Title: Denial: How It Starts and How to Make It Stop
Author: Mark Worden
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: September 2007
Catalog Number: 802

..‘I’m No Alcoholic’

George is an
alcoholic, but he won’t admit it, and doesn’t think he needs
to change.

The thought
has occurred to him more than once that he might be an alcoholic.
His first marriage ended in divorce because his wife finally
got to the point where she refused to put up with his drunkenness
every weekend.

She told George
that she thought he needed help and suggested he find out about
AA. Her suggestion just made George angry. “I’m no alcoholic,”
he blustered. “I can take booze or leave it.”

why don’t you leave it?”

George didn’t
stay for an answer. He stalked out of the house and spent the
rest of the evening in a bar.

I can take
it or leave it. True, to a point. George seldom drinks during
the week — maybe a beer or two after work, but that’s all.

He saves his
real drinking for the weekends. Even then, he controls his drinking
so that he can make it to work Monday morning-most of the time.

He often feels
tired and shaky, but so does everyone else after a wild weekend.
That doesn’t mean he’s an alcoholic.

In George’s
mind, an alcoholic is someone who has to drink, a person really
hooked on booze, who hides bottles and sees pink elephants and
snakes, a bum who can’t hold a job. George isn’t like that at

He admits he
does get pretty drunk at times. Nothing unusual about that —
all of his friends are heavy drinkers. He’s blacked out a few
times, driven home and not been able to recall how he got there.
Twice, George has landed in jail on drunk driving charges.

One of the
charges was reduced to reckless driving and he’d had to pay a
large fine on his second DWI.

Still, he insists
he always drives carefully, even after drinking. “I’ve never
had an accident,” he boasts.

After his second
conviction George told the judge, “I sure won’t let this
happen again.”

But that’s
what he said after his first arrest.

..Denial Styles

What’s with
George? A couple of things, both related to his most successful
and most self-defeating defense: denial.

Denial takes
two major forms. First, the alcoholic insists that he or she
can drink like other people. Socially. Normally.

This means
that there are always ready excuses for the exceptional times-for
the fights, the arrests, the blackouts, the hangovers. It’s someone
else’s fault. It’s harassment, bad luck, or just too much pressure.

Secondly, the
alcoholic insists that he or she is different from “real”
alcoholics. Drinking alcoholics are usually experts at picturing
“real” alcoholics. They’re different somehow: jobless,
homeless, friendless, and usually feeble-minded. Not like themselves
at all.

That’s why
you’ll find, if you look far enough, that the scotch and water
alcoholic looks down on the beer alcoholic, who, in turn, is
disgusted by the wino.

Each is convinced
that he or she isn’t the “real” alcoholic.

George’s drinking
pattern displays only one kind of alcoholic pattern. There are
many others, and they overlap and shade into each other.

  • The five o’clock alcoholic
    doesn’t take a drink until after work-never touches the stuff
    before five — then drinks continuously until passing out.
  • The periodic (or binge) alcoholic
    can go for long stretches of time without touching a drop. Then
    comes a binge that can last days or weeks or months.
  • The maintenance alcoholic
    finds ways to sip all day long, to keep just enough alcohol in
    the blood.

In short, there
is no “typical” alcoholic that serves as a standard
by which other alcoholics are measured.

The only thing
they have in common is that, sooner or later, they all have serious
life problems related to their drinking.

..Confronting Denial

says the son, “I came home last week and found you passed
out in the garage with the car still running.”

Dad gets red
in the face. “I was feeling sick. I just needed to rest
for a minute.”

“No, Dad,
you were drunk. And it wasn’t the first time.”

The daughter
speaks up. “I was really hurt last spring. You promised
to come to my graduation.”

“I did,”
Dad protests. “I was late, but I made it.”

but you were so drunk and loud afterwards that we had to leave
early. It was humiliating.”

“I told
a few jokes. No one’s got a sense of humor.”

“No, Dad.
You were drunk. Then you left and didn’t come home and you got
arrested for drunk driving.”

I wasn’t that drunk. I was tired more than anything. Doesn’t
it count for anything how hard I have to work? Besides, that
breath test was screwed up.”

this was the second time,” the son says.

The wife has
been sitting silently as her children confront their father about
his drinking. The session has been carefully rehearsed with the
help of a counselor.

They’re trying
to break down the father’s denial through a process called confrontation,
where the alcoholic is given clear, unmistakable examples of
how his alcoholic behavior has affected the whole family. The
goal is to get the alcoholic into treatment.

The counselor
looks at the wife, and says, “Didn’t you have something
you were going to say, Mary?”

Now Dad explodes.
“I knew it was all your idea, I knew I shouldn’t have agreed
to do this!”

Daughter says,
“Dad, it was our idea. We had to do something.”

says the son, “we’re trying to save your life.”

With help,
Bill is on his way to recovery. The technique of confrontation
often helps to break the grip of alcoholic denial and is fully
described in the book I’ll Quit Tomorrow by Vernon Johnson.

A similar kind
of process occurs in employee assistance programs (EAP’s) where
an alcoholic or drug dependent employee is confronted about impaired
work performance and given the choice of seeking treatment or
being fired. EAP’s have had some of the highest success rates
in helping chemically dependent people.

..Stages of Recovery

Helping professionals
often report that many chemically-dependent people break through
denial in three stages:

  • Recognition. The person begins by admitting
    the problem. Many alcoholics get to this point and go no further.
    They give lip service to their alcoholism. But lip service just
    isn’t enough.
  • Acceptance. The person actively does something
    to change his or her behavior. It’s more than lip service; but
    still the alcoholic has reservations: “Maybe I can drink
    again, like a normal person.”
  • Surrender. At this stage the alcoholic has
    no reservations. He or she sincerely admits an inability to control
    drinking and is committed to a life of sobriety.

In understanding
denial, it’s important to realize that denial is not restricted
to alcoholism-or even to other forms of chemical dependency.
It’s a common defense that protects all our egos from harsh reality.
It’s found in the cancer patient, the cigarette smoker, and the

Still, nowhere
is it more disabling — and potentially deadly — than in chemically
dependent people.

Because when it comes to chemical
dependency, denial is all that keeps us from discovering who
we really are — and who we’ve always wanted to be.

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