“I’ll never do that again.”
“I used to be addicted, but now I can limit myself to just one drink.”
Lies are a natural and virtually automatic way of life for addicts. As a result of denial and diseased thinking, addicts (often very convincingly) lie to their loved ones to keep them around, to the world to avoid stigmatization, and to themselves to preserve their drug habit. They lie about the big things and the small things – to feel important, to avoid rejection or judgment, to keep up appearances – until they’ve created a fantasy life that is far more tolerable than their current reality.
The dishonesty, though understandably hurtful to others, serves a purpose in the addict’s life. If they stopped lying, they’d have to quit drinking or using drugs and face a shameful pile of hurt they’ve inflicted on the people they love. That’s quite a load to bear, especially for the addict who is complacent about getting sober or who tries to face their past alone. It’s much easier to hide emotions, keep up the double life and continue using.
Just as food fuels the body, lies drive addictive thoughts and behaviors. For some, relief from the need to lie is the most attractive aspect of addiction recovery. Yet in some cases the lies are so entrenched that they linger long after getting sober.
In 12-Step recovery, the standard isn’t occasional honesty or attempted honesty, but rigorous honesty. What does this mean?
Rigorous honesty means telling the truth when it’s easier to lie and sharing thoughts and feelings even when there may be consequences. In 12-Step recovery, the requirement is taking a fearless personal inventory and promptly admitting to dishonesty. This means catching oneself in the middle of a lie and correcting it, even if it’s embarrassing.
It isn’t enough to be honest with oneself (Step 1), but addicts must also be honest with their higher power and other people (Steps 4 and 5), including family, health care providers, therapists, peers in a 12-Step group and so on. Steps 8 and 9 require the addict to take active steps toward honesty and the last three steps require practicing honesty on a daily basis.
While it is important to be honest about addiction and recovery, rigorous honesty extends to every aspect of life. It involves not only refraining from verbal lies, but also nonverbal lies (e.g., stealing or cheating) and an awareness of the individual’s own fears, limiting beliefs and unhealthy patterns. It requires authentic relationships that leave room for struggles and failures, setting boundaries, and living in accordance with one’s own values and principles.
Honesty is a building block for lifelong recovery, but even it is no magical cure.
A Process, Not a Destination. It is generally accepted that it takes three to four weeks to un-learn a habit, but it can take significantly longer to form an entirely new habit and embrace it into the fabric of your being. Telling the truth requires ongoing attention and practice even in the face of discouragement and fear about what others will think.
Perfection Is Unrealistic. Addict or non-addict, 100% honesty isn’t always realistic. There are times when despite our best efforts, denial rears its head or we make mistakes. Being in recovery doesn’t mean being superhuman.
Honesty Shouldn’t Hurt. The responsibility of rigorous honesty doesn’t include harsh criticism or cruelty. While it is helpful to acknowledge areas that could use improvement in oneself, it is equally important (and difficult) to recognize positive characteristics.
Likewise, honesty shouldn’t hurt or berate others. When addicts make amends as part of 12-Step recovery, they tell the truth “except when to do so would injure them or others.” Honesty is unhelpful if it is used to make the addict feel good about him/herself or to relieve their guilt, with little consideration for the effect on the other person. Recovery is not an alternate universe – respect, boundaries and social decorum still apply.
Lies Have Consequences. Even if the addict commits to rigorous honesty, there are friends and loved ones who have been hurt along the way. It may take time to earn their trust, respect and companionship again. By consistently following through on promises and working a recovery program, loved ones can begin to see that this time will be different.
Honesty Alone Is Not Enough. Dishonesty can be a sign that the addict is returning to ineffective coping strategies. As they say in AA, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” While honesty is an essential part of relapse prevention, it is just one piece. Without working a program of recovery, learning new skills and addressing the underlying issues, honesty cannot by itself prevent relapse.
Without honesty, there is no recovery (or perhaps only the type of survival-based recovery that falls far short of fulfilling). It requires a valiant effort but through rigorous honesty, addicts reap a reward that at one time likely seemed utterly impossible: coming to know and love themselves and others, imperfections and all.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Sack served as a senior clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where his research interests included affective disorders, seasonal and circadian rhythms, and neuroendocrinology. He currently serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that includes California rehab center Promises, The Ranch in Tennessee, The Recovery Place drug rehab in Florida, and Texas rehabs Right Step and Spirit Lodge.
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Last reviewed: 11 Dec 2012