One of the toughest times for any recovering addict is when grief comes their way. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, the death of a dream or an unexpected tragedy in your life, you probably know that grief comes in all shapes and sizes. The first half of 2020 has seen us facing a lot of grief. Everyone has been impacted, either directly or indirectly, by the coronavirus. We’ve lost friends, loved ones and the plans we had for the year, just to name a few examples. Even with the strongest motivation, it can be hard to stay the course when you find yourself overwhelmed by grief. We’re here to tell you that there are many healthy ways to understand and deal with your grief that don’t involve relapsing.
The Psychology of Grief and Addiction
It’s a natural human response to want to numb the pain. Addicts often turn to their addiction during times of loss because they want to turn off their emotions or forget their circumstances. An addictive substance may feel like a comfortable safety blanket in a time of confusion and pain. However, turning to addiction will often only increase guilt, shame, regret and anxiety, which leads to more pain — and a perceived need for more substances to numb it. This situation can trigger a dangerous addictive cycle.
The Five Stages of Grieving
When we talk about grief, most people are familiar with the five stages outlined by a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This template has been the most readily accepted model of the grieving process for decades, but ultimately, grief is not linear. It is different for each person, even if two people have experienced the same loss.
For some, grief can look like you’re tumbling down a bottomless ravine. You feel that shock and pain as clearly as if you’d been physically wounded. You’ll experience denial, similar to the Kübler-Ross model, but you’ll also feel everything from fear to anger and even panic and guilt.
As you start healing, you climb back up the other side of the ravine, but it doesn’t take much to send you sliding back to the bottom again. Times of anger or depression may make it particularly hard for those struggling with addictions to avoid turning to a substance for perceived help.
Grief and addiction recovery are not mutually exclusive concepts. You can overcome your grief and substance abuse simultaneously when you have the right tools. Know that other options are out there — a few of which are listed below.
Drug-Free Ways to Cope With Grief
You’re not alone, and substances aren’t your only option. Here are just a few tips to avoid relapse while grieving:
- Lean into your support system: It’s counterintuitive, but the time when you really need help is often when it’s hardest to ask for it. Try to fight through any instinct to keep to yourself, and instead reach out to friends and family around you. Let them know what you need and how they can best be there for you.
- Go to regular meetings: You may have decreased your attendance in regular program meetings over time, but at a time of grief and loss, it’s more important than ever to surround yourself with a community that understands your struggles. Try to add consistent meetings to your schedule, and if you have a sponsor, let them know what’s going on.
- Engage your creative side: Art, music and writing can be wonderful outlets for grief. If you have a creative streak, these activities are powerful ways to unpack your experience and process your pain in a healthy setting.
- Stick to a regular sleep and food schedule: Although food and sleep may be the furthest thing from your mind when you’re grieving, sticking to a healthy schedule is key to recovering well. Meal prepping and bedtime routines are ways to stick to a schedule. You can also ask for help from those living nearby.
- Know and avoid your triggers: Consider what your triggers are and what might tempt you to turn to a substance for relief. Being able to pinpoint what people, places or situations are likely to serve as triggers will help you to avoid them and instead pursue surroundings that help you to stay strong.
- Let yourself grieve: Give yourself permission to mourn. The pain you’re going through may feel like an insurmountable weight to bear, but it’s a natural part of loss. Numbing or avoiding it through substance abuse won’t make the pain go away. The only way through it is to take all the time you need to fully grieve. We recommend seeing a professional counselor who can help you navigate your grief in a healthy way.
- Avoid isolation: This is difficult as we learn to navigate our new normal during the coronavirus age, but isolation, when dealing with grief and addiction, only increases your chances of relapse. While therapists might not be offering in-office appointments, almost all of them have switched to a telemedicine model. This setup allows you to stay in touch with professionals and get the help you need without leaving your home.
- Let go of regrets: Regret often accompanies sudden loss. We regret the things we never got to do or say as those things are suddenly brought into sharp relief. As part of your mourning, let go of those regrets. Don’t let the possibilities drag you down. This guilt spiral can be even more difficult for individuals dealing with grief and substance abuse. It increases the temptation to seek out drugs or alcohol to numb those negative feelings.
And remember, we’re here to help. Contact Gateway to receive care if you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction.