When someone is living with an addiction, their substance of choice becomes their confidant, close friend, and comforter. It’s no wonder that choosing to work towards recovery brings up a lot of emotions as it means saying goodbye to this key relationship.
Though addiction brings with it a lot of destruction, often it has also been a person’s main source of coping. Consciously or not, they have given up their lives in order to maintain that relationship above all else. The decision to end this relationship in order to try something new can be an incredible source of grief. Deciding to pursue recovery can mean other losses as well such as ending friendships, distancing from family members, or quitting jobs if they contributed to the addiction.
From the outside looking in, it may seem as though the choice to end addiction would be clearly defined and easy to recognize as the “right” path. However, reframing the way we think about the choice we’re asking our addicted loved ones to make can help us step into empathy and recognize the magnitude of the loss.
Life with Addiction: A complicated relationship
There are some theories that claim that the brain responds to addiction in the same way as it might to loved ones. People have a relationship with their addiction as they interact and bend to it in ways that are similar to an important relationship. They feel that same heady rush every time their beloved is near, and crave their presence. Again, it’s no wonder that losing this relationship would inspire grief and a number of other complicated emotions.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross created the five stages of grief that occur when someone is faced with the reality of loss. Grief is a lifelong process and often people will cycle through its stages in different orders. The path is not linear, just as recovery is a constant journey of ups and downs. Here is how each stage can be correlated with the grieving process of addiction while in treatment.
Denial (Or Pre-Contemplation)
This stage begins with an absence of awareness that there is even a problem with substances. When others bring up concerns about addiction, often this person will not take it seriously or they will even joke about their use. At this stage, they are unwilling to see the harm that substances and addiction are doing in their lives.
Much of what keeps them tied to substance use is a fear of the unknown, even if they may not be able to put it into words. What if I feel anxious and can’t calm down? What if I start thinking about what happened all those years ago and can’t stop? What if those feelings of insecurity resurface and I can’t drown them out?
What is known and understood is a life reliant on mind and mood-altering substances. This attachment to substances makes the idea of losing that escape panic-inducing to the point that the person is unable to recognize (often out of fear) the problem in the first place.
In this stage, the person has recognized the problem and begins to experience anger about what their relationship with substances has brought them. At the beginning of the relationship, substances might have felt like the answer to all of their anxieties. Now they are facing betrayal as addiction has caused more problems than it’s solved.
A person in this stage may have anger towards the consequences that they are facing due to substances and now the work that needs to be done in order to live with the cravings of addiction. There may also be feelings of rage towards others, such as feeling misunderstood or abandoned by loved ones or frustration that others are able to drink without addiction problems.
In this stage, often a person has been working towards sobriety but is not ready to fully let go of their addiction-based relationships. The bargaining stage of grieving can look like “I’m going to go hang out with my friends while they use, but I won’t use” or “I can just take one hit”. The person is trying to see what they can hold on to from their past lifestyle because they are losing so much elsewhere.
It is a challenging stage in which the person with addiction is trying to maintain what they know with their friends and how they know how to cope. It is at this time that relapses can happen. Often the person wants to maintain the good that they have felt in their relationship with their substance of choice and want to believe that they can ‘“control it” this time.
When the haze of addiction clears, a lot of difficult feelings are opened up that have been avoided through substance use. Often, a person’s substance of choice has been their main way of coping and dealing with the world around them, as well as painful feelings and memories.. When this is gone, there is little to numb away the feelings which can become difficult to bear.
Depression sets in as the person begins to take an inventory of how addiction has impacted their lives. They might begin grieving relationships that they have lost to addiction or forfeited time with who they love. Sadness about how the person treated themselves while in active addiction may also show up in this space.
It’s in this stage where long-term recovery begins. The person is able to say goodbye to substances and begin accepting a “new normal” for their lives. There is an acceptance that recovery will bring up difficult feelings and sensations, however they are armed with the tools and skills to process these experiences.
The person is now able to understand how addiction has impacted their lives. They have accepted that there are changes that need to be made to remain in recovery. It is in this that there can be joy in building something new out of this loss.
SagePoint IOP recognizes that along with the joys of recovery, there is a complicated grieving process that also needs to take place. We help people better understand their “relationship” with substances and invite them to explore how healthy/unhealthy this relationship is to their wellbeing. We are here to help give support, education, and tools to navigate these stages successfully. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please reach out today to learn more about our services.