There is a difference between grief and prolonged grief disorder (PGD). The biggest difference is time. PGD is seemingly unremitting—it lasts and it doesn’t go away on its own. Time seems to be the elixir for “normal” grief—time heals. Often because of the severity, the shock, or the proximity of the survivor, grief becomes intrenched into a person’s life. We are changed forever. We may take up a cause, start a foundation, a scholarship, or write a blog. We surround ourselves with others who feel the same and together we muddle through life. Sometimes numb, sometimes alive, never right and forever changed.
Scientists found this phenomenon called PGD is different, not just in severity or time. A phenomenon that support, advice, or Bundt cake doesn’t cure. I am a survivor of sorts. I suppose PGD is part of my life—a big part—maybe it is my life. I’m just not ready to diagnose myself.
If you look over the vague symptoms I listed, ask yourself if they sound familiar, not yourself necessarily, maybe not someone you know. Maybe they sound familiar to other mental disorders you have heard. Think about a person who no longer acts the same, looks different, is changed forever. Maybe they take up the cause and try to help themselves by helping others. Still sometimes they are numb, sometimes they are alive, but always they seem off balance, they are different. What type of person comes to mind?
I’m thinking about an addict. If that is too pejorative, think about someone with an Obsessive-Compulsive disorder. Science has identified neurotransmitters in your brain that are influenced by our behaviors and consequently our thinking. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that infuse electrical connections in our brains responsible for thinking and memory. When we take medicine or when we drink alcohol, these chemicals are affected.
Here’s the million-dollar question–Is PGD an addiction? Are chemicals in a grieving person the same chemicals that are released or repressed when someone does drugs, drinks alcohol, or gambles? This is my question, this is also the question scientists are seeking to answer.
I gravitate to my mood music while I avoid certain social activities. I withdrawal and only engage with like minded people. I use my “positive addiction” of exercise to fight off depressed mood and generate movement. It’s when I feel best about myself. I’m confident, I’m whole. Chemicals in my brain are energized while exercising and these chemicals fight off my PGD. Likewise chemicals keep us entrenched in our bad habits. If so, there are other ways to deal with PGD such as medication, social interaction, developing new patterns of thinking and behaving.
Just thinking about grief as either an addiction or an obsession gives us a handle to do something, something different. Maybe we aren’t victims after all. Maybe we are not just survivors. Maybe we actually contribute to our own problems. No, not authors of our issues but maybe we are leading actors.
I’m not blaming the victim here, but we may be more than victims. Labeling PGD as survivors makes us sound both passive and heroic. I am neither, not victim, survivor. Not passive or heroic. But if there are chemicals in my brain that are causing or at least contributing to my state of mind, then I have somewhere to start. If I know there is someway of changing or at least influencing those chemicals, I now have something to do.
The problem is doing something isn’t a simple cause and effect. There is delay, repetition, and intermittent reinforcement. What? Intermittent reinforcement. It causes the gamble’s fallacy. That’s when a gambler pulls the arm of slot machine and because every so often, they get a coin back, they are hooked into thinking the more I pull, the closer I am to winning big. The delay doesn’t kill their incentive, it increases it.
But when you try to break the habit, the delay between, let’s say exercising and feeling better does not reinforce more exercise. The delay encourages us to revert back to our habit. An addiction or an obsession or compulsion is so strong that it takes more than two days, weeks or even months. It takes a lifetime but I still take the Bundt cake.
This is the first in a series of practical articles that will cut through the jargon and help you to celebrate the life that was left to you to decide how you will live. Please check out my book, When Sunday Smiled to find out how I decided and it has made all the difference. https://www.amazon.com/When-Sunday-Smiled-Walking-Through/
Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. -Robert Frost