Addicts tell lies more often than they tell the truth. “I’m not hurting anyone.” “I can stop any time.” Deception becomes so second nature, addicts will lie even when it’s...
Addicts tell lies more often than they tell the truth. “I’m not hurting anyone.” “I can stop any time.” Deception becomes so second nature, addicts will lie even when it’s just as easy to tell the truth. Many don’t even realize they’re fibbing or that other people see through the façade. Living a double life is exhausting, so why do addicts lie?
To Preserve Their Addiction
An addict will do whatever is necessary to maintain their addiction. If they acknowledged the seriousness of the problem or the harm they’re causing themselves and others, they would be hard-pressed to continue this way of life. Their logic, whether conscious or unconscious, is: I need drugs, and I need lies to keep people off my back so I can continue using drugs. Thus, lying becomes a matter of self-preservation. Anything, or anyone, that is going to hinder their drug habit has no place in the addict’s life.
To Avoid Facing Reality
Addiction reorganizes the addict’s world and consumes their identity so that the person becomes unrecognizable to themselves and others. Since the truth is too painful to face, the addict constructs an alternate reality where drugs and alcohol aren’t a problem and the addict is doing exactly what other people want and hope for them. They say they’ve been clean for weeks when, in truth, they got high just a few hours ago. They say they landed a great new job when they’re actually dirt poor and homeless.
To Avoid Confrontation
Loved ones rarely sit idly by as an addict self-destructs. They ask questions, get angry and inevitably wonder, “If you love me, why do you keeping making choices that hurt me?” The stress of interpersonal conflict can be overwhelming for an addict. Without mature coping skills, addicts may do or say whatever it takes to avoid that disappointed look in their loved ones’ eyes or the contemptuous tone in their voice. Or they may become increasingly defensive, dishing out complaints of their own in an attempt to draw attention away from their addiction and toward the other person’s vulnerabilities.
They Are in Denial
Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, denial compels the addict to disavow their problem and ignore the consequences of their behavior. Although denial can serve a valuable protective function, allowing people to process information and come to terms with it, in addiction denial can become pervasive. For example, addicts may truly believe that their family and friends have become the enemy or that their addiction is not only an acceptable but necessary part of their life. The disease uses denial and other sophisticated defenses, such as rationalization, projection, and intellectualization, to ensure its survival.
They Believe They’re Different
If the addict acknowledges that drugs and alcohol have become a problem but wants to continue using, they must convince themselves that they are the exception to the rule. The delusion that “I’m not like the others, I can handle it” allows the addict to live outside normal standards of behavior.
They Feel Ashamed
In sober moments, addicts may feel extreme shame, embarrassment, and regret. Unable to work through these emotions, addicts cope in the only way they know how: by using more drugs. To keep up appearances, they paint a picture of themselves to others that are far more flattering than the reality.
Because They Can
Sometimes friends and family match the addict’s denial with an unhealthy dose of their own. They turn a blind eye to worrisome behaviors and make excuses for the addict because the truth is simply too painful or they’ve tolerated as much suffering as they can bear. Loved ones who ignore, enable or rescue send the message that lying is acceptable, thus perpetuating the addiction.
No More Lies
Lies are a root cause of the isolation most addicts experience, as well as the anger and disillusionment loved ones often feel. While loved ones can’t force an addict out of denial, there are steps they can take to illuminate the realities:
Recognize that lies fulfill a purpose for the addict and are not a personal affront. As frustrating as they can be, lies are a common part of the disease.
While it is important to understand the purpose of the lies, it is equally important to push past them. The lies are keeping your loved one trapped in addiction. In some cases, addicts are forced to face reality by hitting rock bottom, but loved ones can help “raise the bottom” by staging an intervention, refusing to enable or rescue, contacting a therapist or addiction treatment program, and pointing out negative consequences in real-time (e.g., after a driving under the influence charge).
If you catch the addict in a lie, don’t look the other way. Letting them know what you see will help them face the consequences of their actions.
Create a supportive environment that facilitates honesty rather than engaging in a power struggle or making threats. The lying will stop when the addict feels safe telling the truth and has the support they need to get well.
Encourage involvement in support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, which replace the automatic response – lies – with rigorous honesty and making amends. In these groups, peers hold addicts accountable for their lies and encourage them to face the unpleasant truth about themselves without shame or blame.
It’s true, addicts lie. And while the lies can’t be ignored, they are actually a distraction from the real problem – the underlying issues that contribute to addiction – and a diversion from the solution: finding a path to recovery. Only by breaking through denial and seeing the truth can the addict begin to heal.
Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine.