Grieving the loss of an addiction is a very common and powerful experience that all 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 were your constant companion, your coping mechanism, your escape route and your priority for many months, years or even decades.
Separating yourself from that intense relationship is often experienced as a significant loss, so allowing yourself to grieve that loss can be a vital and necessary process to go through in order to accept your addictions were part of your life previously and accepting that you no longer need that in your life going forward.
The Science Of Grief
Grief isn’t “all in your head”; it’s also in your body.
Grief affects the human limbic system and disrupts our brain chemicals, including dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin are thought to be deeply intertwined with mood, happiness and emotional stress regulation. Coincidentally, alcohol and drugs affect many of these same brain chemicals which is why drugs played such a big part of your life as you were physically and psychologically dependent upon that/those substance(s).
Bereavement means “the state of being in which someone grieves the death of a loved one or thing.” It characteristically includes a prolonged and indefinite period of “suffering”.
One study by the Journal of Behavioral Medicine on health outcomes associated with the years of mourning found that losing a loved one, directly and indirectly, causes several negative health repercussions.
One of these adverse health repercussions was a declined sleep quality and another included an increase in alcohol consumption in the years of grief. It is highly important that you ensure that during this grieving process, you do not allow your addictions to flair up, either by using a new substance or reverting back to your old habits.
For example, if you are grieving the loss of heroin, you need to ensure that you don’t then start drinking alcohol to cope during this process which may then lead on to developing yet another addiction.
This is why it’s no wonder that grief and loss can lead to someone developing yet another life-threatening addiction to drugs or alcohol. For, the brain and the body both feel loss and loss can manifest as physical pain and biological complications.
Types Of Grief
Anticipatory grief: This is the kind of grief experienced when the death of a loved one is just around the corner, such as in cases of terminal illness or an ailing, elderly family member.
While painful, some psychologists believe this type of grief may help to shorten the post-death grief process because so many of the related emotions are worked through ahead of time.
Unanticipated grief: This type of grief is often associated with unexpected loss, such as from an accident, heart attack, loss of a pet or other surprise event.
Ambiguous grief: This form is the result of a circumstance where there is little or no closure about the unfortunate event. For example, if a loved one is kidnapped and never found, a pet runs away or a parent abandons a child or a child abandons a parent. This lack of closure can cause ambiguous grief.
Whichever type of grief a person experiences, the way he or she responds is directly related to several factors. For example, the closeness of the relationship between the deceased and the griever has an impact on the level and length of grief. In addiction, the close bond that’s created between the user/drinker and the substance become an intertwined part of their life. Also, different people have different coping capabilities, so a more resilient person may bounce back more quickly than a more sensitive counterpart.
Life experience also plays a role. Someone who has experienced loss more often than others may be able to draw on that previous experience to help that person manage grief more easily. Lastly, a solid support system is vital in the grieving process.
Those who experience loss but are surrounded by loved ones, friends, a sponsor, mentor or community group are more likely to recover in a healthier manner more quickly than those who don’t.
In an attempt to help bereaved people cope more effectively with grief, many psychologists have outlined “stages” of grief describing the typical emotions one can expect to experience. The first and perhaps best-known list of stages was developed by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” In it, she outlined the five stages that most people can expect to experience when dealing with a loss or facing a terminal illness.
These stages are broken down for you below.
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 or alcohol.
“Alcohol was my best friend for years, when I decided to stop, I was surprised about the emptiness I felt after alcohol was removed from my daily life. I actively sought out that relationship to the exclusion of relationships with actual people. That’s how important it was to me.”Emily, 33, Addicted to alcohol
Substances don’t simply become your best friend overnight, however like all relationships, the one you have with drugs and alcohol takes time to develop and aren’t going to be permanently changed overnight either, however it is possible and achievable!
“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. However with time, the negative consequences begin to build up and eventually begin to outweigh its thrilling high that’s experienced.”Lindsay Kramer, a therapist specialising in addiction treatment.
Everyone and anyone can develop an addiction to anything. Nobody from kings and queens to the homeless and unborn babies are susceptible to addiction.
Henry VIII, Hitler and Robin Williams (the comedian and actor) and Amy Winehouse (UK singer) have all been addicts, and in one way or another, addiction had led to their downfall and ultimately, loss of their lives.
“When I first began to enjoy the effects of prescribed opioids such as codeine and morphine, I enjoyed the way it made me feel. I felt like I could get on with my day whilst feeling content, comfortable whilst continuing to feel that warm glow inside that opioids can provide.
I worked 50+ hours a week as a Paramedic, saving the lives of the elderly, the injured and the unwell. More and more I dealt with those afflicted by addiction and yet, and yet, I still ultimately ended up in the same place as my addict patients were in.
However, my tolerance grew and grew which eventually led to my GP suspecting that I was misusing the medication. When that was stopped, the feelings and thoughts in my mind continued, my “inner friend” told me that I should continue, so I sourced opioids where I could and eventually, it led to me taking heroin.
Even with the negative consequences beginning to build, I still continued to listen to that “inner voice” until my world literally fell apart around me. It was then I began to realise that it wasn’t my friend at all, and it was time for it to go once and for all!”Dave – Founder of Drink ‘n’ Drugs
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 or drink and ends up placing their addiction as their highest and only priority in their life.
The feeling of love may even be developed. The dependence continually intensifies, money is spent to excess and the “relationship” tends to become a full-time job to maintain with friends and loved ones also becoming metaphorical employees of their addiction too.
The drug becomes a permanent fixture that will never leave the now-addict. What once was exploratory, soothing or fun becomes dependent, shameful, embarrassing, guilty and confining, further polarising their relationship with their addiction from the real relationships with everyone else.
Dismantling that relationship to achieve recovery can be an overwhelming experience, not just due to the detox/withdrawal process or the addictive drive to drink or use, but due to the very real emotional attachment you have developed to drinking or using.
Even people who are keenly aware that they need help and cannot continue to sustain their relationship with drugs or alcohol often feel a profound sense of loss in their early recovery as they grapple with the dissolution of such a significant element of their lives.
“By the time people come to treatment, substances have become a core attachment in their lives – something they rely on to get through the day and just to feel normal”Ned Presnall, a social worker and Executive Director of Clayton Behavioral
Grieving The Loss Of An Addiction
The Kübler-Ross model (as mentioned at the beginning of this article) has come to be perhaps the most common template to describe the stages of grief. Originally intended to chart the grieving process following a human death, the model has since been applied to a variety of types of loss, including grieving the loss of an addiction.
Rather than acting as a linear progression, these stages describe a set of common experiences that may be experienced in any order for any type of grief process.
Denial is a hallmark of an active addiction. In order to protect your relationship with drugs and alcohol, 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 or alcohol are causing you or on your relationships with other people and you may go to great lengths to minimise and/or hide your using and drinking. Sometimes lashing out in anger if someone expresses concern or speaks the truth when you may not want to hear it.
Anger often emerges when you finally realise that you are in a damaging relationship with drugs and alcohol and come to accept that you aren’t in control of your substance 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 clean or sober or at yourself.
You may feel betrayed and abandoned by the substance that was supposed to be your best friend and partner for causing the situation you now find yourself in. While this anger may be distressing, it can also spur you towards healing and recovery if properly harnessed, you can take this energy to create positive, long lasting real change.
You understand that your relationship with drugs or alcohol isn’t perfect, but rather than ending the relationship altogether, you try to constantly bargain or barter with yourself to see if you can simply modify it and continue using or drinking.
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 substance use.
The depressive stage of grief comes when you fully understand the depth of the damage your addiction is causing you, those around you and can be tremendously broad in scope.
You may experience deep despair for how addiction has affected your life, harmed your relationships or impacted your physical and emotional health. You may feel overwhelming remorse for the things you have said or done during active addiction and a sadness for the life you could have had were it not for drugs and alcohol. You may feel guilty for the things you had, yet now no longer have because of your addiction, such as jobs, cars, houses, boats, hobbies, interests, animals, holidays, luxury items ect.
But alongside the depression you feel for the destructive effects of your addition, you may also feel deep mourning for the loss of your relationship with alcohol and drugs.
“I realised that I would never again be able to get drunk with my friends around a bonfire on the beach. 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 Eve 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 initially that felt so unbelievably depressing at first.”Emily, 33, Bournemouth, UK
The fear of living without your substance of choice is one of the most common sources of depression during this stage and a fear that all addicts experience when they consider entering recovery but then either stop or backtrack as they contemplate with this thought which scares them so much they just continue using or drinking.
As you are left to cope with life without the ostensibly protective padding of drugs or alcohol, it’s important that you speak up about this and other fears you may have with people who have experience of this and are now living happily in recovery.
Acceptance comes when you finally understand the true nature of your relationship with substances 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.
For the addict at this stage, they can now begin to see that there is a positive path laid out for them on their road to recovery which others have followed successfully.
They can begin to entertain a new vision of how their life can/will be lived without being in relationship with active substance addiction. New healthy recovery relationships and support have begun to replace isolation, lies, fears or the “what ifs”.
The addict has been clean or sober long enough to begin to develop new techniques, skills and strategies of coping with stresses, tough moments, upsetting times as well as managing their life circumstances, often utilising hidden creativity and ingenuity formerly lost to their addiction.Robert Weiss, Social Worker
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 inner drive for substances and create the kind of life you want, without resorting to substance use.
Fortifying your recovery after residential treatment through continuing efforts such as 12-step meetings, counselling, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, mental health exercises, mindfulness, meditation, following a daily recovery plan and many others are going to be critical to helping you maintain your recovery and help you to find a community in which your grieving is understood and accepted. For example with other addicts in recovery, those who have the same interests, hobbies, worries or health conditions as you, just to name a few.
Creating A New Future
While grieving the loss of an addiction can be a difficult and painful process that forces you to acknowledge the reality of your substance use, it is also necessary to find closure for the dysfunctional relationships you found yourself in.
We often don’t think about those around us who we unintentionally harm as a direct result of our addictions. it isn’t until we begin to enter recovery and our state of mind changes, physically, chemically and mentally that we then try to wrong the harms done to our friends and loved ones whilst we were still using or drinking.
That does not mean denying the good experiences you had while drinking or using but it does mean not romanticising them or forgetting the negative consequences that caused you to need/seek recovery.
“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. This is a sacrifice that is well worth the effort, but must be recognised as a sacrifice nevertheless.”Dr. David Sack for PsychCentral
Grieving The Loss Of A Friend Or Loved One Who Has Died From An Overdose Or Substance Related Death
Grieving the loss of a person as a consequence of their drug or alcohol use can be a devastating reality that many thousands of family’s and their friends go through each year around the world because of their friend or loved ones drug or alcohol use, an accidental or intentional overdose or as a complication of their chronic substance use, such as getting infections from not cleaning injecting sites or sharing injecting equipment, lung damage from smoking drugs or because of drug interactions when mixing different drugs together, such as cocaine and alcohol. This creates a new chemical that can be fatal.
Ways To Say Goodbye To Your Addiction & Active Use
Formally saying goodbye to your addiction. This psychologically gives your brain and body a clear, formal cut off and an end to your addiction and it’s associated behaviours.
The act of physically saying what you want to say to your addiction as if it were a person and then actually letting go of those feelings and thoughts is a really important stage in your recovery.
There are numerous ways to formally say goodbye to your addiction and addictive behaviours including:
- Writing a letter to your addiction
- Writing to your addiction and then burning the letter, burying it in the ground, letting it sink in a river, ocean or attaching it to a helium balloon and letting it go or tearing it up
- On an online blog or website
- Create your own art piece or drawing as a way to show your feelings and emotions towards your addiction
- Attach your letter to a brick or stone and throw it away
- Simply going to a quiet area and talk to yourself out loud as if your addiction was stood there with you at the time, you can even shout and scream if you want to, you just need to let all of that pent-up anger and any other feelings you have towards it out of your mind and body.
This is an example of a letter to say goodbye to your addiction:
There is a saying that the hardest thing to do in life is to say goodbye. This includes all relationships, including my relationship with you. We have been through a lot together. This started off with plenty of happy moments, like the first time I experienced getting high or drunk. There came a point where I thought I would never have to part with you. I never thought you would like. Now, it is time to say goodbye.
When you first came into my life, I believed that you would help me ease all the pain I was going through. I thought that my traumatic childhood experiences would disappear thanks to you. I also thought that you could ease many of the struggles of my present. This includes issues I have in my personal and professional life. I believed that the more I poured into you, the less I would have to worry about my other problems. For a while, everything seemed fine. We had a great relationship and you did exactly that.
Eventually, I realized that I was wrong. Things started to change. You became the hardest relationship I have ever had to experience. You started to take more than you gave. In fact, you stopped giving at all. You took almost everything away from me. You took away my job. You took away my family members. You took away my friends. Eventually, you took everything away from me. You told me that as long as I let you control everything in my life, everything would be okay. Oh, how wrong I was. It has become clear that everything is not okay. In order for things to get better, I need to let you go.
You have become incredibly cruel. You are a tremendous liar. You are the best thief. Oh, you are an evil master. There were plenty of times when I believed things were starting to look up. I was starting to crawl away from your evil clutches. It turns out that you are also vindictive, as you did everything in your power to pull me right back in. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get away from you. All I wanted to do was make changes in my life that would be for the better. I wanted to become a better person. There was even a part of me that believed I could become a better person with you. Sadly, you are unwilling to share. You constantly blocked me from doing any of the things I wanted to do. In that sense, you quickly became my worst nightmare. Because of you, I ended up doing things that I never in a million years thought I would be capable of doing. You turned me into what I hated more than anything else. You robbed me of my independence and freedom. You have changed me.
As a result, I know I have to leave you. I have tried to leave you in the past; however, every time I try to leave you behind, you simply come back stronger than ever before. I realized that the only way I could be able to leave you would be if I hit rock bottom first. The only thing is that I didn’t know exactly what rock bottom meant. I lost my job. I lost my family. How much more do I have to lose before I’m willing to leave you for good? Will it be a trip to the hospital? Will it be an arrest? No, I am making the decision to leave you now. I am deciding that I have had enough of you. I was too scared to leave you before. I was scared to leave. I was scared of what my life might look like without you. I watched you dig my grave from day one. As the days went by, I stood by and did nothing. Then, you decided to push me into that grave. You began to cover me up. You thought that you would be able to get rid of me. No. That will never happen. I will not let it because I am stronger than you and I am saying goodbye.
Without you, I am stronger. Without you, I am accomplishing more than I ever have. Without you, I am returning to the life and people I once loved because I know they still love me. To my addiction, this is goodbye. I never want to see you again. I am moving forward.