As an addict, denial comes as naturally as drinking and it’s not just regarding substances—it’s everything. I once booked a trip across southeast Asia while unable to pay my rent. So as a friend, family member, or loved one, when is it our place to point out someone else’s Thailand?
I have a friend I’ll call April. April got sober 10 years ago, by way of rehab and 12-step programs. She did the deal, went to meetings and worked the steps. She stayed sober for five years, then relapsed, which was when I met her. Over the next few years, April dipped into what I like to call “faux-briety.” April takes drugs. She takes mushrooms and ayahuasca in the jungles of Peru. She takes non-prescribed Adderall to help her study. She also smokes pot, once or twice a year. But yet she goes to meetings, participates in AA and celebrates sober anniversaries.
Is April sober?
People in (and out) of AA have all sorts of opinions about how to do the program. I used to be one of them: hardheaded and full of conviction. If you didn’t go to three meetings a week, take commitments and talk to every newcomer, your sobriety was precarious. And if you dated in your first year, well, you were doomed. Then I relapsed. When I came back, I broke many of the rules I’d put in place for myself. I changed sponsors, changed meetings and started dating a guy when I had 20 days sober. So who am I to judge whether someone is not really sober? What right do I have to define anyone’s program?
Some people think a sip of kombucha constitutes a slip. Others re-set their date because of an extra dose of cough syrup. Many don’t believe in the use of psychiatric medications. Are those people wrong? Am I? Bill Wilson himself not only took acid, but also recommended it to alcoholics struggling to find a spiritual experience. He didn’t think he’d relapsed, though LSD is certainly a mind-altering substance. By all accounts, he died a sober man. Is a relapse about the intention to get high? Is it actually getting high? Or is it something else?
Which brings me back to April.
She justifies her drug use. The trip to Peru was a journey of self-discovery and exploration. The Adderall was used as a much-needed study aid. Is she merely defining her own sobriety—as an absence of alcohol—like Bill did? Or is she on the slippery slope of denial?
Some would suggest that it’s not our job to point out either way. They say addicts hit bottom in their own time. But isn’t ignoring obvious lies actually a form of enabling? Isn’t it our job in recovery to hold each other accountable and call BS? I think I’d want someone to tell me when I’m driving too fast and there’s a cliff ahead. But then again, I don’t argue with people who point out uncomfortable things. I just never speak to them again. We hear that resentment is what causes us to drink faster than anything else. We hear the way to avoid that is through rigorous honesty. If I tell the truth about my actions, even to one person, I have a chance. I can avoid the shame that festers into bitterness and causes me to drink.
There’s that acronym for denial: Don’t Even Know I Am Lying. This suggests denial is not a conscious choice, that it’s different than a simple lie. Bill spoke openly about his drug-taking experiences. April speaks openly with me about hers. Does that mean she can define her sobriety however she likes? Sober life is full of gray areas. I’m much more comfortable in black and white. Clearly defined lines, roles and expectations make me feel in control. Safe. There’s a rulebook in my head that specifies exactly how everyone ought to behave. Pity I’m the only one who’s read it. People continue to do things as they see fit.
Including April. I listen to her in meetings, talking about her experience with the steps, her sponsor, becoming honest and I judge. But if her stories (even if they are fabricated) are helping someone, what difference does it make? Maybe it says more about me that I’m judging my friend. I’ve asked myself many times why I want to tell April she’s not sober. What good does it do me? What am I trying to achieve? The intention behind the action is key. As with assessing whether that kombucha means a relapse, or if those pills are legit, the motivation matters.
I want her to be okay. I love my friend and I’m worried about her. Knowing her story—where she came from and where she can go—makes her flirtation with substances nerve-racking. For me, at least. She seems perfectly happy. I don’t want to risk pushing her away by questioning her. (But that just tells me I need more Al-Anon.) Expressing concern is okay—even loving—but expecting a certain result is not. Expecting her to thank me for showing her the error of her ways is unrealistic. So is expecting her to adopt my kind of sobriety.
I can’t cause someone to get sober. I can’t break the wall of denial. Hell, I still can’t pay my rent on time. I’ve found that it takes what it takes. Growth happens through experience. Denial breaks when the weight becomes too heavy. All I can do is practice honesty in my own life. I can tell April I’m concerned; that I’m here and won’t judge. She walks her path just as I walk mine and I have no idea where either will lead.
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