Actually, recovering addicts have a lot to grieve. The activity that has been the central focus of their lives is now something they can never do again. The only comfort they have known is gone, and their life requires a complete overhaul. That’s a lot to take in, especially at a time when they are least prepared in terms of ego strength and coping skills.
Will all the effort be worth it? Is sobriety a realistic goal? Filled with doubts but motivated by hope, the recovering addict may be disappointed to find that they may feel even worse for a while. Having to face emotions that have long been repressed and take stock of the losses brought on by their addiction, the recovering addict may be filled with grief, anger and bitter regrets.
Accounting for the Loss
Grief is a universal emotion that can arise any time a person loses someone or something they value. For many addicts, unresolved grief, loss or trauma contributed to the addiction, and those feelings get compounded in early recovery when the addict gives up drugs or alcohol and begins to see all that they’ve lost to their addiction. Here are a few examples of what the addict grieves in recovery:
Stages of Grieving
Although grief is highly individualized, people experience similar patterns. The process of grieving was first laid out by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who identified five specific stages of grief:
Not everyone goes through all of these stages, nor do they move through each stage in a predictable pattern. But understanding that grief is a process and that others experience the same feelings can be powerful for people struggling in early recovery. When grief inevitably surfaces again, the individual can work through the pain and let the process unfold rather than self-medicating.
Accepting the Loss to Appreciate the Gain
When grieving, it is normal for people to be impaired in their daily functioning. They may feel lost, overwhelmed, forgetful, irritable, anxious, lonely or angry. Sleep and diet patterns may be irregular and the recovering addict may fantasize about returning to their old lifestyle. All of these symptoms typically pass with time and support. If they persist, the individual may need to see a mental health professional to determine if they are struggling with depression or other issues.
It has been said that grief is not about forgetting, but remembering with less pain. According to J. William Worden, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, people must complete the following “tasks of mourning” to grieve a loss:
Grief can be exacerbated if guilt, shame and stigma cause the recovering addict to suppress their feelings rather than openly acknowledge them. Those who grieve the loss of their addiction position themselves to move forward in their recovery. Trying new activities and modes of self-expression (such as art or journaling), practicing self-care, using healthy coping strategies, setting goals for the future, and leaning on others for support are all signs of progress. These skills can be learned and practiced in drug rehab, support groups and therapy.
Those who deny, minimize or ignore their loss or put a time limit on the grieving process may remain angry, sad or resentful for extended periods of time, become emotionally numb, have difficulty with relationships, or continually struggle with relapse. They are also at greater risk for other addictive behaviors (e.g., compulsive sex, eating, gambling or relationships), depression and self-harm.
Even the best things in life have tradeoffs. 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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Last reviewed: 7 Jul 2014