I’m going to do something unusual, at least for me, of making a connection between a personal experience and theology, that of the various ways denial appears (and is counterproductive) in addiction.
In terms of the addiction, it’s not mine (other than co-dependency) that I will speak of. No, it’s real chemical addiction, drugs and booze, of a person near me and the progress of how the addiction is being dealt with (actually mostly it’s denial).
When chemical addiction first begins to appear denial, both by the person and those around him, is the typical first response. IOW, this isn’t really happening, the way it literally appears, but has some other explanation. When evidence of chemical addiction first appears in a close relationship it is not clear whether it really is addiction or just some “bad decisions”. Of course, especially when the person is young, it’s much easier just to minimize the evidence, look for the best interpretation, and hope it’s just a phase that will disappear.
As the process goes on and on the evidence of dysfunctional behavior grows (car wrecks, DUIs, minor brushes with the law or other authority). But again, all is forgiven under the assumption this is just youthful indiscretion. But if it really is addiction it will get worse AND the evidence of it gets harder and harder to explain away. Usually the people around the addict will “get it” sooner than the addict will. As the problems associated with addiction impact the addict and those around him more and more eventually the problem will be addressed.
That’s the where the whole range of social services come in and guess what – they’re as good at denial as anyone else. In my situation after the problem was manifested and required action the very first counselor just dismissed the whole thing, literally “kids will be kids and they do stupid stuff but they’ll get over it”. Well after many therapists and rehabs and brushes with the law and failure at life it gets very hard for those around the addict to spin the “mistakes” as anything but addiction. But denial dies hard.
Eventually the addict will most likely be subjected to programs where they will, at least mouth the words, “admit” they’re an addict. But do they really believe it? Not likely, as the only alternative to addiction is abstinence and that’s no fun, so excuses continue to get made. Even once it is no longer possible to objectively deny the addiction will either the addict or those affected by the behavior truly and with full internal conviction admit the addiction? In my experience, mostly no, at least by those who have the greatest stake in denial. So they too will go to sessions and say the words, but you can see they really don’t believe it because they don’t want to believe it despite evidence.
One reason is simple – addiction is really hard. It’s tough on the addict to break, but in many ways it is even harder for those around the addiction to grasp. Who really wants to admit someone you love has such a problem and, at least sometimes, has such a bleak forecast for their life. Easier to stay in excuses mode and merely hope the problem goes away. But any of the successful therapy for overcoming addiction has to start with admitting it exists, complete, 100%, no reservations, no spin, admission. Only then can healing begin.
And simply put, even after a decade, some people just can’t make that admission. Oh they may have no choice but to recognize all the symptoms and facts, but what they’re going to struggle with is “responsibility”. Admitting to addiction behavior is not the same as admitting to addiction. And what I’ve learned is the real issue is responsibility – there is an implied moral lapse to addiction. IOW, to a degree you have to view the addict as flawed and taking actions that are harmful to the addict and others. And normally we can’t do that without holding that person accountable, in essence assigning “blame” to them. And that’s hard to do because “blame” is so negative and almost all therapy seeks to remove (appropriately so, IMHO) “shame”. But assigning blame/shame is not the same as assigning responsibility.
So even when the addiction is obvious there is an evolution of denial that wants to make the addict a victim, not a perpetrator of their behavior. They can’t help it, so don’t “blame” them. The problem is “blame” is so judgmental, no the addict is probably not to “blame”, but they are responsible. You just can’t escape that.
So this is where the mental illness establishment may enter the picture and provide a new avenue for denial. And that is just labeling addiction as mental illness and thus, in a subtle way, removing all responsibility from the addict, literally as I’ve seen turning it into an entitlement. It’s not their fault (nor their responsibility). It’s just bad luck and we should be completely sympathetic/supportive to them, rather than establishing boundaries for acceptable behavior.
Now if a person were severely injured in car crash and thus can’t function normally, would we “blame” them, or even hold them responsible for their inability to function normally? Of course, not. Oh, let’s say it’s cancer (without having done risk stuff, like smoking) or it’s heart disease (without having done risky stuff)? No, the person is a victim and not responsible for the bad that has come their way. So it’s an easy extension to do the same thing with mental illness. It is illness, the victim didn’t do something to “deserve” it. So how can we hold them accountable since it’s beyond their control and not the consequences of their actions?
My problem with this attitude is that it is still denial. Yes addiction is a horrible problem and the addict is not a bad person. But their behavior is! And their behavior is not sustainable nor should it be enabled or even indulged or tolerated. They will not overcome the addiction as long as they have the means to avoid its consequences and with no recognition of their responsibility for the addiction.
So this is how I tie back to theology (long time coming for my point). What is the societal attitude that allows this kind of denial to continue?
I’ve been reading (actually re-reading) James Tabor’s Paul and Jesus. I’m not going into any discussion of the general gist of this book (although I found it fascinating) in this post, but to connect a very specific bit of this book to the question of addiction and denial. In Chapter Eight, Tabor says:
He (Paul) goes so far as to say that when one sins, it is not really that person who sins – but their sinful “flesh” that does so.
Now what does this mean? Tabor quotes Romans 7:15-20:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want … So then it is no longer “I” that do it, but the sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Nor if I do what I do not want, it is no longer “I” that do it, but the sin which dwells within me.
Tabor’s exposition of Paul’s theology is long and complicated, but I’ll summarize it simple: “the devil made me do it”. Paul believes “the flesh” (that is earthly human existence since Adam (Paul is definitely a literal creationist and thus obviously wrong)) is born in original sin and is inherently sinful, but there is an “I” that is somehow outside the corporeal existence and that “I” is without sin, so it is only the evil body and biological human existence that commits the sin. “I” don’t do the sin, so other “I” did it, so the good “I” is not responsible for my evil physical self. IOW, “I” is a victim, not much different than what much of current mental health says.
I won’t go so far as to say addiction is “sin” (it is certainly negative and dysfunctional behavior that interferes with normal life and harms others, so I’ll leave out the moral judgment). But I think this idea, which is fairly dominant in western culture, is the fundamental idea that allows denial of dysfunctional behavior. The “I” inside the addict (that which is loved by those around him) is not what sins but some unavoidable consequence of evil (or inheritance of genetic susceptibility to addiction in modern scientific sense) that sins.
Fine, this is a perfectly good idea to avoid “blame”. BUT it CANNOT be the idea that denies responsibility! Nor the excuses of denial.
The trouble with the “devil made me do it” idea is it is acceptance of the failure for acceptable societal behavior, either in the theological sense or the way mental illness dogma removes responsibility from addicts. In my experience many mental health professionals (and I use that word loosely from my inexperience) properly want to remove “blame” but they also manage to remove responsibility and in so doing deny the possibility of recovering (except, of course, through a lifetime of engaging mental health professionals who have a rather poor record of success).
And here’s the flaw – it is POSSIBLE to overcome the sin/behavior and one doesn’t have to wait to die and be resurrected in a heavenly form to accomplish that. Millions of addicts succeed in going sober and then functioning normally in society. Addiction is not a fatal incurable illness, it can be overcome and is by many (although sadly, not by many others).
I think a key ingredient, as does AA, in the path to recovery, is the rejection of denial – that is saying, as AA requires and believing without reservation, “I am an alcoholic”. Note,IMPORTANTLY, this is not a moral (“blame”) judgment – it is merely a practical admission of facts, just as heart disease or cancer would be. It is there, it is real – BUT it can be changed.
And, I believe, as long as in a reasonable desire not to “blame” the addict, we then also remove all responsibility we fail that addict. Others cannot fix an addict – they must fix themselves. And that starts with admitting they are responsible for their own life. Beating addiction is hard and takes lots of help (and often indulgence in their relapses) BUT it can never be accepted as a permanent and unchangeable condition, inherent in their, or broadly human (as Paul says) humanity. That is the formula for failure. The formula for recovery has to start with responsibility (again not guilt or blame, the later steps in 12-steps deal with that).
So Paul’s view is irretrievably pessimistic (we’re doomed, so just get on with dying and being reborn). Since resurrection is fairly useless (it’s not going happen at all, in my view, but certainly isn’t going to happen (in xtian view) in this timeframe) we need a better answer for this world and here and now.
So, in short, this view is just another excuse. Sin (addiction) is inevitable, so just accept it and wait for a better time. But that’s the belief that others around the addict in my life are hanging onto (it will somehow get better and go away. NO! It won’t as long as there is denial but WILL as soon as there is admission). Hope lies in action, today, in this world, not in some imaginary reality.
So denial is still the first obstacle to recovery and this dominant view in western thought is a major crutch that allows the denial to continue. Let’s be done with Paul and let’s be done with denial and get on to recovery!