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By: Rick Fannin
When we have a close relationship with someone and then lose them, it is painful and hard. We experience a wave of different emotions. We may deeply miss them and remember the good old days and all the fun you had together. You may appreciate how that person was the one person that was always there for you through thick and thin. We may experience each stage of grief, including denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and finally, acceptance.
Even with toxic relationships, individuals may experience mourning and grieve the loss of the relationship. They may have been in denial for a long time regarding how unhealthy and toxic the relationship was. They may have been in the bargaining stage and walked on eggshells in an attempt to keep the relationship alive. There were periods of intense anger and sadness. With acceptance comes the ability to move forward in your life and the assurance that you are better off by allowing toxic relationships to die.
When we are starting our recovery from drugs or alcohol, it may feel, in some ways, like escaping from a dysfunctional and abusive relationship. Mourning and grieving the loss of your relationship with drugs or alcohol is a common and powerful experience that too often goes unacknowledged.
Once you're in recovery, you may feel embarrassed to talk about the parts of your addiction that made you happy, the things you miss, and the things you mourn. You may feel a toxic shame that you are grieving your relationship with drugs, given how much damage drugs caused in your life.
However, acknowledging the full reality of your addiction, the good and the bad, can be profoundly healing and help you cope with the conflicting emotions so many feel during the recovery process. After all, drugs or alcohol was your constant companion, your coping mechanism, your escape route, your priority. Individuals in recovery often experience a significant loss as they separate themselves from drugs, alcohol, and the addiction lifestyle. Why wouldn't they grieve the loss of the relationship with drugs or alcohol since it was the most significant relationship in their adult life for many? Allowing yourself to grieve and talk about your emotions and the sense of loss you are experiencing can be vital to honoring yourself and fortifying your sobriety.
Addiction as a Relationship
One of the most important things to understand about addiction is that it is a type of relationship. It may have been dysfunctional and toxic, but it was a relationship. Many active and recovering addicts frequently personify drugs. "Alcohol was my best friend for years," "I don't know if I can ever have fun again without it," "I had so much fun when I was high," "It helped me get through some really dark and painful times."
Alcohol or drugs do not become your best friend overnight. Like all relationships, the one you have with drugs takes time to develop. And like many relationships, there is an initial rush, a euphoria with new connections. New relationships are thrilling. There is a high when you are with that new person, you miss them when they are not there, and there is anticipation to spend time with them again. They occupy your mind when you are away from them, and you crave spending time with them again. Doesn't that sound like the beginning stage was like our relationship with drugs or alcohol?
When that time becomes more frequent with drugs, the attachment to substances becomes stronger. Then comes the increased time spent getting high, followed by the isolation, the cravings for the drug, and placing the addiction as the only priority in one's life. The individual may even develop a feeling of love for drugs or alcohol.
The dependence on substances continually intensifies, money is spent to excess, and the "relationship" can become a full-time job to maintain. The drug has become a permanent fixture in the addict's life. The addict begins to isolate from other relationships, including family, to spend time with the love of their life, drugs, or alcohol. What once was exploratory and fun becomes dependent, shameful, and confining, further polarizing the relationship with addiction from the real relationships with everyone else.
Walking away from the relationship with drugs to achieve sobriety can be an overwhelming experience due to detox and withdrawal or the addictive drive. However, the very real emotional attachment you have developed to drugs or alcohol can be equally overwhelming. Even people keenly aware that they need help and cannot continue to sustain their relationship with drugs often feel a profound sense of loss in early recovery as they waffle with the ending of such a significant part of their life. While certainly, there are brain changes and physical dependence on drugs that make addiction a disease, we can also look at our addiction as an attachment to drugs instead of a secure attachment to people.
Grieving the Loss of Addiction
The Kübler-Ross model has come to be perhaps the most common template to describe the stages of grief. Originally intended to chart the grieving process following a death, the model has since been applied to various types of loss, including grieving the loss of addiction. Rather than acting as a linear progression, these stages of grief describe a set of shared experiences that have as they mourn a loss. Some people may not experience any of them. Yet and still, others might only undergo two stages rather than all five, one stage, three stages, etc.
With any type of loss, denial is a natural defense mechanism that occurs when a person isn't ready to acknowledge a loss or impending death. Denial allows us to process bad news slowly so the healing process can begin.
Denial is a hallmark of addiction. To protect our relationship with drugs, we must deny the nature of that relationship to others and even to ourselves. We refuse to acknowledge all of the damage that this relationship with drugs has caused you and your family. We deny that this toxic and abusive relationship may result in drugs killing us.
At this stage, you are not willing to acknowledge the harm drugs are causing you or your relationships with other people, and you may go to great lengths to minimize and hide your use, sometimes lashing out in anger if someone expresses concern.
With any loss, once you start to acknowledge the reality of the loss, then anger might start to set in. During this stage, it is common to think "why me" and "life is not fair." We might be angry at and blame others for the cause of the loss. We might even be angry at the one we lost for leaving. If you are a spiritual person, you may even be angry at and blame God for allowing this to happen. You may be angry at yourself for not being able to save them.
Regarding addiction, anger often emerges when you finally realize that you are in a damaging relationship with drugs and no longer control your use. While we are not ready to let this relationship end, we may lash out in angry at anyone that tries to get us to see that our relationship with drugs is risky, dysfunctional, toxic, and potentially deadly.
Your anger may be directed at painful events of your life that lead you to start using and self-medicating to cope with these painful emotions. Your anger may be directed at the ones that introduced you to drugs. You may be angry at the Judge who is ordering you into treatment, or you may be angry that others can use and, deep down inside, you know that you cannot.
You may feel betrayed and abandoned by the drug and angry that you will not rely on it to help you with your painful emotions. And, the most significant anger is likely the anger you have with yourself. You are angry that you allowed yourself to get into this relationship with drugs and furious that you have stayed in this toxic and abusive relationship as long as you have.
While this anger may be distressing, it can also spur you toward healing if properly harnessed; you can take this energy to create real change.
When something bad happens, have you ever caught yourself making a deal with God? "Please God, if you heal my husband, I will strive to be the best wife I can ever be – and never complain again." This is bargaining. In a way, this stage is false hope. You might falsely make yourself believe that you can avoid grief through a type of negotiation. If you change this, I'll change that. You are so desperate to get your life back to how it was before the grief event. You are willing to make a major life change in an attempt toward normality.
Guilt is a common wingman of bargaining. This is when you endure the endless "what if" statements. What if I had left the house 5 minutes sooner maybe the accident would have never happened. What if I encouraged him to go to the doctor six months ago, then cancer could have been found sooner, and maybe he would still be alive.
With addiction, we are likely to have done a lot of bargaining too. "God, please don't let those blue lights behind me be for me. If they are not, I swear I will never use them again." "If the Judge lets me off, I will never drink again." Or regarding your relationships, it may have been, "If they would just support me, and give me another chance in this relationship, then I could quit."
We may have even bargained with drugs. We start to see the damage that abusing drugs is causing in our life, and we negotiate with which substances we use and when we use them. We may have thoughts like, "Clearly bourbon is a problem, so I will switch to beer," "Yeah, drinking every day is a problem, so I will only drink on the weekends," "Yeah, I have a problem with opioids, but I will still smoke weed." We may even get a false sense of confidence with our bargaining and say, "I have been clean off pain pills for three months now, and yeah, I may still do a little cocaine every once in a while, but it is OK since it is not my drug of choice."
Another common struggle for individuals in early recovery is when they become ready to give up substance use but bargain with dysfunction and chaos by being unwilling to let go of the addictive lifestyle. Some may bargain by no longer using drugs but continue to sell drugs. Some may bargain by no longer using but continue hanging out with others who are still in active addiction. Others may bargain with dysfunction by holding on to that toxic relationship that keeps pulling you back into addiction, praying that the other person will change, but being unwilling to allow yourself to change for the better.
Relapses that occur after a significant period of sobriety may also be associated with bargaining. We may have accepted our powerlessness in early recovery, went to rehab, learned many new healthy coping skills, and built a strong support system. Each of these things was essential to our ability to remain clean and sober. However, we may begin to get a sense of confidence and take our power back. Subconsciously we may bargain by believing that now, with all these new coping skills and support, I can successfully drink or use again. We quickly learn that, even with all of these new skills, we are just as powerless as ever once drugs or alcohol enter our system and kick off the "phenomenon of craving."
In each case, in the long-term, bargaining with addiction does not work. It typically results in an inevitable relapse and another painful rock bottom moment. The AA Big Book captures this best in the chapter How it Works, where it says:
- "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path."
- "There chances are less than average."
- "Half measures availed us nothing."
- "Some of us balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not."
- "We beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start."
- "Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas, and the result was nill until we let go absolutely."
- "If you have decided that you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps."
That last quote may have said it best. There wasn't anything that we were not willing to do to get our next high. Are you ready to go to any length necessary for recovery? If so, then you are prepared to take the steps needed for significant positive changes to occur in your life. Be righteously honest with yourself. Write down the things that you are not willing to do. If you are not willing to go to meetings, get a sponsor, and work the steps, write that down. If you are not ready to end that toxic relationship that keeps pulling you back into addiction, then write that down.
If you have things on your list, I pray that you never relapse and that things work out the best for you. However, if you happen to relapse, I encourage you to get that list of things that you were not willing to do for recovery and decide if there are things that you are now ready and willing to do from this new rock bottom.
Depression is a commonly accepted form of grief associated with significant losses. Most people associate depression immediately with grief, coming from the sadness that we feel over the loss. The depression represents the emptiness we feel when we are living in reality and realize the person or situation is gone or over. In this stage, you might withdraw from life, feel numb, live in a fog, and not want to get out of bed. The world might seem too much and too overwhelming for you to face. You don't want to be around others, don't feel like talking, and experience feelings of hopelessness. You might even experience suicidal thoughts and think, "what's the point of going on?"
Regarding addiction, the depressive stage of grief comes when you fully understand the depth of the damage drugs or alcohol has caused in your life. Unchecked, addiction has a way of impacting everything meaningful in our lives, including health, relationships, finances, careers, education, emotions, spirituality, and our freedom.
You may experience deep despair for how addiction has affected your life. You may feel overwhelming remorse and toxic shame for the things you have done during active addiction and a sense of sadness for the life you could have had it not been for drugs. The broken promises, lies, and manipulation may have deeply damaged your relationships. You fear those you love the most will never forgive you and certainly will never trust you again. Why wouldn't these thoughts seem depressing?
But on the other hand, alongside the depression, you feel the destructive cunning, baffling, and powerful effects of addiction. You may feel deep mourning for the loss of your relationship with drugs. We may question, "Will I ever be able to have fun again" "Is life going to suck without being able to get drunk or high," "Is this what my life will consist of, going to AA meetings every night?"
One of the hallmarks of addiction is our continued use despite the tsunami of destruction that it has caused in our lives and in the lives of everyone who loves us. There is no double that addiction is certainly cunning, baffling, and powerful. The fear of living without your substance of choice is one of the most common sources of depression during this stage, as you are left to cope with life without the ostensibly protective padding of drugs. This fear can be so powerful that we get out the defibrillator battles and bring our bloated, toxic, dysfunctional addictive version of ourselves back to life.
In some ways, this is what makes recovering from addiction so difficult. When a person passes away, we are utterly powerless to be able to bring them back to life. However, with addiction, we are not powerless in this regard. We ALWAYS have the option of bringing back our best friend, the drunk, high, and dysfunctional version of ourselves, by joining them in the abyss of addiction.
The last stage of grief identified by Kübler-Ross grief model is acceptance. Not in the sense that "it's OK that my husband died." Instead, "my husband died, but I'm going to be OK." In this stage, your emotions may begin to stabilize. You re-enter the reality of life and establish a "new normal."
This stage of grief includes periods of adjustments and readjustments. There are good days, there are bad days, and then there are good days again. In this stage, it does not mean you'll never have another bad day, where you become angry or depressed over the loss. Over time, the good days significantly outnumber the bad days. You understand the reality of your loss, but you accept it and move, grow, and morph into your new reality.
Regarding addiction, THANK GOD for the acceptance stage. Acceptance comes when you finally understand the true nature of your relationship with drugs and move beyond anger, bargaining, and depression to come to terms with your past and see the possibility of a future.
In attending 12-step meetings, we hear the message of hope and the stories of how others have overcome the grasp of addiction. We may have experienced a deep connection with the speaker's description of what it was like and what happened that led them to their turning point in addiction. And if we can connect with those two parts of the speakers' story, we can join with the message of hope as the speaker describes what life is like for them now. Your story is powerful, too, and I encourage you to share it with others on your recovery journey when you are ready. I promise there is someone literally dying to hear your message of hope.
As we continue to hear the path that others have followed and hear of the rewards along the way, we begin to see a path that leads us out of the pain, sadness, depression, resentments, and anger that we have felt for being an addict. We begin to gain a new vision of a joyful life that can be had without being in a relationship with drugs or alcohol.
We begin to form new relationships with people to replace the relationship that we once had with drugs. We start to see that recovery is more than just discontinuing the use of drugs. We start incorporating the new coping strategies we learned during rehab and notice that our emotions and relationships improve. We get a sponsor and begin working on the 12-steps. As we start to replace our defects of character and our shortcomings, though we are not even halfway through, we discover many of the AA promises are coming true in our life including:
- We know a new freedom and a new happiness.
- We do not regret the past, nor do we wish to shut the door on it.
- We comprehend the word serenity.
- We know peace.
- No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we see how our experience can benefit others
- That feeling of uselessness and self-pity have disappeared
- We have lost interest in selfish things and have gained interest in our fellows
- Self-seeking has slipped away
- Our whole attitude and outlook upon life has changed
- Our fear of people and economic insecurity have left us
- We now intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us.
- We suddenly realize that God has done for you what you could not do for yourself.
Replacing Pain with A Life-Purpose and a Passion
As we begin to realize these promises coming true in our lives, many in recovery have immense gratitude for the blessings of recovery and a deep desire to help others who struggle with addiction. In working with others in recovery, these individuals may develop a sense of purpose for their lives and find a passion for helping others. In fact, many mental health counselors and addiction counselors have also faced great adversity in their life, including addiction. It was overcoming this adversity that led them into the career of professional counseling.
Viktor Frankl, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor, proposes the concept of "Tragic Optimism," and there is hope and meaning to be found in life while also acknowledging the existence of loss, pain, and suffering. This "Tragic Optimism" allows us to experience both the good and the bad and that we can grow from each.
It is in acceptance that healing can truly take root, and it often comes when comprehensive addiction treatment has given you the insight and skills to break through your addictive drive and create the kind of life you want without resorting to substance use. As described on page 417 from the AA Big Book, acceptance truly is the answer to all of our problems.
"And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life —unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God's world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life's terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes."
Understanding the Struggles of Letting Go Of the Relationship with Drugs
While grieving the loss of addiction can be a painful and challenging process that forces you to acknowledge the reality of your substance abuse and the damage caused by abusing drugs or alcohol. However, there is no denying that our relationship with drugs or alcohol was significant and long-lasting. Indeed, it may have been a toxic, harmful, and abusive relationship with addiction. Still, there is no denying the pleasure and euphoria that we felt in the early days of getting high.
In early recovery, many experience grief as they mourn the loss of the relationship with addiction and the loss of the dysfunctional version of self. We understand the struggle of recovery and the waves of emotions experience during early recovery. We know that it is necessary to find closure for the dysfunctional relationship you found yourself in with drugs or alcohol. That does not mean denying the good experiences you had while using, but it does mean not romanticizing them or forgetting why you chose recovery.
If you are struggling to let go of your relationship with drugs or alcohol, call us today. Our nonjudgemental, empathetic, and caring counselors are here to support you as you navigate the various stages of grief, ending in acceptance. We are located in Columbus, Ohio, and offer same-day assessments. Call today!