Grieving the Addiction
Grief, as defined by Dictionary.com is “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.” How often in early recovery are the feelings of grief expressed? “I can’t function without it.” “I can’t stand feeling this way.” Taking away the additive substance and behavior brings grief. The process of recovery brings the antonym of grief Joy. Grief must be accepted as a natural part of addiction recovery.
Step one of Alcoholics Anonymous states; “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Regardless of the substance or behavior one is powerless over, with addiction, life does become unmanageable. Emotional conflict arises when addictive behavior, which at one time was helpful, begins to have painful consequences. At one time it eased emotional pain. Now it causes physical, mental, and spiritual suffering.
As a therapist and addictions professional, I understand the necessity of experiencing grief. It is a raw emotional process where the client learns the consequences of substance abuse and takes responsibility for their behavior.
Recently, a client was discussing the concern her partner expressed regarding her drinking. “I know I have acted like an ass after having too much. But that is because I don’t eat enough during the day.” As the conversation progressed she admitted several affairs following drinking binges. Finally, her reality was spoken. “I like to drink, I can be social. I don’t know if I can give all of that up.” For this client drinking was an effective coping mechanism. It allowed her to “feel” better about herself. She did not feel as self conscious. She felt she was in control. Eliminating these behaviors was a frightening idea. Addicted she felt a sense of empowerment and control. She doubted her ability to be as successful sober. Living in addiction is all encompassing. It is as much a part of everyday living as sleeping, working, and playing. Recovery changes many aspects of life. Think about life routines and our family connections as a mobile hanging from the ceiling. All of the interconnected pieces hang in balance. Once the winds of change begin to blow, the pieces of the mobile are disrupted. In early recovery the changes are perceived as the loss of familiar routine, and the loss of comfortable relationship roles. In recovery a new balance and stability is created.
Many losses are experienced as recovery is pursued. Addiction involves an avoidance of responsibility and accountability. In recovery the addict is giving up the freedom of acting impulsively and taking responsibility for their life choices. It is often said to obtain recovery the addict must give up people, places and things. Being asked to give up friends made through addiction seems excessive to the individual in early recovery. The people in our lives, whether they are healthy or unhealthy, provide sources of support and comfort. Those same comfortable feelings are associated with certain places and things such as bars, neighborhoods, and paraphernalia. Grieving the loss of the familiar is necessary as the individual in recovery begins to create a new kind of life.
All of the change recovery promises comes with an emotional cost. Time is spent on the recovery process instead of acting out the addition. Learning to live life on life’s terms means feeling those emotions addiction obliterated. Loosing the barrier between the addict and their emotions can be difficult. It can bring periods of irritability as well as unfamiliar contentment. Even the loss of uncomfortable feelings creates grief.
The process of grief has been outlined in the book On Death and Dying (1969) by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Kubler-Ross identifies distinct phases an individual goes through following a significant loss. These stages assist the individual from becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Currently we understand not every person goes through every phase, nor do they move through the process in its outlined order.
Stage one denial: Denial as a coping mechanism comes about as the individual is not able to fully comprehend the loss in their lives. Addicts use denial to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their behavior. At this point they are unable or unwilling to accept the pain their addiction has caused them and the people around them. Typical statements from an addict minimize problems or blame others. “I only drink on weekends.” “The doctor gave me these pills for my pain.”
Stage two anger: Anger is used to justify addictive acting-out. By blaming, and shaming others, the addict can keep the focus off the addictive behavior and addict. It is used as a way to avoid the underlying addictive problems. Blaming family, employment issues, legal consequences, finances, and other problems gives the addict excuses to continue acting-out.
Stage three bargaining: Once bargaining begins, the addict is beginning to realize there may be a problem with their addictive behavior. Bargaining is a way to maintain control by creating new excuses and promises without actively changing behavior. An addict in the throes of bargaining will ask for another chance. They will promise to stop drinking or reduce the amount and or frequency.
Stage four depression: Depression comes as the addict stops blaming others for their problems. They start to accept the consequences of their behavior. Feelings of shame often accompany depression, as they realize the pain and suffering they caused family and friends. At this point the addict struggles. They are unfamiliar with life without their addiction. Fear commonly accompanies depression, as addicts question their ability to ever feel in control again.
The final stage acceptance: Acceptance of addiction and its consequences brings relief from the emotional confusion. If the addict will participate in a program of recovery they can begin to feel the hope recovery promises. An acceptance allows the addict to learn new coping tools and begin to build a new life. Finally, they can see there is a way to live life without the addiction.
Acknowledging grief as part of the process recovery is vital to continued sobriety and recovery. As with the grief following death, feelings of depression, irritation and fear will pass. New opportunities and perspective will be found as recovery guides the addict to live life on life’s terms.