Sometimes, even experts are in denial about addiction

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In a world where addiction is associated with “abuse” and addicts are often depicted as morally depraved, physically unfit and mentally unsound, it’s not difficult to figure out why addicted people — and their family members — are in denial.

They simply don’t fit the stereotype.

Take the case of Terry McGovern. Terry was the daughter of U.S. Sen. George McGovern, who in 1996 published a heartbreaking memoir, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism.”

When Terry was 20, she drank an average of five or six beers, three or four shots of hard liquor, or a bottle of wine every day.

Despite continued drinking, occasional use of marijuana and amphetamines, and persistent, unrelieved depression, Terry’s psychoanalyst did not believe she was an alcoholic. Instead, he thought her basic, underlying problems were depression and unresolved psychological conflicts.

Terry progressed “very well” in therapy, the psychoanalyst told her father, even though she continued to drink and use drugs.

This is a clear case of “professional denial,” which is rampant in our society. Thousands of addicted people like Terry McGovern consult psychiatrists and psychotherapists who, having little or no education in addiction, view problematic drug use as a symptom of deeper emotional problems.

Months or years pass — and the disease steadily progresses — as therapist and client search for the underlying cause, the “real” reason why people use drugs to “self-medicate,” often thought to be buried somewhere in a traumatic past.

It’s a fact that many of us have experienced trauma, but when drug use continues despite serious and recurring problems the “real problem” that must be acknowledged first and foremost is addiction.

Family denial is as common as professional denial. When Terry was 26, her brother became deeply concerned about her drinking. One Sunday, when there was no liquor in the house and all the South Dakota bars were closed, he watched in horror as his sister drank all the cooking extracts containing alcohol.

Still, he rationalized away his fears: It was the 1970s, Terry was in her mid-20s and most of her friends were also drinking too much.

“In those days,” Steve McGovern recalled, “we thought that alcoholism was something that happened to someone’s dad or uncle or grandfather. Students might drink too much — but alcoholism, no way.”

Addicted folks practice the same sort of denial and rationalization. No self-respecting human being wants to be considered “one of them.”

Alcoholics in denial have been called “treatment resistant,” weak-willed, selfish and self-destructive — to name only a few of the terms used — but in reality they are simply following the dictates of their addicted brains. When your brain is filled with toxic poisons, you can’t accurately judge what’s happening to you, nor can you easily “just say no.”

Addicted brains urge us on, using all sorts of physical and emotional prods: “Go ahead, take a drink, it won’t hurt you! And don’t listen to those fools telling you to cut down — they don’t know what you really need.”

The truly astonishing fact is that addicted people can and do talk back to their brains, calling on reserves of inner strength and willpower that most of us will never have reason to summon.

In her journal, Terry described the ongoing struggle between her body and her mind, when her mind told her to stop and her body cried out, “More!”

This journal entry was written on November 13, 1993, 13 months before Terry left a Wisconsin bar and, in her father’s anguished words, “stumbled into a snow bank and froze to death.”

My body is telling my mind, just one more really strong one would do it — coat the nerves and they’d stay coated and numbed ... what happens is that shot gives me a feeling of wholeness, and when it starts to go away there is artificial emptiness just as there was artificial wholeness ... I could weep and weep that the lie is still alive. How could I want to keep company with the same agent that has snatched from my grasp all that I have loved? God forgive me. Teresa forgive Teresa.

As strong as the denial system must be to protect the needs of the addicted brain, it cannot defend the addict against her own self-loathing.

As the addiction strengthens its hold and makes a mockery of the individual’s willpower and strength of character, depression, anxiety, and fear deepen.

Terry McGovern’s request for forgiveness — from God, from herself — is heartbreaking. She reached for the bottle, knowing the devastation it would cause, and it was that seemingly willing alliance with the devil that created the fierce, unending tortures of shame, guilt, and self-hatred that plagued her final days.

Of all the unrelenting horrors that occur as addiction progresses into its late and final stages, the most agonizing of all is the belief that if death or insanity does come, it is not undeserved.

Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and co-founder of Trilogy Recovery Community. Email her at ketchak@gmail.com. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.

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