People suffering from a potentially fatal disease normally want to know what it is and how to get better. If it’s diabetes, you alter your diet and take insulin. If it’s cancer, you follow whatever regimen you’re dictated. But if it’s alcoholism, you say, “Um… actually, I don’t have that!” so you can get even worse.
Denial: it’s built right into alcoholism – which why in the rooms we talk about “the disease that tells me I don’t have a disease.”
Here’s an official alcoholism definition hammered out by the Journal of the American Medical Association. A 23-member (how many?) committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and American Society of Addiction Medicine researched and bickered for 2 frickin’ years (how long?) to spell this thing out:
Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial.
I’d like to thank whichever committee members lobbied to squeeze in “most notably denial.” Under great pressure to be concise, why bother naming that particular distortion? God knows alcoholic thinking distorts right and left: Everyone else is the problem; I drive better drunk; I didn’t like that X anyway. But woven through every distorted thought of an active alcoholic is the thread of denial – outright refusal to acknowledge the fact that we need to get wasted despite whatever price it’s exacting from our lives.
Self-centered ego is denial’s evil twin, likewise a mainstay of alcoholism. A great description, penned by Anne Wilson Schaef in When Society Becomes an Addict, runs as follows (excerpted):
Addicts are notoriously self-centered. They may claim to care about the people around them, but their fix begins to overshadow everything else.
Another aspect of self-centeredness puts the self at the center of the universe. Self-centered people do not know where they begin and end and anyone else begins and ends. Because there are no clear-cut boundaries, two things happen: the self spreads out, and the world rushes in. Everything becomes ME, and everything starts coming at ME and is perceived as either for or against ME.
During active addiction, alcohol is FOR ME. It’s on my side – the only ally I can trust. If I’m lonely, I invite my buddy alcohol over to keep me company, and we hang out together in a cozy refuge against a world we both tell to fuck off. On the other hand, if I need to socialize, alcohol becomes my Iron Man suit. It empowers me to converse freely, lovin’ life and knowing I’m absolutely invincible. Either I’m so freakin’ charming that everyone admires me, or I’m such a boss rebel I could give a rat’s ass what any of those assholes think. Either way, my self-centered ego feels impervious.
Anything against my alcohol is, by definition, against ME. I fight as if my life depended on it: You can take my job, my relationships, my health, my home, my self-respect, even my hope that things will ever get better – but don’t you dare touch my buddy, alcohol. That’s my lifeline, bitches!
Doctors, therapists, friends, spouses or partners – when they turn against our buddy, they all have to be shafted. It’s unfortunate, but inevitable. And what about our conscience, that repentant whiner who, filled with morning self-reproach, promises not to drink (so much) again? With a sigh we hit the trap door switch and drop them to the alligators. Sorry. No way around it.
Denial and ego conspire together as addiction’s minions. Denial says I don’t have a problem, and ego says, Whatever – I do what I want! Together they block the world like offensive linemen, protecting addiction from tackles by reason and emotion so it can launch just one more play for a great time. This time, it’s gonna be awesome!
But then one day, if we’re lucky, we reach that magical combination –our life’s shot to shit and alcohol quits working – and we hit bottom. Death is lookin’ real-ly good by this point. No more anybody expecting anything from us. No more failure. No more loneliness and hating ourselves. Just peace. That incomprehensible demoralization blasts away denial’s excuses, flattens ego’s games.
Without their cover, we can finally glimpse the actual face of addiction, and we understand that it’s a demon. For a short window of time, we get that it’s killing us. The question is whether we can find help, whether we can be shown a way out, before that window of clarity closes. If we make it to AA, we can look at Step 1 on the wall and sigh, yes: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. Others can show us the way out.
But that’s far from the end of it!
The inner addict doesn’t die. Recovery only incarcerates it. And guess who’s constantly plotting and conspiring to spring the boss out of prison? You got it: those loyal henchmen, denial and ego.
“You know, maybe I never really had that big a problem with alcohol. Maybe now that I’ve got my shit together, I don’t have to bother with AA meetings.” Just as cancer mimics and perverts the miracle of cell growth, so addiction mimics and perverts the goodness of self-care. “You deserve a drink! Don’t be so hard on yourself! You’ve totally cleaned up your act – why not enjoy a little reward?” Both diseases kill the host.
In sobriety I know of only one deliverance from the minions’ head chatter: god. That’s why the 12 Steps exist. For me, god can be found only when I wrench my focus away from all my thinking and look to my heart, where my sense of goodness lives. Goodness runs deeper than knowledge; it’s my very foundation of living, god dwelling in me. I pray for direction and new thoughts come: call a sober friend; get to a meeting; be of service to others. Whenever unselfish love flows through our system, it flushes out the disease’s crud and nourishes our core. The minions lose.
But they’ll be back tomorrow!