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Making Excuses for Alcoholism

June 4, 2009 by Emily Battaglia 

Addiction is often accompanied by denial. Denial makes it possible for the addict to continue his habits in the face of serious negative consequences. Individuals struggling with alcoholism tend to employ a certain set of excuses when it comes to facing their destructive behavior.The reason that many alcoholics exhibit similar behavior in this area may simply be due to the fact that these individuals share certain personality traits and psychological vulnerabilities which drew them to alcohol in the first place.

The addictive process begins and is driven by an endless quest for gratification, emotional fulfillment, and satiation, regardless of the consequences. An addict develops an emotional relationship with a substance; the substance grants her brief reprieve from sadness, dysphoria, and other negative emotions. However, once the high is gone, she will experience an increase in negative emotions related to the shame of substance abuse and the failure of the substance to sustain her for long. This will drive her to use even more, and the vicious cycle continues.

By the time an alcoholic begins experiencing serious consequences related to his drinking, he has usually built up a complex network of defenses aimed at protecting his continued use of alcohol. It can be difficult to penetrate these entrenched, irrational, and often intricate paths of reasoning to convince an alcoholic that he does, indeed, have a problem and needs help. The addict is functioning in a reality that is entirely shaped and supported by alcohol – even thinking about life without alcohol seems absurd.

For someone who is trying to reach a loved one, it may be helpful to know ahead of time some of the most common excuses that alcoholics use to justify their behavior. Excuses made by alcoholics can be generally grouped into five categories: Ignorance, Rationalization, Recrimination, Isolation, and False Promises.

Excuses that fall under the heading of Ignorance include:

What problem? – This defense is one of primitive and unconscious denial. It is classified as a psychotic defense mechanism because it distorts reality itself. Those in psychotic denial are literally out of touch with reality. Thus an alcoholic who has already suffered significant negative consequences from his drinking will honestly deny that he has a serious problem with alcohol. He is genuinely offended by what he perceives as irrational attacks from those who suggest he does have a problem.

I’m not THAT bad! – Many alcoholics work to minimize and downplay problems associated with their drinking. This defense can overlap with the psychotic denial mentioned above. He may acknowledge negative consequences but will always adamantly maintain that they are not that bad.

Excuses that fall under the heading of Rationalization include:

It’s not my fault! – The addict rationalizes his actions and projects blame in an attempt to distance himself from the consequences of his actions. Alternative explanations are constructed and stoutly defended (e.g., the employer who fired him or the officer who arrested him or the wife who divorced him was dishonest or had corrupt motives).

All I want is a little relief! – The addict rationalizes his behavior through self-pity and subtle manipulation. He feels like a victim and seeks consolation from alcohol. He believes that the consequences of his behavior should be excused by others. The idea of giving up alcohol hills him with indignation. He believes that he deserves special treatment and that alcohol is his only source of consolation in a world that is against him.

Nobody really understands me! – This is another defense based on self-pity. Because others usually have trouble excusing the addict for his behavior and its destructive consequences (i.e., nobody buys this defense except the addict himself), the addict usually becomes resentful and believes that no one really understands him. He uses this reasoning to excuse ever more extreme behavior.

I’ve got to be me! – The addict cannot imagine life without alcohol. He portrays himself and his behavior as a romantic, glorious, and tragic form of self-actualization and fulfillment.

I HAVE to drink for my work! – The addict insists that giving up drinking will endanger his ability to make a living or be successful.

I’m not nearly as bad as OTHER people! – The addict compares himself to people who, he believes, are in far worse shape than he is. Based on this argument, he will insist that there is no reason for him to seek help.

I HAVE to drink away my sorrows! – Survivors of childhood or adult trauma often turn to alcohol as a way to numb negative emotions and forget (briefly) what they cannot face. The addict believes, and tries to convince others, that his destructive behavior is an effective response to his problems. He may also believe that drinking is keeping him from sinking into an even worse condition.

Excuses that fall under the heading of Recrimination include:

You’re not so pure yourself! – The addict turns the tables and attacks his perceived attacker. Constantly conscious of their own shortcomings, addicts keenly note the shortcomings and faults of others as ammunition to use in their own defense. Anyone who threatens his continued use of alcohol should be prepared to have their most sensitive weaknesses exploited.

I’d be OK if it weren’t for you! – The addict blames a significant other for his addictive behavior, and displays significant resentment and self-pity. This “guilt trip” is used to break down the resolve of the person who is trying to confront him, and to make them feel complicit in the problem.

Look at all I have done for you! – This defense also falls under “guilt trip” and is aimed at deflecting any criticism of his addictive behavior. The addict will cite long work hours, stress, and other perceived sacrifices as a justification for his addictive behavior.

Excuses that fall under the heading of Isolation include:

I’m only hurting myself! – The addict invokes the right to self-harm and denies that his behavior has hurtful consequences for those around him.

Nobody tells ME what to do! – The addict displays defiant and oppositional behavior to avoid scrutinizing his actions and their consequences.

I’ll handle it myself! – The addict acknowledges that he has a significant problem but insists that he can and will deal with it by himself rather than seeking any kind of help.

Excuses that fall under the heading of False Promises include:

Trust me – I know what I am doing! – The addict still believes that he is in control and attempts to convince others. He may acknowledge a problem but believes that he can keep it from getting out of hand. 

I can stop any time I want to! – The addict believes that he is choosing to act the way he does, and is unaware that he has lost control. He believes that he can stop whenever he makes up his mind to do it, but most often, he never does.

I’ll quit tomorrow! – The addict displays sincere determination to do something about his destructive behavior, but somehow keeps putting it off.

It will never, ever happen again! – When an addict suffers a particularly embarrassing or painful situation as a consequence of his behavior, he may make promises to those he has harmed that he will not repeat his behavior. Once this has repeated several times, however, loved ones become skeptical that the addict will ever live up to his promises.

I don’t have time (or money) to get help! – The addict may genuinely perceive time and money as obstacles to getting professional help, although this is not the true reason for his resistance. If the addict does take a step to get help, usually as a result of loved ones prodding him, there is an extremely high probability that he will identify other insurmountable obstacles to continuing treatment, including the frequency, intensity, or duration of the help.

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