The instructor insisted that his students refrain from referring to alcoholic denial. “It’s not denial,” he proclaimed emphatically. “It’s ambivalence.”

I was thinking: No, it’s denial– which is, after all, a ridiculously common defense against anxiety-provoking reality.

When something scares us, we sometimes respond by blocking it from our awareness. Being less aware, we feel less anxious.

It’s an unconscious process. Not an exercise of will; more like a reflex. Certain threatening facts or feelings are temporarily unavailable to us.

At one point I suffered from back spasms that required hospitalization. I couldn’t drive so my buddy Herb gave me a ride. During the admission interview, the nurse asked a bunch of standard questions about my history, my family history, etcetera– most of which I answered in the negative. I’d been healthy all my life, up until recently.

Herb began to contradict me. He brought up point after point where I should have answered yes to the nurse’s question. It was quite distressing. I was turning out to be far less healthy than I thought.

That bastard Herb had apparently been listening to me complain all those years.

I made no conscious choice to repress the facts or deceive the nurse. It seemed as if my mind just went ahead and did it for me.

In alcoholism– a chronic disorder that often progresses slowly, over years or decades of adjustment– this process is layered and complex. Alcoholism and anxiety go hand in hand. Over time, protective denial becomes part of the psychopathology that we associate with the experience of alcoholism.

As does ambivalence about quitting. Any addict secretly dreads the prospect of a life without the substance on which he’s become so utterly dependent. And denial just makes the decision more difficult.

A client spoke of getting into recovery during a period when her life was dominated by an acrimonious divorce from her psychiatrist husband. “Looking back, the stress was unbelievable,” she said. “My life was complete chaos. I hardly slept or ate. I was in a constant rage. I cannot believe I managed to give up booze and pills in the middle of all that.”

“So how did you do it?”

“Denial”, she said at last. “It’s apparently what I’m good at.”

More on defense mechanisms.