One of the guiding principles in addiction recovery is, “Recognizing a problem is the first step toward solving it.”
It means a person must accept that they have a drug or alcohol problem and that only they can fix it. Someone in denial has yet to acknowledge the issue, even if their friends and family members recognize it. In some cases, denial puts a loved one in the position to take the first step in finding them help.
It’s not an easy process. Someone in denial rejects the reality of their addiction and the damage it causes. Some see their addiction as an escape, a healthy coping mechanism, or a normal habit. Someone with that mindset pushes back against any attempt to change their worldview or routine.
The Five Stages of Addiction
Not everyone has a denial mindset. Specialists break addiction into five stages; victory over denial is vital to moving through them.
Someone in pre-contemplation is still firmly in denial. They might have gone through treatment and chosen not to engage. Addicts in this stage don’t think they have a problem, while others might admit they have an issue but believe they can handle it.
In this stage, the addict recognizes and accepts they have an issue. They think about why they formed their habits, how to address those reasons, and ways to break free from them.
The plan crystallizes. The addict is ready to take action and has a concrete plan. When they take the leap, they move on to stage 4.
When someone modifies their addictive behavior, they enter the action stage. They could attend therapy, avoid people and places that trigger them, or make plans for long-term sobriety.
The maintenance stage becomes a part of the patient’s lifestyle. Patients in this stage plan and attend regular support group visits, hold themselves accountable and share recovery and abstinence plans with others.
What Does Denial Look Like?
There are three types of denial.
- Stage 1 – Problem Denial
Problem denial embodies the pre-contemplation stage. The addict genuinely believes they don’t have a problem. They may go to treatment if forced but won’t get anything out of it.
- Stage 2 – Treatment Rejection
The illusion of control characterizes stage 2. The patient admits they have a problem but are not interested in treatment. A desire for independence or an unwillingness to accept the severity of the problem may keep someone in this denial stage. An effective conversation with a loved one could break through their denial and lead them into contemplation.
- Stage 3 – Low Commitment
An addict can still be in denial after they finish treatment. They do not commit to the maintenance stage or put 100% effort into sobriety. People pushed into treatment or who didn’t find a program that engaged them might experience this form of denial. They may have appeared to move through preparation, action, and maintenance but will not devote themselves to sobriety.
How to Talk to an Addict in Denial
It takes effort and care to get through to someone in denial. Anyone who approaches this difficult conversation should have a plan. The benefits can change lives, but an intervention that goes south can reinforce the addict’s beliefs about their behavior and worsen their problem.
What to Say to an Addict in Denial
To discuss a loved one’s addiction, have an organized list of points to make. Write them down to avoid misspeaking in the middle of an emotional conversation.
Focus On Your Feelings
These points should highlight the feelings of those around the addict, not the addict. They can disagree with someone else’s life assessment for as long as they want. Even though it seems counterproductive to focus on anyone but the addict, they can’t refute the way they made someone else feel.
A conversation that accentuates the emotional impact of the addict’s behavior and appeals to their empathy forces them to assess the bigger picture. It recontextualizes their behavior and shifts it from their bad habits to how their behavior affects their loved ones’ lives.
Have a Sober Conversation
Alcohol, opiates, marijuana, and other habit-forming substances distort the mind. Distorted cognition and slurred speech make an inebriated conversation almost impossible.
Advanced preparation allows loved ones to be ready for these conversations when the opportunity arises, i.e., a sober moment. Some addicts use drugs or alcohol daily to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, making these opportunities difficult to plan.
Members of their support network must be patient and wait for those sober moments. If not, the addict could say things they do not mean or forget what they discussed and agreed to while they were under the influence of substances or alcohol.
Encourage Professional Help
Throughout the conversation, encourage the patient to find help. Some options are to seek a support group, therapist, or detox center. Remind them they have resources available and, as their loved ones, they are there for support.
A productive conversation emphasizes that the addict has resources. Offers of emotional support are helpful, but volunteering with specific commitments backs up that love with something tangible.
Trusted family members could offer to watch their pets or children while the addicted relative checks into a detox facility. A neighbor could commit to driving them to and from outpatient rehab. Both demonstrate investment in the patient’s well-being, remind the patient that people care about them, and address potential excuses.
What Not to Say to an Addict in Denial
Everyone involved in the conversation (or intervention) should have a plan for what they want to say. But they should also prepare to avoid certain approaches.
Do everything possible to steer the conversation toward a productive future rather than the patient’s past wrongs. When someone becomes the target of a conversation rather than the subject, they go on the defensive.
The defensive arguer avoids taking responsibility for mistakes and feels attacked—feelings that will never push someone in denial to listen to their loved ones.
Instruct, Demand, Lecture, or Scold
People rebel when told what they should or shouldn’t do. Give suggestions and guide them toward treatment plans that can help them, but avoid pressure and don’t force them. Compelled addiction treatment rarely works as well as a program the patient chooses for themself.
Ultimately, the patient must decide that they need and deserve treatment. Otherwise, these efforts push them away from seeking help or treatment.
Have an Intoxicated Conversation
Distorted cognition and emotion will make the conversation that much harder. If the addicted loved one can’t form coherent thoughts, both sides have an unproductive and frustrating conversation. The support group should also stay sober during these conversations.
Go Easy on Them, But Remain Firm
Express love and support, and make sure the addict knows they have people who care about them. But do not let support become unconditional or permit excuses. The addicted brain has a rewired pleasure circuit and will do almost anything to maintain those overstimulated connections—to satisfy cravings.
Stand firm against the resulting out-of-character reactions like manipulation. The addict may not realize how much emotional harm they can do to themselves or others. Their support network should take care to establish boundaries.
What To Do After Getting Through to an Addict
If the conversation succeeds and a loved one seeks help, continue to offer support. Encourage their commitment to recovery and remind them of their motivations when they waver. Continue to provide tangible assistance and honor previous commitments. Pick them up when they stumble, and remember that sobriety is a journey, not a destination.
Pick them up when they stumble, and remember that sobriety is a journey, not a destination.
Free Addiction Consulting With Never Alone Recovery
If you succeed and your loved one chooses to seek treatment, contact us to make it happen. We can help you review treatment facilities across the country and make arrangements for treatment and services.
Consider our free online support groups as a first step. These digital resources provide helpful answers for someone in or who has overcome denial and where they can go next.