To an outsider the behavior of an addict is completely irrational. Alcohol or drugs is obviously destroying their life yet they continue to engage in this activity. Even when the substance abuse is pulling the individual towards an early grave, or causing problems for loved ones, they persist with it. Those who have never been dependent on an addictive substance will see this behavior as highly irrational. They do not have the addict’s ability to rationalize the irrational in order to explain away their own self destruction. This individual is not willfully doing something to cause harm to themselves or other people. As far as they are concerned what they are doing is right. This is why directly challenging the substance abuse will often be ineffective because it just puts the addict on the defensive.
Those who have become addicted to alcohol or drugs will be able to justify this behavior in their own mind. When their life begins to fall apart as a result of their substance abuse they will have plenty of excuses for what is happening. Instead of seeing their addictive behavior as the cause of the problem they are more likely to see this as the one thing that is helping them to cope with things. Denial and cognitive dissonance give the addict the ability to explain away their behavior. It is this unique way of thinking that can keep people trapped in addiction for many years and some will never get beyond these justifications.
The justifications that the addict uses to explain away their behavior will sound logically to them. They include the ideas:
* Alcohol or drugs gives them the ability to cope with all the stress that they are experiencing in their life. It is the one thing that they can depend on.
* The problems in their life are not caused by substance abuse. The real culprit is bad luck and other people.
* Those individuals who complain about the addict’s behavior just do not know how to enjoy themselves.
* Those people who do not drink or take drugs lead boring and meaningless lives.
* Substance abuse is the sign that somebody is really creative and special.
* It is other people complaining about the substance abuse that is the real source of the problems. If these interfering people minded their own business everything would be fine.
* If they gave up the substance abuse it would mean living a life of deprivation. They would never be able to enjoy themselves again and it would be more like serving a prison sentence than living.
* Those who give up substance abuse are never going to be happy.
* People working in the recovery community are not really trying to help. They are charlatans and do not really understand substance abuse.
* The risks of substance abuse are exaggerated.
* Even if the individual accepts that addictive behavior can destroy lives they may still believe that they are a special case – an exception to the rule.
Denial is a type of defense mechanism that addicts use to explain away their behavior. It means that the individual can refuse to face the reality of their situation. Humans can use denial as a means to protect their ego, and in some instances this can be a good thing. The individual is not willfully trying to fool themselves, but it is just a way for the unconscious mind to deal with uncomfortable realities. For example, if a person is given a terminal diagnosis by their doctor, and told they only have a short time to live, they can temporarily use denial to soften the blow. This will give them a bit of time to adjust to the news.
In the short term denial can be useful for humans, but if they become trapped in this state of mind it becomes harmful. It means that the individual loses touch with reality. In the case of addiction it means that the individual is able to engage in extremely self-destructive behavior indefinitely. If the individual fails to get beyond their deluded thinking this denial can lead them to an early grave.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when people hold too conflicting ideas at the same time. In most instances this conflict will be in relation to how the individual thinks and how they behave. For example, the individual may know that drinking too much alcohol is harmful, but they regularly engage in this behavior. Such internal conflicts cause tension in the mind so the individual needs to resolve this. People can overcome the cognitive dissonance by:
* They can change their behavior so that it fits in with their thoughts.
* They can change their thoughts so that it rationalizes their behavior.
* They can adopt new thoughts to explain away the behavior.
Using the example of the person who drinks too much they can either:
* Stop drinking too much.
* Abandon the idea that drinking too much is harmful.
* Adopt the new idea that while drinking too much might be bad for other people they are an exception to the rule.
Cognitive dissonance can mean that the individual is unable to see the reality of their situation. They become trapped in ignorance and they will be convinced that their behavior is rational.
In order to escape the downward spiral of substance abuse the individual needs to see beyond their addict logic. This usually occurs when the individual is in a position where they can no longer avoid the reality of the situation and it can happen when:
* The individual reaches a point where they feel so overwhelmed by the problems in their life caused by alcohol and drugs that they can see beyond their denial. Hitting rock bottom means that the individual is sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.
* It is not necessary for the individual to lose everything before they hit rock bottom. Some people will have a high rock bottom where they have lost relatively little but feel ready to stop.
* An addiction therapist can guide a client to see the reality of their situation. The therapist usually doesn’t directly challenge the addictive behavior but instead encourages the individual to see the truth for themselves.
* The addict is often more willing to trust those people who have already escaped an addiction. This sober person will understand their situation and will be better able to explain the reality of what is happening.
* It is usually easiest to communicate with an addict when they are at a low point – for example, they are recovering from a bad hangover. At these times of suffering their denial will usually be at its lowest point.
* If the addict is introduced to some recovery resources such as books, audio, or videos they may be influenced by the content. Even if they are not prepared to accept that they are an addict yet this material can still nudge them in the right direction.
Even when people escape an addiction they can still be at risk of illogical thinking. Those who develop dry drunk syndrome will be physically sober but they will still behave in many ways like an addict. They will treat recovery as something to be endured and they may be just biding time until they once again return to their addiction. In Alcoholics Anonymous they talk about people who haven’t drank for years but have still not managed to become sober.