It’s a regular day, and you decide to take yourself out for coffee. You look at your wallet to see how much money you have. Low and behold, the money that was just there yesterday has vanished.
Who is to blame? You notice that your teenage son quietly snuck out of the house early in the morning. He was the only one home. Red flags go off in your head—you know you have been having issues with him lately. He is constantly asking for money, coming home late at night looking and smelling inebriated. Could your son have stolen the money to pay for drugs or alcohol?
It’s a hard pill for any parent to swallow. When he finally does return home, you confront him, but he denies taking the money. He can’t look you in the eyes. Is he lying? Why do addicts lie? What are they to gain from this behavior?
Let’s explore possible reasons why those with substance use disorders may lie.
1. The Craving for Drugs and Alcohol Can Take Over
Continued drug and/or alcohol use can cause a perpetual cycle of compulsive behavior that motivates the addicted individual to keep using drugs or alcohol despite negative consequences.
Chemical changes in the brain can impair judgment.1 So someone who is using drugs or alcohol has deluded themselves and quite literally “cannot think straight.” Drugs and alcohol do change the brain, lessening one’s ability to make rational decisions. As a result, the person continues using even though it may be hurting their life and possibly, the lives of others.1
An addiction can take over your life, making you lose sight of important goals. Drug use becomes more important than working or going to school. Seeking out drugs to maintain the habit can consume you. The addiction starts to replace all the things you used to enjoy, including time spent with family and enjoyable hobbies. Someone in this vicious cycle of addiction may do almost anything to keep taking the drug, like steal or lie. Like the teenage boy in the story, he had to lie to cover up his drug use. Possibly at the core is guilt and shame for the bad behavior.
Unfortunately, addicted individuals may be so wrapped up in their own quest for drugs or alcohol that they lose regard for others, especially family members. As a family member, you may begin to question the drug-seeking behavior and lying, not totally understanding what would drive a person to act in such a way. It’s common for close family members to be in denial as well. It may be difficult for you to accept that your own child would violate your boundaries as a parent. An addicted individual can have all the determination in the world to stop their destructive drug use, but unfortunately, the craving for drugs and alcohol often wins out.
2. Morals and Values Can Become Distorted in Addiction
Another factor is that values and morals are lost during active addiction. If you are the loved one of a drug addict, you may be baffled by their behavior. It’s not that the person’s goodness is gone, as it’s been hijacked by the addiction. What’s left is a person who has abandoned their morals and values to preserve the addictive cycle. The need for drugs and alcohol is so intense that lying, cheating, and stealing become a way of life.
Addicted individuals cover up evidence of their habit to maintain it. Similarities occur across the board in most addictions, including alcohol, drug, and behavioral addictions like internet addiction.2 The pattern of secrecy and lying is synonymous with how most actively addicted individuals operate.2 A rejection of moral codes feeds the already out-of-control addiction. In other words, the drug addict’s value system breaks down; integrity, honesty, respect, and other moral values are lost and are replaced by the opposite: lack of integrity, dishonesty, disrespect, etc. Morality and addiction are often intertwined.2
When you look at addiction from this perspective, choices individuals make stem from their value system. Moral issues arise with other illnesses, not just in addiction.3 On the other hand, someone who values their health will make choices congruent with positive health and well-being (i.e., eating healthy foods, self-care, exercising, etc.). Someone who prioritizes building wealth will make choices that are in line with saving money (i.e., open a savings account, cook at home rather than eating out, find multiple streams of income, etc.) It is a core-centralized value system that will determine the choices someone makes, for better or for worse.
3. Guilt and Shame Can Create Barriers to Honesty
Another reason drug-addicted individuals may lie is that the guilt and shame are so intense. In the vicious cycle of addiction, a person may engage in harmful, risky behaviors they are not proud of. When the drugs and alcohol wear off, reality sets in, as do the potential consequences of their conduct. Oftentimes, drug addicts will be so far gone, deep into the addictive binge cycle, that they feel hopeless to ever become a better person. Some programs only reiterate the feelings of shame by having the new attendees accept a “newcomer chip” in front of the entire fellowship. It is healthy to be honest if you have a problem, but shaming an individual will only cause them to sink deeper into a state of despair.4
Guilt is saying, “I’ve committed a wrongful act. I feel bad.” Whereas shame is saying, “I am a bad person.” Guilt helps someone come into acceptance so the individual can look at themselves honestly and then find self-forgiveness and recovery. Shame, on the other hand, is negatively associated with self-forgiveness.4 Shame fundamentally involves a perception of a flawed self and is often accompanied by feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness. Self-forgiveness has the potential to reduce these negative experiences, allowing for recovery.4
Research shows people with drug and/or alcohol problems often experience feelings of shame and guilt, which have been associated with poorer recovery.4 A person who feels inherently shameful will continue to repeat patterns. But if the individual can find self-forgiveness, recovery and a new way of life are possible. It is therapeutic to help addicted individuals distance themselves from addictive practices and increasingly de-identify with past behavior.6 After all, nothing can be done about the past; it’s actions of the present that determine one’s future.
4. Addiction as Choice
Addiction has largely been categorized as a chronic brain disease and is described as “beyond one’s conscious control and without regard for one’s rational judgment.”3 According to the biomedical disease model, the addicted individual is forever doomed with a life-long ailment, a belief that impacts the individual’s ability to recover.5 Some clinicians have found this emphasis on individuals defining themselves in terms of the addiction to be problematic.6 The disease concept may allow those with substance use disorders to fall back on an excuse, removing the urgency to take responsibility.
Research shows that “changes to the brain do not necessarily indicate a disease process. Nor does the disease model alone seem to be an accurate depiction of the phenomenology/first-person accounts of addiction.”7 We are left with the possibility that addiction, although a choice, is a condition where there is diminished responsibility to some extent. Taking responsibility for ones’ actions is a path to freedom. Freedom from guilt and shame with the learned ability to do things differently.
Choice theory argues that humans choose their behavior and that conduct does not indicate an underlying disease or condition.8 In other words, the factors of quitting are merely based on choice, not compulsion.”7 Choice lives within the sometimes overwhelming drive to use and misuse drugs.7 Given this perspective, individuals can choose to interact with their surroundings in harmonious ways and make healthy choices, including being honest. Lying is a choice, just as honesty is a choice. Addicted individuals may have an irrational fear of the consequences of telling the truth and, therefore, will continue to lie instead of facing the challenge.
5. Lying Can Feel Easier Than Taking Responsibility
When individuals are told they have a chronic relapsing condition, personal responsibility may be dismissed, perpetuating a sense of hopelessness and helplessness; disease as a construct gives addicts an “out” by propagating the “once an addict, always an addict” belief.7 One theory suggests that addiction is not a chronic, relapsing condition. Addiction is, instead, an “example of a typical everyday choice that is both voluntary and destructive.”9
Recovery can be best understood through the ideas of “agency, control, and responsibility.”10 In this view, the primary focus is placed on the individual responsibility of drug addicts and the choices they make. Without exercising responsibility, breaking the addictive cycle is nearly impossible. The choice “not to be that person anymore” is at the core of self-responsibility.10
Responsibility is a sign of maturity and growth. Ultimately, recovery from addiction requires self-evaluation and responsibility. Rather than getting more entangled in lies, what the person doesn’t realize is that honesty, in the long term, is actually the easier route because it leads to awareness and freedom.
Putting responsibility back into the hands of the addicted individual helps facilitate recovery. Twelve-step methods suggest taking responsibility by “making direct amends wherever possible.”4,10 Lying may be a way to escape for most addicted individuals. However, in doing so, they often hurt themselves and the ones they love most. Remembering the beginning scenario, the mother felt hurt and confused that her son could steal and openly lie about it. Understanding why addicts may lie will help you as a loved one during the often painful road to recovery. It’s never too late to help someone with a substance use disorder overcome addiction. Honest self-appraisal is key.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, help is available. Our caring support specialists are available 24/7 at 800-681-1058 (Who Answers?) to provide information on treatment options. You are not alone.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, September 05). What is an addiction?
- Young, K. (2001). Caught in the NET: How to recognize the signs of internet addiction–and a winning strategy for recovery.
- Frank, L., & Nagel, S. (2017). Addiction and Moralization: The role of the underlying model of addiction.
- McGaffin, B.J., Lyons, G.C.B., & Deane, F.P. (2013). Self-Forgiveness, shame, and guilt in recovery from drug and alcohol problems.
- Wiens, T.K. (2014). The chronic disease concept of addiction: Helpful or harmful?
- Kellogg, S. (1993). Identity and recovery. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(2), 235-244.
- Heyman, G. (2013). Addiction and choice: Theory and new data. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4(31).
- Glasser, W. (2001). Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. New York: HarperPerennial.
- Kurti, A., & Dallery, J. (2012). Review of Heyman’s Addiction: A Disorder of Choice. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45(1), 229-240.
- Poland, J. S., & Graham, G. (2011). Addiction and responsibility. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.