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6 Ways People Deny a Drug or Alcohol Problem

How do people direct attention away from their problem to something else?

Goffkein .pro/Shutterstock
Source: Goffkein .pro/Shutterstock

Many people who have struggled with alcohol or drugs or behaviors such as gambling often say they had a voice inside them whispering, “I have a problem.” The voice may get louder after a particularly epic blowout. It may get louder when a person feels a drabness or disappointment about the monotony of her daily use. Sometimes it is others who have expressed concern about our behaviors and health. We internalize those voices too.

Very few people easily and quickly accept the conclusion that they have a problem. To the contrary, many of us struggle mightily against it and craft a variety of arguments to demonstrate that we don’t have a problem. Many of these arguments rely on misdirection, moving the focus onto someone or something else. Here are six of the common arguments I’ve heard (and, okay, I've made some myself).

1. All my friends drink/use more than I do. The misdirection here is to what my friends are doing, rather than what I myself am doing. If my comparison pool is people who use more than I do, and I can have a problem only if my use is the worst, then I can’t have a problem. If it ever appears I am using the most, I find a new comparison pool. Problem solved.

2. I only drink beer or wine or use marijuana. The misdirection is to drugs and behaviors that people assume are more dangerous, addictive, or are illegal. The implication seems to be: “Be glad I am not using heroin or meth. Those kinds of drugs are illegal, and they drive illegal activity.” Beer, wine, and marijuana are legal (or becoming legal in some places, in the case of marijuana) and so they can’t be a problem. If they can’t be a problem, I don’t have a problem.

3. I only use when... The misdirection here is to all the other times when I am not actively using. I am not sitting in my darkened apartment during productive work time. This approach conveniently neglects the fact that there are after-effects of using that may extend beyond the time of use. It also makes it seem as if using on weekends, for example, matters less than it does at other times.

4. I am too successful and high-functioning. The misdirection is to something that is going well in my life. There may be other areas in life that are not going so well (my marriage may be on the rocks, my relationships with my parents and siblings may be badly frayed, or perhaps I have no social life). I make one area weigh more than all the others combined; it sets the standard for measuring my alleged problem. This also assumes that there are plenty of people to whom I can point who are less successful or less high-functioning as examples of "people with a problem."

5. I haven’t hit rock bottom like so-and-so. The misdirection is to people who have identified certain losses as intolerable to them and prompted recognition of their problems. Pat lost her wife and kids. Kelly lost her dream career. Joe got convicted and is looking at a prison sentence. These are "people with a problem."

However, each person’s rock bottom is better understood as her “misery threshold.” A person’s misery threshold is deeply subjective; it is how much suffering she is willing to tolerate before she makes a change. If I act as if there is an objective rock bottom where certain losses must necessarily happen, then so long as I am not arrested, still work, and have a family, I don’t have a problem and I don’t have to quit.

6. I have stopped for extended periods of time. The misdirection is to periods when I have stopped rather than the periods when I have started up again. This is a potentially devastating misdirection, even for people who have been sober/in recovery/in remission for a long time. I tell myself "people with a problem" can’t stop, and I can stop for days, weeks, months, or even a year or more. Therefore I cannot have a problem.

People who have stopped for a period of time experience what I call "abstinence afterglow." I’ve done the hard work of abstaining from alcohol, drugs, or other behaviors. I’ve settled the question once and for all. I just proved I don’t have a problem. I don’t just feel vindicated, I feel as if my hard work has put a protective aura around me. I am impervious to the bad effects of alcohol and drugs; I am invincible. I can tell myself I don’t have a problem so I can start again. If my use does get a little worrisome like before, I’ve shown that I can stop. However, stopping in the past is no guarantee of stopping the next time.

No one wants to have a problem. But if a little voice is whispering quietly (or whisper-shouting), or someone else raises the possibility, you owe it to yourself to seriously explore it. Recognizing these various misdirecting maneuvers is an important first step.

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