The Role of Denial in an Adult Child’s Life

Denial is a defense mechanism used to combat or minimize the danger to which a person is exposed and exists as a dynamic in both the alcoholic and the adult child who is created after an upbringing with him.

If you teeter on the outside ledge of a 100-story building, for example, you may improve your chances of climbing back into it if you deny the danger and avoid the terror associated with it.

Denial is the cloud that surrounds an alcoholic or dysfunctional family. A storm rages on the inside, but this is mostly hidden or distorted when viewed from the outside.

The Alcoholic:

Alcoholism is the only malady that fools a person into believing that it is not a disease and, even if he thinks it is, his denial of it only further nullifies it.

Why, it may be wondered, can a family suffer intolerable mental and emotional pain and abuse because of a father’s drinking, yet he himself seems to assume no responsibility for their anguish?

Perhaps the single most frustrating characteristic of an alcoholic is his refusal or inability to admit that he has such a problem, even when his family is falling apart, his job is on the line, his drunk driving convictions are accumulating, and his wife is suing him for divorce.

“Much has been written about denial,” according to Kathleen W. Fitzgerald in her book, Alcoholism: The Genetic Inheritance (Whales’ Tail Press, 2002, p. 191). “The alcoholic simply cannot see and understand what is happening to him. The family also suffers this denial.”

“Slowly, painfully, the fabric of family life has been picked away,” she also wrote (p. 177). “There are big holes, even craters and gorges in that family. The family members are truly the walking wounded.”

Although the trail of destruction left by an alcoholic may be blatantly obvious to others, he himself cannot connect his actions with it.

“It is the very nature of this disease that self-awareness is dim, blunted, absent,” according to Fitzgerald (p. 55). “Even in recovery, all that is left is a memory of bizarre occasions and of painful, confused feelings. Recovering people, sober many years, suddenly remember a forgotten incident, a buried conversation, something that was seen or said or felt while drinking.”

An alcoholic is not consciously, by the definition of the term, lying. He truly does not believe that he has a drinking problem, much less that he belongs in the “alcoholic” category.

He cannot make a direct brain connection with his excessive imbibing and the negative consequences it causes others, yet this only amplifies the anger and rage of those he hurts-in other words, those who can make that connection.

So true is this aspect of the disease, that one adult child recently recounted that, after his father was flagged by police because of his erratic driving, given a breathalyzer test, demonstrated a high blood alcohol level, and issued one of many DWI’s, the adult child himself was blamed for the incident because he had purchased more economical tires for the car and they had caused the erratic driving. “Alcohol!” he emphatically stated. “I never touch the stuff,” despite the heavy smell of it still escaping his mouth. There had obviously been no connection between his actions and their consequences.

Denial, the brain’s self-protecting mechanism, consists of three processes:

Turning off, the first one, occurs when the person’s mind seeks to protect itself against anxiety by dimming or blunting what causes it. Like the static on the radio, it can be reduced or eliminated by flipping its off switch.

The creation of a blind spot, the second, can be considered an area of blocked attention and self-deception, and one which the alcoholic is no longer able to reach and review.

“The blind spot is the cornerstone of the alcoholic’s system of defense,” according to Fitzgerald (p. 57). “This is what is meant by ‘alcoholic denial.'”

“For many reasons,” she later writes (p. 57), “they are unable to keep track of their own behavior and begin to lose contact with their emotions. Their defense systems continue to grow, so that they can survive in the face of their problems. The greater the pain, the higher and more rigid the defenses become; and this whole process is unconscious… Finally, they actually become victims of their own defense systems.”

Multiple levels, the third tenet of denial, occur when the alcoholic employs his blind spots in all levels of his life, and in each case is unable to process the consequences of his actions.

Blackouts, periods or episodes of induced amnesia, cement the condition.

“The alcoholic does not have conscious access to knowledge of the amount he drank, how he drank, what he was like, the effect he had on others, how he looked, (or) how he sounded,” Fitzgerald wrote (p. 59).

All this produces the classical denial syndrome: he becomes blind to his disease and then becomes blind to the fact that he is blind. His actions bypass the subconscious and go directly into the unconscious part of his mind, causing him to fully believe that they are not there. He cannot connect with what he does and he therefore has no regret, remorse, empathy, or even conscience about the harm he inflicts on himself or others.

“When a person is left without the marvelous defense of denial, guilt and shame wash over him, drowning him in self-loathing,” according to Fitzgerald (p. 175). “This cannot be avoided and serves to knock down the last vestiges of his denial; the degree to which he is still able to disown his alcoholism is the degree to which he will not recover. All the denial must go. He does not need it anymore.”

In the end, it is the alcoholic’s blindness to his excessive and dangerous drinking levels, and his seeming unwillingness to take ownership for them, that causes more rage in the families affected by them than the act of drinking itself. How do the adult children who ultimately emerge from such upbringings deal with all of this? Ironically, with denial of their own.

The Adult Child:

Ignorance is an early form and foreshadow of denial. The former implies “do not know.” The latter can be considered “refuse to know.” Those raised in alcoholic, dysfunctional, and/or abusive families quickly and ironically learn that the only thing that holds them together is to not see the truth that otherwise causes others to fall apart-that is, the dysfunctional family’s truth is a lie–that everyone must deny what they see and experience in order to continue living within it.

Alcoholism or dysfunction hardly occur in isolation or only to the imbiber or abuser, and those affected use the same brain mechanism as those who affect.

What, then, is denial to an adult child?

“Denial for an adult child has a variety of definitions that include blaming others and minimizing memoires,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 454). “There is also an outright rejection of facts. Some aspects of adult child denial involve recalling abusive or neglectful behavior as normal.”

Alcoholism is a disease, not a liquid.

Despite what may be apparent, based upon behavioral transgressions, the presence of alcohol itself, and various forms of abuse, that alcoholism exists to others, some two decades of exposure to it ironically fail to provide the necessary clues to those who are exposed to it during their upbringings.

“… An estimated 50 percent of adult children of alcoholics deny or cannot recognize alcoholism among their families,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (p. 124). “By growing up in a dysfunctional home, we become desensitized to the effects of alcoholism, abusive behavior, and lack of trust.”

“We used denial to forget… the fact that we had internalized our parents,” it further states. (p. 22). “Denial is the glue that holds together a dysfunctional home. Family secrets or ignored feelings, and predictable chaos are part of a dysfunctional family system. The system allows abuse or other unhealthy behaviors to be tolerated at harmful levels. Through repetition, the abuse is considered normal by those in the family. Because dysfunction seemed normal or tolerable, the adult child can deny that anything unpleasant happened in childhood.”

But there is hope.

“By working the twelve steps with a sponsor or knowledgeable counselor,” again according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (p. 96), “the adult child realizes the denial and secrecy that were necessary to survive such an upbringing. Denial, which fosters a lack of clarity, is the glue that allows the disease of family dysfunction to thrive. Cloaked in denial, the disease is passed on to the next generation with amazing consistency. The basic language of denial is ‘don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.'”

Exacerbating this dilemma is the fact that some are so dissociated from their feelings, that, even if incidents are recallable, there is no connection to the pain or negative emotion that existed at the time of their occurrences, leading a person to delusionally recount a childhood that was less traumatizing and impacting than it actually was.

With or without these feelings, the behavioral characteristics exhibited by adult children are recordings, if not out-and-out downloadings, of their parents’ actions.

“Much of that behavior mirrors the actions and thoughts of the dysfunctional parents, grandparents, or caregivers,” continues the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (p. 23). “Once we come out of denial, we realize we have internalized our parents’ behavior. We have internalized their perfectionism, control, dishonesty, self-righteousness, rage, pessimism, and judgmentalness.”

Another form of denial is selective recall, or the remembering of those events that were either less threatening or that sanitized upbringings so that they can be recounted as more respectable and presentable to others later in life who do not seem to share their adverse childhood experiences.

“… This kind of selective recall is a form of denial,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (p. 32). “To think that our parents could shame us or belittle us for being a vulnerable child is too much for us to accept. Like most children, we wanted to believe that our parents cared about us no matter what they said to us. As adults, we search for any kindness that our parents might have shown and ignore clear examples of damaging behavior. Societal pressure helps us select the memories that are more presentable.”

Although this convenient “forgive-and-forget” form of denial may convince others, an adult child’s own behavior, which is not always and fully under his control, is like a language that does not forget, if its messages can be accurately translated, and they often are, bespeaking of repressed incidents, feelings, fears, and damage by means of addictions, compulsions, codependence, anxiety disorders, hypervigilance, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the very survival traits which embody and define the adult child syndrome. The person may deliberately or inadvertently lie, but the body usually tells the truth.

There may be an even more subtle form of this force. Continually subjected to energy and brain waves the alcoholic or abusive parent generates, spouse and children alike may subconsciously lock on to this pattern and adopt it themselves. After all, any system, whether it be that of a family or a company, can only function as a cohesive whole if all of its members adhere to the same rules.

“When alcoholism or dysfunction are present in the family,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (p. 165), “every member… is affected… in body, mind, and spirit. Through the first 18 years of our lives, our families had 6,570 days to shame, belittle, ignore, criticize, or manipulate us during the most formative years of our being… To survive this long exposure to family dysfunction, our minds developed deeply entrenched roles and traits that changed the meaning of words and experience.”

Finally, denial is generated and compounded by the person’s once-necessary creation, most likely at a very young, pre-school age, of his inner child.

“The classic response for someone caught in a situation he cannot handle is fight or flight,” according to Fitzgerald in Alcoholism: The Genetic Inheritance (p. 141). “However, the child in such families is too small to fight and too young to flee; he must stay. But he improvises a way to both stay and leave: the child splits-his body stays, but his spirit leaves.”

“The child is not free to remain a child and stay with the natural rhythms of growing from girlhood to womanhood,” she continues. “… Forever she remains the adult child, caught in that twilight zone of inexperienced life, of bearing burdens too heavy, of never really knowing what childhood was and what adulthood truly is.”

“The separation/connection task is never successfully accomplished,” she concludes (p. 144), “so we do not truly develop into a rich, abundant maturity, but become hostage in that never-never land between adulthood and childhood. We become adult children. We are little kids, playing dress-up.”

The more a person deposits his adverse experiences into the sub- or even unconscious parts of his mind and seeks protection from them in his inner child, the less there is to be in denial about. After all, none of these things really exist to him, since he cannot reach or recollect them, and he cannot change what he cannot access, resulting in the perpetuation of the disease of alcoholism or dysfunction and the future generation of adult children.

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