When we become addicted, keeping the addiction fed becomes the number-one priority in our lives. The idea of giving up the drug(s) and associated behavior(s) that help us maintain our addiction is the thing that frightens us the most. Because we do not want to admit how powerful the compulsion has become, and how it is affecting our lives, we try to convince ourselves and those around us that we are doing OK. The process and thought patterns that we use are called denial.
Addiction involves profound changes in the way we think, through actual physical and chemical alteration of our brains. Most of the changes take place in a part of the brain over which we have no control, the sub-cortical region that monitors and regulates our bodily processes (the “primitive brain”). This is the part of the brain that tells us that we are hungry, prepares our bodies to run from danger — and that gives us the compulsion to use.
We have no more conscious control over these things than we have over breathing. With practice, we can hold our breath until we pass out, but as soon as we are unconscious we begin to breathe again. Likewise, when we become addicted, our primitive brain tells us that not having our drugs puts us in danger. Because having our mood-altering chemicals or experiences has become essential for our comfort, we begin to find ways to protect our access to them. We change our thinking to accomodate the circumstances.
We may justify our staying out drinking several nights a week and neglecting our family by telling ourselves and others things like,”I work hard all day; I’m entitled to a little fun,” or “If you were married to that *****, you wouldn’t want to go home sober either.” When our friends start to question our drug use, we avoid them and find new friends who “know how to have fun.” We become adept at deflecting criticism. “I was reading an interesting article about that the other day, if I can find it I’ll send it to you. Oh, by the way, did you catch Idol last night? Wasn’t that….” These are only three examples of kinds of denial; there are several more.
We tell ourselves, “Hey, I hold down a job, I take care of my family, I’ve never had a DUI — I’m OK.” Later it’s “That s.o.b. never did like me, and I knew he’d fire me sooner or later!” And still later: “No job, wife left me and took the kids. If you had my troubles, you’d drink too!” “Yeah, I probably need to quit. As soon as I get my life squared away, I’ll try, but right now….” Families do it, too: “Oh, he’s not that bad, Uncle Jim was a real alcoholic!”
All of these twisted ways of thinking — and many others — protect our relationship with our drugs: alcohol, crack, cigarettes, porn, food, shopping, you name it.
Once denial has become habitual, it takes some work to break through to reality. If we don’t, it’s easy for us to justify returning to our addictions every time life throws us a lemon.