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Denial: An Effective Marketing Tool for Addiction Treatment Providers

Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat.

Have you ever thought you might have a drinking problem? Maybe you went out for a couple drinks with friends and got a DUI; or you had a couple drinking episodes where you felt a bit out of control; or maybe someone told you they are concerned about your drinking. About 50 years ago when people thought of an alcoholic, they pictured a bar fly or homeless person stumbling down a darkened alleyway. At that time “alcoholism” was defined as drinking heavily, continuously for several days, weeks, or months in succession to the point of alcohol dependence. Once dependent the heavy drinker would experience mild to severe withdrawal symptoms, such as shakes, sweats, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures if they stopped drinking. For the most part, people were only identified as “alcoholics” if they couldn’t function in society.

During the 1980’s the alcoholism and addiction treatment industry began to grow rapidly and more government funding was being dedicated to addiction research and treatment. It is during this time that alcohol and drugs were being demonized. In 1984 President Reagan signed into law a minimum national drinking age of 21 years old, and the defining behaviors for alcoholism expanded to include all kinds of drinkers. Seemingly overnight experts began saying that alcoholism could happen to anyone, and that there were varying levels of it from mild to severe, and that you may be an alcoholic and not even know it.

The theory of denial was first identified by Dr. Sigmund Freud to describe how an individual rejects something they find too uncomfortable to accept, such as the death of a loved one, a terminal illness or a traumatic experience. More recently the denial theory has been used by the treatment industry to ensure even those who reject the idea they have the alcoholism or addiction disease or what is now known as alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder can be coerced into treatment.

While it is understandable a person may go through a period of denial when facing the death of a child or his own terminal illness, there is no data to support the idea that people are unaware of their behaviors or of the consequences of their behaviors. As drinking an alcoholic beverage requires prior thought, planning and action, the idea that a person is unaware they are partaking in the behavior is completely absurd. It is equally absurd to assume that they don’t know they are getting intoxicated, and don’t know the consequences and risks involved in their behavior.

It is true that behaviors we do repeatedly can become nearly automatic, but this does not mean they do not require prior thought. It means we process the thought more rapidly for that behavior that has been habituated than we do for other behaviors that are not. So, if denial is not referring to a person being unaware of the behavior, then what is a substance user denying? Treatment professionals say substance users in denial are unaware of the problems their substance use has caused them and others. They also say those in denial, won’t admit they are addicted and powerless to stop on their own. How convenient for treatment professionals: those who are said to be in denial of their addiction need treatment services, especially if they believe they are not addicted and can stop on their own.

I would like to ask you an important question about the concept of denial with respect to substance use: do you think it is more advantageous for someone to believe they have the power and ability to stop their substance use or for them to believe they do not have the power and ability to stop it? Logically speaking, of course it would be more advantageous for people to believe they do have the power to stop. As a matter of fact, this belief is crucial for anyone to be able to make a change in their substance use habits.

Denial with respect to addiction is nothing more than a disagreement. A heavy substance user is disagreeing that he/she is addicted and therefore incapable of stopping or moderating substance use. Denial is actually the substance user telling people the truth, that he (the substance user) is in control and doing exactly what he wants to do. The problem is his truth is completely dismissed, and instead treatment providers and “helpers” label this disagreement as a symptom of the addiction disease and use it to gain control over him. It’s just another case of circular logic that is intended to force people into doing things they don’t really want to do. It’s bypassing the crucial steps of providing factual information and allowing substance users to come up with their own conclusions on what they feel is best for them.

Denial turns out to be the perfect marketing tool for addiction professionals. Whether you believe you do or not, they will tell you that you need their services. So if you’re wondering whether or not you have a drinking problem, I don’t recommend getting an evaluation from an addiction professional. Instead there is a simple test you can do yourself, take some time off from drinking for a while. If you feel like you need alcohol to get through your day, or your week, or through certain situations, then perhaps it is time to change your relationship with alcohol for good. But contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to go to rehab or meetings to do that, you just need factual information. Then you can challenge why you think you need it, and open your mind to the possibility you can actually be happier without it.

Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use problem, there is an empowering solution that has proven to be three times more effective than addiction treatment and twelve times more effective than 12 step meetings. For more information about The Freedom Model go to or call 888-424-2626.



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