denial

12 Steps: Surrender

Reservations, Powerlessness and Surrender

Reservations are little ideas, beliefs and loopholes that we leave for ourselves. We reserve the right to hang on to them, not realizing that we are really protecting some aspect of our addiction. Most of us started recovery with some reservations. They may have gone like this:

Opiates are my problem; a little drink now and then won’t hurt me. Alcohol just about ruined my life. I don’t ever want to drink again. Of course, I’ll still smoke a little weed when I’m feeling stressed. I don’t relate well to other women, so I’ll need a male sponsor. If my mother died, I don’t see how I could handle it without picking up. They say we’re as sick as our secrets, but they can’t mean everything. That one thing will never pass my lips.

We may be sincere about wanting recovery, and may be working diligently toward it by going to meetings, doing step work, and almost giving ourselves fully over to the program that’s recommended. But as long as we hold reservations, consciously or unconsciously, we are fooling ourselves.

One of the worst effects of reservations is that this kind of thinking keeps us from bonding with other recovering people. Recovery works because we are a fellowship with a common purpose: to stay clean and sober, and learn how to live that way. We do this by accepting that we can’t do it on our own, and that we need the guidance and support of others who have been successful at what we want to do. Reservations  prevent us from developing the close, trusting relationships that make those things possible.

Fighting is so much a part of addiction — fighting for the next fix, the next drink, the time to use, protecting our ability to keep getting high — that we forget how to stop fighting. When we are able to relax and stop struggling, we begin to gain the benefits of our recovery program, along with a huge sense of relief.

Move Away from the Addiction. Don't Stay and Fight

The problem is that we’re still trying to control our addiction, when what we really need is to let go of that control, let go of our reservations, and accept the reality that our addiction is far more powerful than we are — that we must move away from our addiction, not stay and fight.

Once we are able to surrender, the feeling of relief is amazing! We are no longer forced to twist our thinking around so that we can try to have things two ways at once. We no longer push, push, push back against our program. We no longer have to deal with the stress of always trying to be right, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. We are, at last, able to relax and recover.

We must surrender before we can win!

Why Can’t Recovering Addicts Use In Moderation?

A client asks: If we can change our thinking in order to abstain from using alcohol and other drugs, then why can’t we change our thinking to be able to use in moderation?

Why can't addicts use in moderation?  Think about it: why couldn’t we simply use “in moderation” without all the hassle of detox, treatment, and a program of recovery? If we couldn’t do it then, why should we be able to do it now? Those are the real questions!

The key is “change our thinking.” We don’t think our way out of addiction. We make a decision to get clean and sober, and to follow the suggestions of our program of choice, in order to facilitate abstinence. The thinking and process of our programs of recovery relieve some of the emotional pressures we created with our addiction and equip us to live sober lives, but they do not “cure” the addiction.

Abstinence and the subsequent repairs that our bodies are able to effect in our brains allow our addiction(s) to enter remission. Our brains slowly deactivate the extra receptor sites that clamored for more drugs and caused our compulsion to use, and at the same time the production of chemicals normally found in the brain has to ramp back up from being suppressed by the presence of the drugs. Not until this process is complete — and it can take months — do we reach the point of feeling relatively normal, although we begin to feel better long before the job is done.

Feeling better is part of the problem, too. Because the repairs to our brains depend on abstinence, as long as there are any of a wide variety of abusable drugs in our systems, the repairs can’t take place. And because they also take time, and that means that the desire to use won’t go away entirely for quite awhile; it will come and go. We can easily decide that we’ve been clean for a while so we ought to be able to “handle it.” But if we give in and use, even a little, the repairs to our brain will slow down, prolonging the physical recovery process. It is also quite likely that the combination of reuniting with our old obsession, combined with the indisputable fact that people on drugs do stupid things, will cause us to decide more would be better. Continued use will reverse the recovery process and kick us back into full-blown addiction.

Recovery is not a matter of willpower. If it were, we would have simply ignored the compulsion and stopped. The compulsion comes from a part of the brain that isn’t affected by conscious thought. We can’t think our way into sobriety; we need abstinence too. Here at Sunrise Detox, we see a lot of folks who think that they can use in moderation.  Again, and again, and again….

Denial on the street: “But officer, I slowed way down!”

There's an old cop joke about the guy who rolled through a stop sign, then complained to the officer who stopped him, “Hey, I slowed way down, what's the difference?” Supposedly the officer says to the guy, “OK, fine. I’m going to take this flashlight and hit you on the head. When you want me to slow down, say ‘Slow down!’, and when you want me to stop, say ‘Stop!’”

I answer a couple of dozen emails and blog comments a week, dealing with various aspects of addiction and recovery. Every now and then it becomes clear that someone wants me to cosign a desire to experiment with using again. Most often it’s folks who want to know if I think it would be OK for them to have a glass of wine at dinner occasionally, or folks who have stopped using some drugs but want to go on using another (usually marijuana). So I think it’s time to write a few words about this particular form of denial.

Of course it’s denial! Here’s someone who has had enough problems in their life from using alcohol or other drugs that they have quit, or are trying to. In most cases it is safe to assume it hasn't been the easiest thing that they’ve ever done. Presumably they went through that for a reason. Yet they come to a website that is obviously about encouraging recovery, and inquire if I think it’s OK for them to mess around with their recovery.

Sure, it’s OK, because there’s no recovery involved. If we aren't convinced that we need to remain clean and concentrate on learning to live in such a way that our desire to use is minimized and hopefully eliminated, then we aren't in recovery — whether or not we’re clean. It’s that simple. No such thing as partial pregnancy, and no such thing as being partially in recovery. It’s quite possible that we don’t need to be in recovery. But, if that’s the case, why did we come to the site?

If you think you have a problem, do whatever you can to solve it. Don’t mess around. If you don’t think you have a problem, then live it up. Eventually things will become clear, one way or another.

But don't tell this old cop that you want to slow down.

Things Clients Say In Detox — Denial On The Hoof

We thought we would list some of the things that we hear clients say.  You can substitute any drug for any other drug in any statement or comment.  Denial ain’t just a river in Africa, remember?

I don't even know why I'm here.  I'm not an addict.

You're here for some reason.  You didn't just walk in to see what it was like.  Some major problem in your life got you through the doors.  You may as well hang out for a while and see if we can help you with the problem — whatever it is.

Marijuana isn’t addictive, because there’s no withdrawal.

It is true that years ago there was no noticeable withdrawal from marijuana use, but in those days cannabis had only about 1/10th the active ingredients that today’s hybridized varieties have.  Even then, chronic users often had trouble quitting.

Today, there is acute withdrawal that involves irritability, sleeping difficulties, mood swings, loss of appetite and other issues.  We also know that there is a post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) that  includes depression and cognitive disorders, and that can last for many months.

I'll stop drinking, but I'm still going to smoke a blunt now and then.

Recovery requires abstaining from all mood-altering drugs.  We cannot pick and choose.  All drugs work on our reward system.  Addiction occurs when the reward system loses the ability to make us feel good without the extra stimulation of drugs.  If we continue to stimulate the reward system so that it cannot return to normal, then we will continue to have cravings.

I only drink wine or beer.

All ethyl alcohol (ethanol) affects the human body the same way, and one six-ounce glass of wine, one 12 ounce beer, and one shot of 80 proof liquor all contain roughly the same amount of alcohol.

I only drink on weekends.

It is not important when we drink.  What matters is how much, and why.  If we are waking up with a hangover, which is really alcohol withdrawal, we are drinking enough to cause changes in our brains, even if we only do it two or three days out of the week.  And are we really remaining totally abstinent the rest of the week, or are we having a couple to “relax” each evening?  If that is the case, why do we need alcohol to relax?

I only use (pick a drug) occasionally, so I won’t become addicted.

There are millions of addicts who have found out the hard way that, despite their denial, the occasions tend to get closer and closer together until they have merged, so that we need the drug to be comfortable.  When we are more comfortable under the influence of drugs than we are without them, we are well on the way to addiction.

Alcohol doesn’t bother me; I can drink all my buddies under the table.

Increasing tolerance for alcohol or any other drug is the first sign of addiction.  If we can drink, snort, swallow or shoot more than we used to be able to handle, we’re in trouble.

“I can take it or leave it.”  (I just choose to take it.)

Put it down and don’t touch it for two weeks.  Let us know how that works for you.  Try it again.  Learn anything about denial?

I only have a couple of drinks at home, just to relax.

There is nothing wrong with that, unless we cannot relax without the drinks.  In that case we need to do some hard thinking.  We also we need to look at what we consider a “couple of drinks.”  A standard drink is one shot of 80-proof liquor, one six-ounce glass of wine, or one 12-ounce beer.  “Topping off” is cheating.  So is filling an iced-tea glass with ice and booze and calling it “a drink.”

My whole family drinks like me.

Alcoholism has a strong hereditary component, as do some other addictions.  Need we go on?

The bottom line is this: If drugs, including alcohol, are causing problems in our lives, whether they be hangovers, missing work, “discussions” with our spouses or partners, DUI’s, or any other issues, then they are a problem.  There are no two ways about it.  Either they cause problems or they don’t.  Then the big question becomes why we are continuing to do something that continues to cause us problems.

Now that is a good question — a very good question.

Denial Ain’t Just A River In Africa

When we get into recovery, regardless of the path we take, it won't be long until someone tells that us we are in denial about something. In fact, the chances are good that we heard that a number of times before we even thought about recovery. But what is denial?

Actually, denial is an important part of coping with day to day living. If we accepted as fact everything unpleasant that someone said about us, we wouldn’t be able to function very well, if at all. If we weren’t able to put aside the tragic reality of a death in the family and tend to business, we’d never be able to get through it. Denial helps us overlook the rough spots in life so that the immediate impact is lessened, and we can deal with the issues gradually. However, it becomes a problem when we use it to help us ignore important issues.

Denial is of interest to addicts (and therapists) when it gets in the way of our recognition of behavioral problems. We alcoholics and other addicts use denial to smooth the path of our addictions, help us ignore the cold, hard facts, and continue doing what our instincts tell us we have to do. It becomes automatic. In order to recover we need to be able to recognize denial, become able to see the effect it is having on our recovery, and adjust our thinking. As the old 12-step saying goes,

Lying to others is rude, but lying to ourselves is often fatal.

There are many forms of denial, and all sorts of names to describe them. We’ve listed some of the common ones, with examples of how we use them to protect our addictive behavior. There are dozens of other examples and names, but denial generally falls into the following categories.

Normalizing: “Everyone has a few drinks on a weekend” (their birthday, to celebrate, during the game, etc.) “A couple of beers never hurt anyone.” (See minimizing)

Minimizing: “I only had a couple! (Of 6-packs). “I only drink socially.” (Five nights a week) “I might have had a couple more than I should have.” (I couldn’t stand up.)

Rationalizing: “I don’t have a problem, I’ve quit for months at a time. I just don’t feel like stopping right now.” “I have to socialize with people, it’s part of my job!” “It’s a prescription drug; my doctor knows what he’s doing.”  “I deserve it!”

Comparing: “Joe’s been married three times, in jail twice, lost his license and has to go to those meetings. That’s what happens when you drink too much. I’m doing fine.”

Uniqueness: “You don’t understand.” “If I go to treatment now, the business will fall apart and fifty people will lose their jobs.” “My family has an exceptional capacity for alcohol. I never get drunk.”

Deflecting is making jokes, changing the subject, angry outbursts that intimidate the opponent, threats, “important” phone calls, blowups when confronted and similar ways to take the focus off the issue.

Omitting: Leaving out information, or telling just enough of the story to satisfy the other person while leaving out the part that will get you in more trouble. “The doc said my health is great!” (Except if I don’t stop drinking I’ll be dead in five years.) Simply ignoring the other person’s remarks falls under this category as well.

Blaming: “If you had to put up with (my wife, boss, kids).” “I was doing just fine until I found George doing lines in the bathroom.” “The doctor keeps giving me prescriptions!”

Intellectualizing: This is coming up with all sorts of explanations that “obviously” anyone who thinks about the matter has to agree with, in an attempt to make questioners feel off base and uninformed. “The latest studies show that a couple of drinks a day are good for you.” It’s also a good way to fool ourselves.

Poor Me: “I’ve tried and I just can’t quit. I can’t do it no matter how hard I try.” “I give up, I’m just going to die drunk.” “My life’s in the toilet, I might as well….”

Manipulating is using power, lies, money, sex, or guilt to defuse the issue. “Remember who you’re talking to here!” “Don’t talk that way to your mother!” “Would I ever say something like that to you?” “Mommy doesn’t need to know about this. Here’s some money. Go shopping”

Compartmentalizing is doing things that you keep separate from other parts of your life. If you find yourself thinking something like “If he only knew,” or “If anyone ever found out,” then you’re compartmentalizing.

If we're honest with ourselves, it probably won't take us long to recognize some of our old — and perhaps not so old — tricks.  And maybe, just maybe, we ought to pay attention to the next person who accuses us of denial.

 

Compulsion

I was thinking about ways to explain addiction to someone the other day.  I spent quite a while thinking about the various characteristics of us addicts, and the one thing that I came up with that seemed to cover us all is compulsion: as applied to addicts, a strong, usually irresistible impulse to do things that are not in our best interest.

I was actively addicted to other drugs and behavior as well, but the one that brought me to recovery was alcohol.  Something else would have, but I drank the longest and booze got to me first.  I remember the compulsion so clearly.

Originally, I didn't notice it.  I drank and drugged when it wasn't an especially good idea for quite a while, and eventually all the time, but I made excuses why it was okay.  I needed to sleep, and a drink or a pill (or both) would help. Those people were such a pain that I needed a drink to mellow out before going to that dinner party.  When I got there, it would have been rude not to have a drink (or a line) when offered.  And of course, after the first couple, the rest seemed like a very good idea indeed.

As the old saying goes, “denial ain't just a river in Africa.”  A good solid dose of that commodity enabled me to justify the things I was compelled to do, and to overlook that fact that they weren’t in my best interest and that I had to do them.

Toward the end, though, it wasn't that way.  Some months before I got clean and sober, the excuses ran out.  The other drug use, which mainly supported my drinking, may or may not have been out of control, but I was obviously powerless when it came to booze.  The times when I tried not to drink, or not drink more and failed, were countless.  I felt ashamed.  I felt hopeless.  I felt as though I was no longer in control of my life — and I wasn't.

I would come home from work determined to have a couple of beers, and kill a six-pack and half a bottle of vodka or rum.  I have absolutely no idea how much I drank or how many drugs I used on my days off.  Knowing that I couldn’t drink on the job (although I eventually did that too), I took pills provided by a helpful doctor to deal with the urge for the eight hours until I could get to a bottle.  I’d tell myself that I wasn’t going to drink — that I couldn’t drink — and yet I always did.  I never got to the point of withdrawal.  I didn't drink or use because I was sick, I did it because I could, and because I had to.  With alcohol and other drugs in my system, I was powerless.  I was unable to stop doing something that I knew was not only not in my best interest, but that I knew was killing me.

Eventually I reached the point of giving up.  I knew I had to drink, had no idea that I could actually quit, and figured I’d end up dying drunk.  Over time — a short time — it became clear that it wouldn’t take much longer.  I carried a gun for a living, and I knew exactly how to use it.

Well, I got lucky and an intervention brought me to treatment and  sobriety.   When I got sober I found that I was no longer powerless over some of my addictions (as long as I didn't use), but that there were other compulsions that needed attention.  Although I was clean of alcohol and other drugs, I still smoked, and I decided that I couldn’t go around calling myself clean and sober unless I finished the job.  It took me three years to kick the most dangerous addiction of all, but a couple of weeks ago I had twenty years smoke-free as well.  Yay me!  And I mean that.  It was harder than getting sober.  I couldn’t have done it without my program of recovery.  Quitting’s not for sissies.

I remember those compulsions.  Do I ever!  The need for a drink.  The need for nicotine.  The need for another pill.  I remember the lies I told myself: that one more wouldn’t hurt; that I’d quit as soon as (insert excuse) was over and I could relax a little.  That I'd cut down. That the next one wouldn’t kill me.  I remember.  It scares me to death.  I like my life too much to take the chance of encouraging those compulsions to return, so I don’t use.  Chemicals controlled my life: where I could go, who I could go with, what I could do, and when.

I like freedom.

What Did Adam Lanza Have In Common With Us Addicts?

Family secrets.

Family secrets are those things that everyone close to a person or situation knows or suspects, but never talks about. Often the thoughts aren’t even put into words. When they are, they come with adjurations: “It’s no one else’s business!” “What would people think?” “We don’t want people sticking their noses into…!” “It would ruin his (life) (career) (reputation)!” “We don’t talk about that!” “How dare you say that about your uncle!” And so forth.

Frequently such secrets involve substance abuse. Just as often, they hide other sorts of abuse, addiction, and other unhealthy behavior from child molestation to spousal abuse, bingeing and anorexia to cluttering. In every case, this pervasive form of denial prevents individuals and families from getting the help they need.  And all too often it “protects” people with mental illnesses. Failure of a variety of people to look at the facts and deal with unpleasant issues prevented Adam Lanza from receiving the evaluation and treatment that he needed.

If Adam Lanza’s mother had sought help when she noticed his peculiar behavior, instead of convincing herself that he was merely suffering from a mild form of Aspergers Syndrome (which does not involve the same sorts of behaviors at all), things may have been completely different. If the other folks in his life, from family members to teachers, guidance counselors and other professionals with whom he crossed paths over the years had not failed to take the extra steps necessary to bring attention to his problems, things may have been completely different. If his mother had not had a perverse streak that caused her to keep firearms in a home with a troubled family member…. If… If… If…

My point here is not to defend Adam Lanza. What I’m trying to do is point out that keeping secrets does not enhance other people’s lives. People with self-destructive behaviors — whether they are using drugs, mentally unstable, or otherwise functioning outside the boundaries of a healthy life — are the business of the people around them. The havoc wreaked every day by people who are having difficulty controlling their lives and impulses affects us all, in one way or another.

And then there was Adam Lanza, and the others.