our relationship is spiraling down, every time I confront him after he uses we fight for a couple weeks get back to somewhat normal then it happens again. He now wants a divorce. I don’t. I want him clean and happy but don’t know what to do.

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