One of these people is an addict and one isn’t. Guess which one is lying:
“Are you an addict?” “No.”
“Are you an addict?” “No.”
It’s a trick question. The answer is neither is lying. The non-addict is telling the truth, and the addict is in denial. (For sake of simplicity, the term “addict” will be used to refer to someone who abuses drugs and/or alcohol.)
Denial is closely associated with addiction, and we’ve all heard the old joke that ends “it’s not a river in Egypt.” But what’s the difference between lying and denial? Lying is conscious, denial is subconscious. Denial is one of the defense mechanisms codified by Sigmund Freud. In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, a defense mechanism is a tool we use to keep painful truths from moving from the subconscious to the conscious.
Dysfunctional defense mechanisms can be pathological (delusional projection), immature (fantasy, passive aggression, acting out), or neurotic (intellectualization, displacement, repression). There are also functional, or mature, defense mechanisms, like humor, sublimation and altruism.
How do defense mechanisms work? Think of the ocean. Above the water is consciousness – the things we’re aware of, that we can see. Under the water is the subconscious – the things that we’re not aware of. They’re in the dark. They’re unknown. They may or may not be dangerous. They may eat us alive. They’re scary.
Now here’s the crazy part: both you and the addict are denying the addiction, and you don’t even know it. If we hooked you up to a lie detector, both of you would pass. The addict denies it because to acknowledge it would mean taking responsibility. You deny it because if you don’t, you’ll have to admit your powerlessness. Your challenge is to break through your denial so both you and the addict can survive the addiction. Al-Anon and a good therapist – alone, or together – can dislodge your denial.
Denial often takes the form of minimization or blame. Minimization is underestimating the effects of the dysfunctional behaviors. (“At least I don’t do crack.” “I never drink liquor.) Blame is just what it sounds like, but alcoholics raise it to an art form. (“If you were married to my wife, you’d drink too!”)
Now, it’s not all about denial; addicts are also masterful liars. Pop Quiz: If you ask her how much she had to drink, and she says “two drinks” when she had ten, is this denial? No! It’s lying! (Denial would be, “Yeah, so I had ten drinks. Everybody drinks like that.”)
Addicts lie about things big and small. They lie so often, they often can’t keep their lies straight. This is why you’re starting thinking maybe you’re the crazy one. Sometimes it seems that addicts lie when there’s no good reason to. It’s as if they intentionally lie just to stay in practice.
As I said in the beginning, addiction refers to those who abuse alcohol or drugs, since alcohol is really a drug. Both lie, and both deny. But how can you tell the difference between an alcoholic and an addict? Here’s how:
An alcoholic will steal your wallet and lie to you about it. An addict will steal your wallet and then help you look for it.