I’ve taken three posts to lay out what I’ve learned about the psychology and entrapment of addiction, in the hope that this will help others understand the thinking and temptations that drive the addictions of people they love
Part I tackled what addictions looks like and how they compare to idolatry, and listed a number of reasons people get trapped in addictions and why they fear discovery and accountability.
Part III is a blow-by-blow examination of what concealment and evasion by addicted people looks like, and how to get beyond it and walk with a person through recovery. This post is the longest because I've gone all out to give a playbook for helping a person through recovery. Not all sin is an addiction in the way I’ve described it, but there are many sins that can’t be overcome without understanding the patterns of addiction. If you are trying to help a friend break out of adultery, or alcohol or drug abuse, or pornography, or gambling, or anything else that has taken over their lives, you need to watch out for the patterns below.
Bracing Yourself to Confront a Friend
1. Common Concealment Patterns:
- Not volunteering information on what they have been doing, and being vague if asked.
- Only giving partial answers - for example, after being at a bar, saying: "I was just out getting something to eat."
- Asking friends to cover for them to meet responsibilities - often without explaining why. Taking time away from work or other responsibilities and having someone else cover for them is a way to sneak in their addiction while keeping it hidden from family.
- Not answering the phone or the door, because it might give away what they've been doing.
- Not showing up to things they previously said they would do, and giving odd excuses afterwards.
- Starting new patterns in how they use their time that allow them extra gaps on their own - heading to the gym every morning or taking a class in the evenings, which allows for unaccounted time away from people who might be suspicious.
- Telling different stories to different people so that no one can see the whole picture of this person's life.
- Compartmentalizing and friend-shopping: addicted persons will often withdraw from people who begin to show suspicions of the addiction, and seek out new friends or a closer relationship with previous acquaintances so they can start fresh with someone unaware of what's going on. This cycle may continue each time people start to guess the truth.
- Co-opting allies: similar to friend-shopping, they may look for people to be "on their side" and manipulate the relationship so this person believes their story and will vouch for them. For instance, arranging an accountability partner who is ignorant of what's going on, and then convincing this person their accountability sessions are really solid and transparent. Then when questioned by others, they can say: "Talk to my accountability partner. He'll tell you it's going great."
- Hiding charges and costs for the addiction by taking out cash instead of using credit cards.
- Deleting things that would give them away: e-mails, social media accounts, files on computers, credit card statements, etc.
- Sneaking money from work, family, or other people whose accounts they have access to in order to feed the need they can no longer afford.
- The "small" confession: admitting to something bad, but much less than what they are hiding, and acting out an apology. They often learn that they can throw people off the scent by making them think they got to the bottom of it, and by humbly apologizing.
- Minimizing: insisting that whatever they did was just a little bit. For instance, in my experience, almost everyone who has abused alcohol will say they only had 1 or 2. It's nearly universal. You can expect an addict to make their behavior seem as small as possible, only admitting what they think they cannot possibly evade.
- Selective memory: in the process of self-justification, you’ll often hear things like “It was just that one time” even when it was actually three or four. Addicted people tend to “forget” or gloss over all the examples of their addiction being out of control, and try to pick just one or two to explain away. You’ll often have to remind them how many times it really happened.
- Using emotions to deflect and evade discussion of suspicions: getting angry when questioned, or falling apart and saying "I can't take this right now!"
- The play for sympathy: when questioned, coming up with something else really heavy or painful that is happening to them and making the conversation all about this difficult thing they're going through.
- In general, simply controlling conversations by steering them to something away from their addictive behavior. There's always something else more important to talk about.
- Hiding the tools of their addiction where they can access them in secret.
- "I'm cured." - when push comes to shove, an addicted person may go through a process of agreeing they have a problem, swearing they will stop/get help, and then saying they are finished with the addiction... then resuming it in secret, while continuing to say they are staying clean.
2. Uncovering the Secrets and Creating Openness and Honesty
- Don't accept questionable excuses. If you think something's going on, then when your friend gives an explanation that isn't believable, call them out on it. Look them in the eye and say: "Tell me what's going on."
- Make it clear you won't accept anything less than the full story. Keep pressing for it as long as you suspect they are holding out on you.
- When you compare notes with others, trust them. For instance, if your friend's wife tells you he was out all night and wouldn't say where he was, then when you get to talk to him, don't accept any contradictions from him or let him dismiss what she said. Stick firmly to the facts you've been given.
- Make it clear to the person that you care about them and you can be trusted, but that you can't be manipulated or controlled. Let them see that although you're steadfast in your support for them, you aren't going to let them talk you out of what needs to be done or let them mislead you.
- Take control of conversations if there's an elephant in the room. Don't let your friend change the subject when there are questions in the air about what's going on in his or her life. Steer back to it and insist on talking it through all the way. The more they try to change the subject, the more reason you have to think something's being concealed.
- Stick to your guns. Be firm in your understanding of facts and your memory of what's been happening. An addicted person will often resort to telling you that you're remembering it wrong or that you misunderstood something. Be careful you had your facts straight going in, but once you do, don't hesitate about them. Stand firm.
- Seize moments where things are at a crisis. If you strongly suspect an addiction, then when someone has just lost a job, or had a spouse leave or kick them out, or been arrested, or otherwise accused by a friend of something, this is the time to have a straight talk with them and ask what is really behind this. When the evidence that their addiction is wrecking their life is right in front of them, they are more likely to confess it to a friend and seek sympathy.
- Pin the addicted person down to talking about their addict behavior and the problems it has created. When they try to explain something away that is clearly wrong, press them on it and challenge them on why they aren't admitting that was a problem. This is part of getting them to admit they are addicted and need help. Admitting the symptoms of the problem is one step toward admitting there is a problem.
- Fact-check: as much as possible, try to independently verify what they tell you. Don't take anything for granted. If they tell you a story their spouse or family would know about, check the facts with the spouse or family to see if they told you the truth. This is crucial, because if you catch your friend lying to you, that gives you something to confront them about even if you don't know for certain what is going on with their addiction. It gives you a valid reason to ask them why they're acting like this.
- Don't be self-conscious about telling them you know something's wrong. Even if you can't prove it or spell it out, if it's clear that they've changed and things aren't right, confront them about that. Stand your ground and press them on why things have changed. You don't necessarily have to know what's going on in order to know something's wrong, and they can only make excuses for so long before they realize you aren't going to buy any of them.
- Don't accept being avoided. If they start withdrawing from you or avoiding you when you make your suspicions clear, find ways to pursue meeting with them and talking to them. Coordinate with other friends and family if necessary.
- Don't apologize for trusting your gut.
- If you become convinced that an actual intervention is necessary, where friends and family confront the person together, get advice from a counselor, doctor, pastor, or someone else trained to deal with addiction and plan it carefully.
A Post-Script and Caution: The Danger of Thinking You're Cured
Alcoholics have reported that no matter how long they have been sober, if they start taking a drink again, they swiftly drop right back to the worst level of alcohol abuse they were at before. The pattern of addiction takes over again, and you don't start back out at a low tolerance, as if the time away from your addiction has reset you to some immunity to the addiction. As an addict, you are never "cured." You are always vulnerable, and always have to be watchful. Keep your friend honest with himself or herself about this. Recovery from addiction is a permanent lifestyle, not a course of treatment.