“I’m not a drug addict. I work. It’s just a stressful time right now. I don’t use all the time. I can stop using whenever I want to. It helps me unwind. I’m not an addict like other people are.”
Call it denial or a lack of self-awareness, but of the more than 22 million people living with substance use disorders today, only a fraction–about 10 percent–will admit that they have a problem and seek treatment. As for the rest, many are aware that they abuse drugs or alcohol but don’t want to stop, think they’re not addicted, and don’t identify as someone with an addiction.
And why would they want to? In a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers determined that “the American public is more likely to think of addiction as a moral failing than a medical condition” and that people feel more negatively about people with a drug addiction than they do about those suffering from a mental illness. Although that study was conducted in 2014, the perception hasn’t changed much—even as the medical community strives to educate the public about addiction, that it is both a chronic physical and psychological condition.
The problem, of course, when people refuse to self-identify or find it easier to note the differences between themselves and other “addicts” is that they sink deeper into addiction, putting off treatment and veering toward the inevitable rock bottom. Unfortunately, rock bottom isn’t a place that everyone is able to return from. Changing the mindset that “addiction only happens to somebody else” is the first step toward changing one’s life–and health.
Denial Is Easy; Acknowledgement Is Hard
Is stigma the only reason why some people find it difficult to admit they have an addiction? There seems little doubt that stigma is part of the problem, but not the only factor that perpetuates denial. Many people who drink and use drugs regularly, forging a path to dependence, have done so as a means of escape. They may have wanted to escape from emotional pain, boredom, or stressful situations (i.e. job, relationship problems, etc…) into a mindset that seems more fun or provides momentary relief.
The problem with escape is that it’s avoidance–and avoidance is another form of denial. Many people say whatever they have to to themselves and to others in order to maintain that escape route that they’ve grown accustomed to. As a matter of intellect, yes, they may realize that alcohol and drugs are bad for their health; but on an emotional level, they can’t give them up. If they admit they have a problem, they realize that they have to contend with it, and that’s not something many are ready to do.
It’s Easier to Judge Others Than Accuse Yourself
Many people who suffer from addiction think an addict is somebody who is much worse off than they are. If they can compare themselves to someone else and feel like they’re ahead of the curve, they tend to find it easier to remain in denial about the extent of their problem:
- “That person is on their third DUI!”
- “That person overdosed.”
- “That person got busted for forging prescriptions.”
- “That person is living on the street.”
It’s not difficult to find flaws in others. It is difficult to say:
- “My drinking wrecked my marriage.”
- “My behavior at work really was erratic, and I deserved to lose that job.”
- “I just stole a pain pill from my mother-in-law’s medicine cabinet.”
- “I have a problem.”
Self examination is all the more difficult when people don’t know how to perform self-assessments and evaluate themselves. These are skills that people learn in rehab. Uncovering one’s flaws, vulnerabilities, and triggers is part of the recovery process. Until a person can identify these things, they can’t develop strategies to manage them and, in doing so, manage their addiction.
Substance Addiction Is Physical and Mental
It’s particularly hard for individuals who are suffering from substance addiction and, possibly, a dual diagnosis (as in a co-occurring mental illness), because the difficulty is compounded by physical dependence and all the symptoms that entails. The symptoms of withdrawal can be profoundly uncomfortable and disturbing. It’s tough to take a deep dive into your psyche and develop greater self awareness when you’re coping with a pounding headache because you haven’t had a drink in a few hours.
The physical aspect of substance addiction isn’t the only driver of substance abuse, but it’s a key driver. A person who is addicted to heroin or another powerful drug knows that if they don’t use, they’re going to get sick–quite sick. They may already have experienced how debilitatingly sick untreated withdrawal symptoms can make them. They may not know that in medical detox, they can avoid getting so sick because there are medications that can reduce those symptoms.
Drug and alcohol addictions are governed by physical, psychological, and even behavioral dependences. Each is powerful in its own way. Each needs to be addressed if recovery is to be achieved. The simple truth is–in the middle of withdrawal symptoms, someone with addiction is focused on using; they aren’t focused on evaluating their behaviors or questioning themselves. It’s easier to minimize their problem rather than admit that it’s beyond their control: “I’m not that bad. It’s just not the right time to stop.”
The Importance of Reaching Out for Help
Many people don’t stop until they’ve opened their eyes to find themselves in a hospital room, hooked up to IVs, and unsure of how they got there. The reality is that more than 100,000 people die from overdoses annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s like losing everyone in a city the size of New Bedford, Massachusetts’s, or Boulder, Colorado, each year. Alcoholism and drug abuse are leading preventable causes of death in the U.S. Most people aren’t trying to overdose or destroy their health by drinking and using drugs, but with continued abuse, it happens.
The only way to ensure that it won’t happen to you is to admit you have a problem and reach out for help. In spite of the stigma that exists, employers and entire industries have acknowledged the realities of substance addiction and have paved the way for employees to get help without negative consequences. Insurers in this country are now required to cover substance abuse treatment, so it’s easier than ever to get help—don’t make it any harder for yourself. All it takes to get better is this simple statement: “I’m sick and I want to get better.” That’s enough.