We say that addiction is a disease of denial because people struggling with addiction often don’t see that they have a problem. As addicts we tend to minimise or rationalise our addictive behaviours. That’s not because we’re incompetent people, it’s because our brain sabotages us because it needs us to keep our addictive behaviours alive. In addiction, the brain has a malfunction. It thinks it needs a substance or behaviour to keep itself alive when actually this substance or behaviour is destroying it. In an effort to keep them alive the brain appropriates every thought and action and emotion we have. That’s why the denial is so strong.
Phil Werdell explains this brain process as three different levels of denial. These are common denial, psychological denial and biochemical (or addictive) denial.
Common denial is when someone tells a lie in full awareness. For example, I might have stolen someone’s food and don’t want to admit it, so I say that it wasn’t me. I used to do that quite often when I was still active in my addiction. I was embarrassed but in full awareness of doing it.
Psychological denial happens when the mind represses a past experience. For example, maybe I’ve experienced a traumatic event in childhood, but I’ve repressed it and it won’t be in my conscious awareness, even though it might cause me ongoing issues. These issues can be resolved in therapy.
Biochemical denial is where it gets tricky. It’s part of the addictive process, is truly baffling and keeps us in the addiction loop. Werdell explains its three causes. The first cause of biochemical denial is false hunger. As addictive eaters we frequently experience cravings that we truly believe to be hunger. It’s constant, lingering, ongoing hunger, which doesn’t go away. It’s insatiable. It doesn’t matter how much we eat, it’ll always be there. It’s a modern phenomenon resulting from a brain malfunction brought about by our excess consumption of highly processed foods. Read more about this process in my blog No Sugar No Flour.
The second cause of biochemical denial is false thinking. It’s also a brain mechanism that keeps the addiction loop alive. It’s basically the internal voice(s) that rationalise our addictive eating behaviours. Many parts of the brain are constantly talking to us with the goal to fulfil their particular brain function. For example, even though you want to lose weight, the brain’s reward centre is telling you to eat the sugar because it wants to release dopamine and make you feel good. Even in a very mentally healthy person, there are a whole load of voices that are constantly talking. And they are all seemingly us – one person. When in fact they’re not. They are different functions of our brain with independent agendas. We make decisions based on what the voices tell us, and often the messages coming from different parts of the brain are conflicting. As they’re talking to us in our voice, we think we’re making these decisions, and that we’re sabotaging ourselves.
What happens in the brain after you’ve eaten the cake you didn’t want to eat? The left hemisphere of our brain is designed to make sense of our decisions. No matter how far we have to stretch the truth, it will come up with an answer. It will rationalise. The brain says eat more (in our own voice) and then the left brain interpreter comes in and rationalises the behaviour. Yes, because it’s my birthday. Yes because I’m tired and deserve a treat. The addicted person is being totally governed by these brain voices.
Another part of this false thinking is euphoric recall. This is when we remember previous eating episodes in vivid, mouth-watering detail, but the negative consequences will be forgotten or will be so vague as to have little or no effect on our decision to eat.
The third cause of biochemical denial is what Werdell calls the false self. It has also been called the addictive personality. Food has become the most important thing in our lives as a result of the false hunger and physical cravings. This causes more and more irrational, false thoughts and rationalisations that justify our addictive eating. And this then becomes so pervasive that we start confusing these processes with ourselves. In other words, we think we ARE the disease as opposed to we HAVE a disease. That causes a lot of self-esteem and shame issues. We start thinking we are stupid, dumb, bad, incompetent and crazy. The result is a downward spiral in which we isolate from others, wallow in shame and apply the only strategy we have – eating addictively. This is the addictive loop that is caused by the denial processes of our addictive brain.
It sounds dire, and yes, it is. Addiction does kill people, either through the consequences of using the substance, or through the psychological anguish leading to suicidality. But there IS a solution. It’s just that it’s not possible to get out of this loop by our own willpower and left to our own devices. We need support.