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Dancing in Denial: What It's Like and How to Stop It

Recently a friend ended a long-term relationship with her live in boyfriend because he refused to stop abusing alcohol. We talked about the drama, damage, and denial which had poisoned their relationship. As we spoke, I recalled how my husband and I partnered in that crazy making dance. This excerpt from my memoir captures our dishonest life.

Over the years as my husband's alcoholism progressed, I began to confront or try to reason with him. I recall long conversations late into the night. I talked; he listened and always promised to cut down. Sometimes he could handle a few drinks without getting drunk; other times he couldn't. His shift from social to problem drinking was gradual, like the slow rise of the sun over the horizon at Holden Beach. That's why I often viewed each binge as a temporary glitch. Like other spouses of alcoholics I spent too much time and energy trying to maintain the facade of a healthy, normal marriage.

Often in the aftermath of a drinking episode, I'd turn the thermostat up; he turned it down. He'd retreat and I'd sulk or more often, let loose with tantrums, tears and threats, particularly if powered by PMS.

"It's that time of month again, Frannie, I'd better watch out."

Once I threw a vase across the room. It shattered to pieces. We stood silent for a few minutes until he gathered up the shards in a dustpan. Another time, I clenched my fists and pummeled his chest: "Why are you doing this? Why won't you stop? Why won't you answer me?' Like a wave about to crest, my frustration mounted. A few times when Terry fell out of bed, I stepped over his inert body and left him on the floor. I lacked the compassion to at least cover him with a blanket.

Frost for a few days, then the thaw. A touch, a kiss, a hug, an "I'm sorry," a single rose in a bud vase, a sticky note left on the refrigerator, or a bag of chestnuts. Nothing but smooth sailing ahead. Then we reset our emotional temperature.

Because Terry was kind, gentle, and considerate, I felt conflicted. Everyone indulges. Nobody's perfect. He's been working hard. I'm overreacting. I'm irritable this time of month. Besides it doesn't happen that often. I worry too much. I'm too serious. I need to lighten up. Back then my denial was substantial. But my husband's was as obdurate as the rock face on a mountain.

Excerpt from Dark Wine Waters: My Husband of a Thousand Joys and Sorrows (

Denial is a psychological defense mechanism used to protect ourselves from painful realities that threaten our self-esteem. It alters reality so that we lose touch with what's normal. For loved ones it's a survival device to cope with the broken promises, continuous crises, and embarrassment. Denial isn't limited to addicts and their loved one. For example, those with a chronic illness such as diabetes or cancer might downplay or deny the severity of their illness because they're not willing to make dramatic life changes. Years ago when I smoked heavily I pushed aside those dire warnings about nicotine addiction and lung cancer even though my father died from that disease.

Denial is a hallmark of addiction. Statements like, "I plan to cut down." "I don't know why you're making such a big deal about this," are common. Addicts and family members may deny because of the shame and stigma still associated with the disease. Often I denied what was happening right in front of me or what I knew in my heart to be true. I questioned my own sanity.

Family members can help by examining their own motivation and behavior and by allowing their addicted loved ones to experience the consequences of their drinking and drug use, unless it's life threatening and in many cases it isn't. This change isn't easy but may well be the catalyst to stop the crazy-making dance of denial.

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