I’m thinking of a disease that starts slow and gets worse and over time — taking not just weeks or months, but maybe even years before it develops into a problem. Can you guess what it is? It impacts not only your physical health, but also the way you think about things. Any guess now? I’ll end the suspense and tell you … it’s alcoholism. The thing about this (often) slowly progressing disease is that it allows the person with the disease, family members and co-workers to build an elaborate system of denial that makes it hard to see the truth.
Subtle though it may be, life gradually becomes dominated by alcohol. This change can be characterized as a turn toward alcohol; alcohol begins to serve as the organizing principle in life. This turn is where the person stops choosing to drink freely and begins to need it. The need for alcohol becomes the central focus and, in fact, the organizer of the person’s behavior and thinking. The need to include more and more alcohol in one’s life without disturbing the central belief in self-control becomes a dominant and incompatible focus on a daily basis.
Someone suffering from alcoholism covers up and denies their drinking because, in addition to impaired insight into their condition, somewhere inside they often realize that their drinking means more than they are willing to admit. It can also be noticed that as the drinking gets worse and causes more problems, the denial tends to get stronger and stronger. This denial runs deep and is a true belief that they are not suffering from alcoholism, even when all evidence indicates otherwise.
Alcoholism is interesting because it’s characterized by both obsessive thinking about some things and not thinking at all about other things (denial). In addition, alcoholism causes an unusual twist to this tendency of obsession and denial. It creates a tendency to obsess about things that make you want to drink, even if they make you feel miserable, and then deny any information that would offer hope that problems can be solved by some means other than having a drink.
It’s no surprise that we all prefer thinking about pleasurable things and try to avoid thinking about things that cause discomfort. But people suffering from alcoholism do this to the extreme. As a result, the denial — a refusal to admit the truth or reality of the situation — is amazingly strong and can take several different forms. It might sound like a rationalization, explaining the drinking behavior in a way to make it more acceptable. This might be something like “I only have two” or “I haven’t had a drink all week.” It might be a refusal to talk about the drinking, like “Let’s not talk about this right now” or “Stop nagging me about this.” Sometimes denial can sound like blame, whether the blame is focused on another person, a situation or even just bad luck — for example, “She makes me so mad I have to drink” or “If work wasn’t so stressful, I wouldn’t need a drink.” Another often-heard display of denial is hiding the drinking or denying it when asked. This might sound like “No, that’s just mouthwash you smell” or “I stopped at the bar with my partners, but I didn’t have anything to drink.”
Friends and family members can also become involved in denial as alcohol becomes a new, secret “family member.” It’s an intruder to friends and family, who must make significant adaptations in their relationships within and outside of the family to maintain the secret. Others must continue to make adaptations in their perceptions in order to maintain what is now the group’s denial. This kind of adjustment extends to more people as alcohol becomes the dominating force around which rules and rituals are constructed and acted out.
As long as the person or those close to them can explain increased drinking in a reasonable, sensible manner, no one has to deal with the reality of the existing need and loss of control. Maintaining the belief in free choice, important to us all, in this case produces “alcoholic thinking,” a way of explaining away increasing drinking through rationalization and denial.
If any of this hits home for you or someone you know, think about making some changes. It’s time to be proactive, so reach out for help and develop a plan to get sober. Psychological Services Bureau (PSB)/Substance Abuse Resource Program is an excellent place to start: (213) 738-3500. This will be one of your best calls to preserve your future success. You can also contact Peace Officer’s Fellowship (POF) using the list on this page. There is no better time than now! Or if you prefer, there are numerous Peer Support members throughout the Department and chaplains available to talk. And don’t forget, it’s confidential.