“I really miss drinking,” Emily says. We’re sitting in a coffee shop, a far cry from the after hours bars where we used to hang out. There’s no alcohol in sight and Emily hasn’t touched a drop for 8 months. She doesn’t miss waking up and piecing together the previous night from texts and Facebook pictures, nor does she miss the anxiety of running out of wine at 4am and knowing she couldn’t get more until the shops opened the next morning. But she does miss drinking. “It feels like leaving an abusive relationship; when it was bad it was so bad, but when it was good, it was so good, “ she tells me. “It’s not like I drank because it made me feel terrible, I drank because it made me feel great. I was in love with alcohol and now I feel like I’m mourning a loss.”
Grieving the loss of addiction is a very common and powerful experience that too often goes unacknowledged. Once you’re in recovery, it can feel almost blasphemous to talk about the parts of your addiction that made you happy, the things you miss, and the things you mourn. And, yet, acknowledging the full reality of your addiction – the good and the bad – can be deeply 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. Separating yourself from that intense relationship is often experienced as a significant loss, and allowing yourself to grieve that loss 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. In fact, many active and recovering addicts frequently personify drugs. “Alcohol was my best friend for years,” Emily says. “I actively sought out that relationship to the exclusion of relationships with actual people. That’s how important it was to me.” Substances don’t simply become your best friend overnight, however; like all relationships, the one you have with drugs takes time to develop.
“Like a new relationship, at first, the use is thrilling. There’s the high, the intimacy, the butterflies that come from anticipation of time spent together,” says Lindsay Kramer, a therapist specializing in addiction treatment.
When that time becomes more frequent, the attachment 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 feeling of love may even be developed. The dependence continually intensifies, money is spent to excess, and the “relationship” can become a full-time job to maintain. The drug becomes a permanent fixture that will never leave the now-addict. What once was exploratory and fun becomes dependent, shameful, and confining, further polarizing the relationship with addiction from the real relationships with everyone else.
Dismantling that relationship to achieve recovery can be an overwhelming experience, not just due to detox and withdrawal or the addictive drive, but due to the very real emotional attachment you have developed to using. Even people who are 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 grapple with the dissolution of such a significant element of their lives. “By the time people come to treatment, drugs have become a core attachment in their lives – something they rely on to get through the day and feel ‘normal,’”says Ned Presnall, a social worker and Executive Director of Clayton Behavioral. “Addiction recovery is best understood as a grief process.”
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 a variety of types of loss, including grieving the loss of addiction. Rather than acting as a linear progression, these stages describe a set of common experiences that may be experienced in any order.
Denial is a hallmark of active addiction; in order to protect your relationship with drugs, you must deny the nature of that relationship to others and even to yourself. 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.
Anger often emerges when you finally realize that you are in a damaging relationship with drugs and aren’t in control of your use. This anger may be targeted at the drug, at the painful consequences of addiction, at those around you who are pressuring you to get sober, and at yourself. You may feel betrayed and abandoned by the drug that was supposed to be your friend and partner for causing the situation you now find yourself in. 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.
You understand that your relationship with drugs isn’t perfect, but rather than ending the relationship altogether, you try to bargain with yourself to see if you can simply modify it. Maybe you can just have one or two drinks. Maybe you can still go to the party where everyone will be doing coke. Maybe you can only use on weekends. For some, this period precedes treatment and for others, it comes after, as you believe treatment itself has enabled you to gain control of your use.
The depressive stage of grief comes when you fully understand the depth of the damage addiction is causing you, and can be tremendously broad in scope. You may experience deep despair for how addiction has affected your life, harmed your relationships, and impacted your physical and emotional health. You may feel overwhelming remorse for the things you have done during active addiction and a sadness for the life you could have had were it not for drugs.
But alongside the depression you feel for the destructive effects of addition, you may also feel deep mourning for the loss of your relationship with drugs. “I realized that I would never again be able to get drunk with my friends around a bonfire on the beach,” Emily remembers:
I wouldn’t feel that warmth that comes over you when you’ve had two whiskeys because I would never be able to have just two whiskeys. I wouldn’t make a champagne toast on New Years or share a bottle of wine with my boyfriend before we went out dancing. Instead, I was going to be going to AA meetings and ‘doing the work’ for the rest of my life and that felt so unbelievably depressing.
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.
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. “This stage is inevitable provided that addicts stay in recovery,” says social worker Robert Weiss:
For the addict at this stage, they can now begin to see that there is a path laid out for their recovery which others have followed successfully. They can begin to entertain a new vision of how their life will be lived without being in relationship to active addiction. New healthy recovery relationships and support have begun to replace isolation and lies. The addict has been sober long enough to begin to develop new ways of coping and managing their life circumstances, often utilizing hidden creativity and ingenuity formerly lost to their addiction.
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. Fortifying your recovery after residential treatment through continuing care services and 12-step meetings can be critical to helping you maintain your recovery and find a community in which your grieving is understood and honored.
Creating a New Future
While grieving the loss of addiction can be a difficult and painful process that forces you to acknowledge the reality of your substance abuse, it is also necessary to find closure for the dysfunctional relationship you found yourself in. 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. “Even the best things in life have tradeoffs,” writes Dr. David Sack for PsychCentral. “Recovery doesn’t provide immediate relief or constant joy, especially in the early stages. It is a rewarding, though sometimes painful, journey that unfolds over a lifetime. Along with the blessing of a fresh start comes the loss of giving up drugs and alcohol – a sacrifice that is well worth the effort, but must be recognized as a sacrifice nevertheless.”
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