Grief, Addiction, and Relapse

Sometimes it’s the surprises that get us. Things are going along well. We have our support in place. We are working our program. Taking things one day at a time. And then one of those days steps up and completely knocks us down. It hits like a fire in the chest. And everything gets turned upside down.

When tragedy comes, there is no way to be prepared for it. It just comes and leaves chaos in your mind, heart, and sight. And when this happens, the temptation is as strong as ever to return to the numbing effects of drugs or alcohol.

Tragedy and Addiction

For every one of us, tragedy will occur. And it will happen when we don’t expect it. This is simply life, and as with many things on this earth, it’s best to accept that reality.

However, it is also a good idea for a person with a substance use disorder to get a little understanding of what to do in this kind of situation. Have a plan in place to help get through those times of grief. To make sure you don’t run to something that will make the tragedy infinitely worse, a plan will help you move through difficult times in grace and healing.

Addiction and the Stages of Grief

In their classic work, On Grief and Grieving, Elizabeth Kubler Ross & David Kessler describe 5 stages of grieving. Here they are with some suggestions on how to make work with each without relapse.

1. Denial

This is often considered the shock phase. Our psychology and even our bodies numb ourselves from the pain of the loss we are experiencing simply by rejecting the very idea that something has occurred.

What can you do?

Grief is a major trigger. It is one that overwhelms and has the potential to move people deep into the darkness of addiction and substance use. Dangerous places. And grief can come form surprising places. Sure there are times when it will be obvious that you are suffering through grief: the passing of a friend or family member, unemployment, divorce. But there are other times that grief comes, and it can be just as strong: a relationship ending, life-stage changes, the loss of a pet. So when something happens in your life, it’s important to recognize it. And name it.

2. Anger

The anger is another way for you mind to try to deal with the situation without being immersed in the loss. The deep connection to what you lost has been severed and all that is left is chaos and emptiness. Anger is actually the beginning of a structure for your emotions.

What can you do?

Feel your anger. Don’t deny it. Also, when the anger turns toward yourself, make sure you are aware of what is happening. Guilt is also a powerful trigger. But blaming your self for what has happened leads only to darkness, not to healing. In this stage, you will want to reach out to your sober support. Talk to someone who will help bring perspective to your anger and guilt and also simply let you just feel it for a bit. 

3. Bargaining

Similar to the guilt is the bargaining. But it takes it one step further. What could I have done differently? What if I had acted sooner? Why didn’t I do more? This kind of thinking roots us to the past.

What can you do?

Be present. Again this is a natural aspect of grief, so we can expect it and accept it. However, when you start going too far down this road, you will have to consciously adjust your thinking. It anchors you to the past in a way that will not bring healing or help anyone. Possibly the best way to do so is by breathing. Being present with your breath brings you into the present moment where you simply have to be. 

4. Depression

This stage is different from the mental illness of depression. It is actually a natural and appropriate response to the loss. Once you live in the moment, the emptiness begins to set in. This can feel like a pulling away from life. Living in a fog.  The emptiness from the loss settles on your soul and you feel like life will never have fullness again. You might even wonder if it’s worth going on this way.

What can you do?

Understand that this is natural. And that substances will never fill this hole, they will make it much worse. It is not something to snap out of. And this is partly where your work in sobriety will help: you take this stage one day at a time. Don’t expect too much of yourself. Don’t expect healing in a day. In fact, you are not aiming to get over this or feel okay again. You are simply making it through the moment. And that’s okay. This is part of life.

5. Acceptance

Acceptance in grief is not saying that you are okay with what has happened. It has more to do with finding normal again. In grief, your normal is lost. Eventually, you come to understand that the loss is our new reality. That it is permanent. We will not get back what we have lost. That’s not okay. But it’s true.

What can you do?

Let yourself accept the new reality. Continue walking through each day, and eventually life will feel some sense of normalcy to it again. You are not giving up your love for what was lost. You are not betraying their memory. You are walking through your grief in a way that honors you and what you loved. This is something you have to allow yourself to do.

Recovery and Grief

There are many roads to recovery. There are many ways to grieve. If you suffer from a substance use disorder and are going through a difficult time, remember to give yourself permission to grieve. And stick to your program. This includes avoiding other triggers (more important now than ever) and staying connected to your support.

You can do this. And you don’t have to do it alone.

Help for Addiction Relapse

If you or a love one have relapsed because of grief, Pure Life Recovery in San Diego, California, is here to help. Our compassionate and experienced team of professionals are here to help you discover your way back to health. Call now: 949-344-2863.

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