I have noticed that sometimes the family members of chemically dependent people are in as much or more denial than the user themselves.
This shows up in family sessions as shocked looks when we talk about addiction or outright angry headshaking. It sometimes shows up as APMA (apparent partial momentary agreement), a momentary flicker of the recognition of truth followed by an immediate and unconscious rationalization.
“Don” fell on the way to his car from a local tavern. He ended up in the ER where, when tested for alcohol and drugs because of the rather noticeable odor of alcohol, he was at almost three times the legal limit. When faced with these results, Don’s wife immediately said, “He didn’t fall because he was drunk. He might have been a little over served, but he slipped on the ice.”
This is plausible since it could have been icy, but we would be overlooking the fact that Don had been to the ER for another fall about a year ago with a similar alcohol level. He had been in the mental health unit six months before that, which turned into a detox for the pills he was using to substitute for the alcohol he was trying to stop using. Don’s wife saw the same events that everyone else did, but because of her own denial, she interpreted them in the only way her protective shell would allow.
Sometimes the denial is more subtle. Sometimes the spouse or parent lectures or gets angry and mistakenly thinks the treatment for addiction is a “good talking to,” even though they have been “talking” for months or years saying the same thing over and over and getting angrier and angrier themselves.
They think, “I know I’m right about this. My logic is good, so why can’t these addicts get the message?” These folks don’t deny the events but they deny the disease because they themselves can’t face the hurt, humiliation or fear associated with the admission.
“Terry” always had problems, but they were always someone else’s fault. Ever since she was a little girl, she blamed her sisters or her dad for everything. “You made me do it” was her theme song.
Later in life, Terry started her search for relief with prescription drugs, which led, eventually, to heroin. But even then her theme song stayed the same.
Even in her advanced stage of addiction, her family searched for the “deep-seated cause,” thinking if they helped her uncover the “underlying cause” she would stop using.
Terry’s family continued to blame themselves, which allowed Terry to continue to blame them. They continued to look for an explanation rather than acknowledging a disease.
• Richard Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email by visiting Northwestcommunitycounseling.com.