In 2017, I found drugs in my house.
While my almost one year old twins were napping, I’d decided to hang a tiny canvas painting that celebrated coffee on the wall above my kitchen cabinets. Fitting, since at the time, I was using my espresso machine to make myself lattes like 4 to 5 times a day.
I set a hammer and nail and the painting I wanted to hang on top of the fridge and then climbed onto the countertop. I was going to hang it directly above the cabinet that held our coffee mugs. It was going to be adorable.
While up there, I glanced along the dirty dusty line of the top of my kitchen cabinets and there, in the back right corner, I saw an empty prescription bottle.
I reached over and picked it up. It wasn’t even dusty. It obviously hadn’t been there very long. The label had been peeled off mostly, and inside was a ziploc baggie containing only pot crumbs.
Pot’s not that big of a deal to most people. It’s currently legal for medicinal purposes across the border from Tennessee in Arkansas. CBD oil retailers have already popped up within Memphis, and it’s just a matter of time before Tennessee also begins selling pot.
But I’m not most people. At the time of this discovery, I had been in recovery and clean for over nine years. The only other person that lived with me — my husband at the time, whom I’d met in a 12-step fellowship — also should have had nine years clean. For there to be drugs in the house of two recovering drug addicts was a big fucking deal.
“I found pot in our house,” I texted my husband.
“What?” he replied.
I snapped a picture of it and sent it to him.
“Whose is it?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” he said.
“Is it yours?”
“Whose could it be?”
“I don’t know.”
I ran through a list of people who had been in my house. We had recently had three different babysitters for our children: my mother, his sister, and another woman who had been an Special Education teacher for over 20 years. I couldn’t believe my mother or the SPED teacher would have been smoking pot in someone else’s house, and I highly doubted his sister had either, but she was the only one that was a “maybe.” I asked him to talk to her about it. He said he did and that she’d said it wasn’t hers either.
So the mysterious owner of the pot in our house wasn’t officially figured out for another month after that. It was — you guessed it — my husband’s.
It should have occurred to me that if I hadn’t brought the drugs into my house, then the next logical choice would have been the other recovering drug addict who lived there. The fact that I shouldn’t trust him never crossed my mind.
“When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For a while, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting ledge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.” — Adrienne Rich
I later learned that my ex-husband had actually been secretly using drugs for nearly the entire time we’d lived together, for eight years.
I was so baffled, so confused when I found out.
I’m a smart woman. I graduated Cum Laude from a prestigious private liberal arts college with a degree in English and lots of coursework in Classical Languages. I have a Master’s in Poetry and have taught Latin and English for nine years.
Not only that, I am a recovering drug addict. Shouldn’t I, of all people, have been able to know that the man I fucking lived with was using drugs??
Because I’d been duped in my marriage, I’m obsessed with learning about the cognitive science behind denial.
I’ve written before about “cognitive dissonance,” defined as “the feeling of acute mental distress produced by holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time, or by believing one thing and doing another.”
A part of cognitive dissonance means trying to deal with difficult situations through “positive illusions.” To avoid confronting uncomfortable realities, we attempt to convince ourselves that everything is better than it is.
Let’s say you were diagnosed with diabetes, and your doctor told you that you must make dramatic changes to your lifestyle. Although you, of course, believe your doctor, you may not want to accept how serious your diagnosis is. You don’t want to go through the upheaval of making major changes to your diet and exercise habits, so you deceive yourself into thinking that it’ll be just fine to carry on as you were before. Then, as to be expected, you get seriously ill and have to finally make those changes.
It’s not that you’re an idiot or a fool for not following your doctor’s advice. It is instead what political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan calls a “basic human survival skill.” There are simply more important things than truth.
Let’s say you hear a growl in the bushes behind you. The safest thing for you to do is run away, even if it turns out someone was just messing with you.
Survival is more important than truth.
Much like we apply fight-or-flight to dangerous situations, we apply it to threatening information as well.
Humans, scientists have concluded, have a tendency toward “motivated reasoning,” which means a subconscious negative response to new information that goes against our previous beliefs.
Our reasoning is suffused with emotion. Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts. Thus, our feelings arrive before our reasoning can.
It’s not that I didn’t want to see my ex-husband’s behavior for what it was; it’s that my response to receiving information that conflicted with my own belief system caused me to focus on information that supported my beliefs, instead of challenging them.
I didn’t want to believe that my spouse, who should have been clean from all mind- and mood-altering substances for over nine years, was using drugs. Thus, I went to great lengths to explain away behavior that probably would have seemed obvious to anyone else. So, my ex-husband had red eyes a lot because of “allergies.” He craved sweets because he had a “merciless sweet tooth.” He couldn’t hold onto money because he “really liked collecting.” He hurried me off to bed night after night “because he needed time to himself.”
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point …”
— Festinger, Riecken, and Schacter, When Prophecy Fails
Scientists check their own motivated reasoning through broader processes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism. They might be in love with a theory, but if they don’t want to seem like utter idiots, they will make sure to go to great lengths to test and re-test their hypotheses.
In the TED talk below, Phil Plait talks about this process and how the hardest thing is admitting that you’re wrong, that, in fact, the reality just doesn’t match up to your beliefs.
I think about this same message for myself. How even when I held drugs in my hands — not just once, but three separate times — , I still wanted to believe my ex-husband had never relapsed. I wanted to will the bottles and the little baggie of pills out of existence.
For a time, definitely, survival was more important than the truth for me. I didn’t know how I could survive my marriage falling apart. I had two little babies that weren’t even one yet. I had a life I’d built with someone who’d turned out to be a liar and a criminal.
But it was through what scientists would call “peer review” that I was finally able to accept what was going on, and thus, take action. My support people were my peer reviewers, the ones I would go to with the facts of what was going on in my marriage. They would then come to their own conclusions about it and provide me with their assessment: “Well, I think he’s getting high, Tara,” one said. And from there, I was able to practice my own skepticism and inquiry through keeping track of his activities and accounts and regularly drug-testing him.
Eventually, I gave up my theory that my ex-husband was a good guy, or at least a guy I needed to stay married to. Admitting I was wrong about him, wrong about our marriage, was hard, but sometimes the best thing to come out of admitting our mistakes is that we can build something better on top of them.