Addiction Denial: How It Affects Users and Their Loved Ones

addiction denial

When it comes to addiction, there’s enough denial to go around.

Facing the truth about the chronic brain disease and how it affects people, sometimes permanently, is not easy–not for the one who is battling substance abuse and not for the people who stand by and watch their loved ones go through what could be a fight for their lives.

It’s not something many people want to see and perhaps many more do not want to admit there is a problem. It’s also not easy for some people to acknowledge there may be nothing one can do to help someone on this path. That thought alone could leave one feeling helpless.

Changing how we view addiction

Among the battles people on both sides of the aisle are facing, those with addiction and their loved ones, is changing how they see addiction. Addiction is a chronic and progressive brain disease that affects nearly 1 in 4 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite this, many still see addiction as a character flaw or moral failing or a lack of willpower.

“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to,” writes the National Institute on Drug Abuse on its website. “In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”

Changing how addiction is defined and perceived is only part of the strategy of understanding how to help someone who is struggling with. But as the saying goes, one has to acknowledge there is a problem before one can address it.

Start here: Tell the truth

Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu once said the journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and perhaps the most important step in launching the journey of overcoming substance abuse is telling the truth about what’s happening and why. While seemingly simple in nature, the notion of being honest doesn’t come easy for many, but it is the only way to change the situation and the outcome.

According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), illicit drug use has increased in the US, but a large “treatment gap” remains in the US, the agency reports. In 2013, the last year for which data are available at press time, an estimated 22.7 million Americans (8.6 percent) needed treatment for a drug or alcohol-related problem. However, only about 2.5 million people (0.9 percent) received such treatment at a specialty facility.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health may provide some insight into why there is a gap. In its report based on 2010-2013 combined data, “not ready to stop using” was the second-most reported reason why people did not see treatment for illicit drug or alcohol use; “no health coverage/could not afford cost” was the first.

Though the study did not mention whether addiction denial was behind the “not ready to stop using” reason, it does make one wonder how many didn’t receive treatment because they were unwilling to acknowledge at the time that they needed treatment.

The prison that denial built

Denial, according to Merriam-Webster, is a condition in which someone will not admit that something sad, painful, etc., is true or real. A refusal to acknowledge what is true or real is one way to cope with or perhaps avoid an unwanted reality. It also can serve as a defense mechanism that makes a person feel in control of their situation, even when they may not be.

Denial provides a safe space for people who seek shelter from the truth. But that haven addiction denial creates can quickly turn into a prison that keeps addicts from living their lives in healthy ways, connecting with the people who love them, and getting the help they need to turn their life around.

According to multiple sources, addiction denial falls into two categories, though on the surface they might seem similar.

One kind of addiction denial is considered to be outright dishonesty or flat-out lying as the person sees and knows they have a problem with alcohol or drug abuse. They can see how their abuse of drugs or alcohol is affecting their life, their relationships, maybe even their livelihood.

The other kind of denial is when the person does not see or does not fully see their addiction challenges because they are making excuses, justifications and rationalizations for them.

Beware Dangers of Denial

The dangers of denial include:

  • Achieving sobriety without a recovery mindset, which means relapse is a real possibility
  • Taking on projects with zeal that is beyond what’s normal or expected and developing other addictions (for example, excessive working, exercising, eating etc.)
  • Struggling with anger, depression or other negative emotions that are difficult to overcome

A person in addiction denial may say things such as:

“I don’t have a problem.”
“I can stop anytime I want to.”
“I only drink at X time.”
“I’m not as bad as X person when I do X thing.”
“It’s my life, and I can make my own choices.”

If you say these things or have similar thoughts along these lines when you know you’ve lost
control over your substance abuse challenges, it might be time to seek help.

Lynne Namka, Ed.D, offers advice on how to tell whether denial is at play or not, which could be helpful as a person seeks awareness and considers whether to pursue treatment.

“If you remain in doubt as to whether something is denial or not, bring it to someone who does not have an interest in maintaining the denial — don’t ask your drug dealer if you have a drug problem, for example; ask your counselor instead. Run the idea past them. If you are afraid to do this, it’s most likely denial. If they think it sounds pretty incredible, it might well be.”

If you have come to a place of acceptance that you are struggling with substance abuse and/or addiction and that you do need help and you decide to seek professional help for your addiction, here are a few “dos” to keep in mind.


Remember you are in the driver’s seat and your recovery is up to you. Now that you’ve made the decision to get help and turn your life around, you must find tools and strategies to help you start your new life away from the past, which includes past habits, past people, places, and things. Medical professionals and family and friends can support you as you recover and take time to find the right treatment program.

Keep a supportive network of people around you as you make your transition. Emotional support is important throughout the journey, so make sure you have it from the very start from people who care about you and your success. These may even be people you meet in during your time in treatment or recovery group. After you’ve completed your treatment program, seek out an alumni group and activities that support health and wellness and healthy approaches to managing life’s challenges.

Give yourself time. Recovery is not a sprint, but a marathon, or maybe a journey that can feel like a thousand miles or more. Take one day at a time and remember why you’re on the journey.

Addiction denial affects loved ones, too

When it comes to addiction denial, it’s common to find the person who is battling issues with substance abuse may also be struggling to arrive at the moment of truth.

But what about their loved ones and their reluctance or refusal to admit what could be obvious?

No matter how easy it is to see, family members can struggle with accepting their loved one is an addict and needs help. Families, friends and others can go through a cycle of denial as well that includes enabling their loved one, which is strongly discouraged. As mentioned earlier, addiction is a hard thing for people to wrap their minds around, and despite addiction awareness, stigmas are hard to cast off.

As substance abuse counselor Carole Bennett, MA, writes in a Huffington Post article titled, “Why Does the Family Have Such Difficulty Accepting Their Loved One’s Addiction Issues,” denial emerges as she counsels family members who are dealing with addiction.

Among the protests she hears are, “‘Well, he/she can stop anytime,’ or ‘So he/she has a few drinks too many now and then… you would, too, if you had to deal with all the pressure that he/she has to.’ Or, ‘It’s not so bad, so and so is making way too much out of it.’”

Bennett also said shame and embarrassment are also expressed during counseling sessions as well as guilt. These are heavy burdens to carry, but they are common among people who know someone who is struggling with addiction.


Learn more about the disease of addiction. One way to help loved ones who are struggling with addiction is to first understand what addiction is and how the chronic brain disease affects the person and his or her actions. There are plenty of online resources that provide information and insight into addiction, including ones from NIDA, which offers an overview of drug abuse and addiction here. Also learn about effective strategies that can help during recovery, including whether your loved one will need more time in treatment.

Understand your limitations as it relates to your loved one’s addiction. Experts advise against analyzing a person’s decision to abuse drugs and alcohol, but they encourage friends and relatives to be realistic about what they can and cannot do about the situation. The 3 C’s of addiction recovery is an approach some people use when trying to understand the disease and keep it in perspective. The principles of “I didn’t cause it; I can’t cure it; and I can’t control it” mindset can help you as you aim to support your loved one through their recovery.

Remember to focus on yourself and your needs. It is easy to get lost in another’s challenges out of the sincere desire to help and heal the addicted person. But focusing on another’s addiction, like any other illness, can be intense, which may leave little time for other responsibilities you need to take care of.

When to Let Go

Coming to a point of acceptance about your loved one’s active addiction and how it is affecting their life as well as yours is a process that is unique to each person. There is no right or wrong answer on how to deal with it, but your options may include distancing yourself as your loved one decides whether to stay on their current path or take a new one. As you go through your own journey, consider joining a support group that includes other people whose experiences are similar to yours.

Here at Recovery Hub, we understand how hard it can be to abstain from drugs in the face of an addiction problem. Our addiction specialists are ready and waiting to guide you or a loved one to a healthier and happier way of life free of drugs. For help today, call our 24-7 hotline at (844) 318-7500.

Did you know…?

September is National Recovery Month. During the entire month of September, Recovery Hub is featuring a series and special articles to highlight the struggle and beauty of recovery. Check back here for updates on new features for the month.

One Response to “Addiction Denial: How It Affects Users and Their Loved Ones”

  1. Skeet Clausen

    I lost my son in march 2016 of a heroin laced Fenantyl overdose and have been looking for a support group of other moms,dads,and siblings that have this same unique tragedy and have been unsuccessful in finding this type of support group here in Terre haute, indiana. Please help me heal. I’m desperate for support. Thank you sincerely Skeet Clausen. Travis’ s mom…….


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