I don’t Have a Problem: Substance Abuse, Addiction and Denial

I don't Have a Problem: Substance Abuse, Addiction and Denial

“They try to make me go to rehab, but I don’t have 30 days to be on punishment. My mom thinks I’m fine. And there’s nothing wrong with me. Everybody uses a little sumpin’ sumpin’.”


Addiction Denial

Denial is the biggest hump keeping people from enrolling in a treatment program and improving their life.

Addiction woos us like an obsessive lover, slowly taking over our time, money and every aspect of our lives. Willingly, we succumb to our lusts, unaware of the power of addiction. They say love is blind.

What everyone else can see eludes the addict, who is blinded by substances. This individual becomes emotionally compromised, judgment impaired and unable to ascertain his or her own reflection.

Signs of an Addict in Denial

Lying to themselves and rationalizing their drug or alcohol problems, people try to ignore the disease that has become their one and only love.

If you are the friend or family member of someone struggling, you can help by recognizing the signs of denial and addiction:

Touting the Ability to Stop Whenever They Want

We’ve all heard addicts who say, “I can quit anytime I want,” yet apparently fail to ever want to. The bottle never gets put down, the pills keep going into the mouth or the needle still enters the vein.

In reality, the opposite is true: People can’t stop an addiction anytime they want. They need support and treatment.


We have all heard the phrase “dry drunk”, referring to someone who is sober but has not addressed their core issues and alcoholic-type behaviors. Dry drunks and active users are often angry.

Anger can cover up deeper emotions, and it often stems from guilt. Addicts are not stupid people.

Subconsciously, we know when we have a problem, but we learn to rationalize it, ignore it and hide it. Even through the dirty lens of a mental disorder, we can sense when something is amiss, but we put up defenses to push away a reality too painful to face.

Excuses and Rationalizations

Instead of pondering and evaluating evidence of their problem, people often make excuses and rationalizations for their behavior. We can always find a reason to use substances.

People rationalizing their behavior is normal; everyone does it to some extent. We say we will quit when we get a good job, find a loving partner, or some other malarkey that you and I know won’t change a thing.

Refusing Help

A tell-tale sign of denial is an adamant refusal of help. Somewhere deep within our souls, we know the truth when we hear it. Truth can be painful and difficult to confront. So we hide from it, run away.

Asking someone to get help for an addiction is difficult. The request is usually met with a refusal. Think about it: If someone confronts you with a problem, though your initial reaction may be defensiveness, you are able to consider the legitimacy of your loved one’s words. Not so with denial and addiction.

Addiction Is Serious

Addiction will kill you; it is a life-threatening illness. Untreated, substance-related and addictive disorders have no other end points than jail, insanity or death.

The DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Vol. 5, reports that substance-related disorders and gambling disorder cause changes in the brain that distort thinking, behavior and bodily functions. These pathological changes can last long after the intoxication from the drug of choice fades.

Mental disorders, by nature, skew thinking. There is a neurobiological factor and cerebral dysfunction that makes it very difficult for individuals in active addiction to admit they have a problem.

Beginning to Recover

The first step toward healing is acceptance. Until a person accepts the truth and admits the dream world they pretend to live in is, in fact, a dream world, they will not have the motivation necessary for successful treatment and recovery.

Only about 11 percent of those suffering from addiction actually enter a treatment program. Denial is very common. Admitting there is a problem and seeking help and treatment takes strength.

Lies, Victim Mentality and Self-Centeredness

Those abusing drugs and alcohol (and pathological gambling) have honed lying to a master level. To feed their compulsion, they beg, borrow, steal…and lie. It’s a survival tactic; one cannot maintain a serious addiction for any length of time and remain honest.

Eventually, people start lying to themselves. People stuck in addiction know they are not bad people, yet they experience cognitive dissonance – uncomfortable, irreconcilable thoughts – because their behavior contradicts their values. Telling themselves lies and rationalizations only worsen the disease.

Along with the lies, we tell ourselves, demonstrating a victim mentality and acting in self-centered ways are signs of addiction. Being a sympathy seeker feeds our need for rationalizing our addictive behavior. “I can’t help it; my life is so hard” Statements are meant to draw sympathy and an excuse to drink or use.

There is something narcissistic about being an addict. Here again, it’s not intentionally done; it evolves as a product of the illness. Over time, the person puts their desire for their addictive behavior above all else, including people. They unwittingly become selfish.

Promises and Blame

Failed promises go hand in hand with compulsive behaviors. We mean well. We just can’t follow through.

Someone going through stages of addiction denial will inevitably make promises of cutting back or controlling their behavior. What they haven’t learned yet is there is no controlling addiction.

Blaming other people and circumstances for drug and alcohol abuse is another common characteristic of denial. Some common excuses addicts use to transfer responsibility are:

  • Parent(s) used or were abusive
  • Critical or difficult mate
  • Stressful job
  • Difficult children
  • Loneliness, depression, anxiety or other mood disorder

Reminding your loved one what they were like before substance use can help them see that drugs have had an effect. Those of us dealing with addiction know firsthand that goals, dreams, work and relationships fall to the wayside when we’re using. Being reminded of who we used to be when we were sober can be jarring.

How to Help an Addict in Denial

Living with an addict in denial practically requires sainthood. However, there are ways you can help your loved one see that they do have a problem. People in denial need a wake-up call.

Here are some things you can do to wake up your loved one in denial:

  • Keep a written record of dates and events that show a pattern of abuse and the behavior of someone intoxicated.
  • Hold an intervention.
  • Use love.

Compassion, kindness and acceptance make incredible differences in the lives of all people. Instead of approaching someone out of frustration with verbal attacks and anger, why not go to them softly and say, “Honey, I love you. I value you (or this relationship). How can we work this out?”

They still may not listen, but don’t give up on them. Taking an empathetic approach allows you to keep your dignity and feel good about yourself.

Continued efforts can make a difference. Keep talking to your loved one when:

  • They are sober.
  • You can remain calm and caring.
  • You can talk without judgment.

Many people in recovery attribute their awakening to a family member or friend not giving up on them.

Weighing In

To those of you who are in recovery, we are curious how long it took you to realize you were in denial. Most people have to be clean and sober for a time before they recognize that they were in denial about addiction and other issues in their lives. How long did it take you?

If you could give one piece of advice to your former self about denial, what would it be?

Join our community discussion about denial and addiction. Answer the questions immediately above in the comment section below, or head to our online forum to discuss these important issues. You might just help someone else in denial!

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