The Stages Of Grief In Addiction And Recovery

“Feel your feelings.” Sit in on a couple of recovery meetings and this is one of the buzz phrases that you often hear.

Seasoned members have learned that one of the biggest mistakes we can make as we move through recovery is to deny the emotional place in which we find ourselves. Convinced that our feelings and emotions are less important than our actions, or that they are unjustified, unreasonable, or unspeakable, we ignore, avoid or stuff them.

When we dismiss our emotions and feelings as silly, unfounded or not worth engaging we don’t get rid of them. We simply move them to a place where they can come back to haunt us when we least expect it.

It is true that emotions cannot be our rulers, but it is also true that moving from a life of addiction — with all of its established characteristics and predictable outcomes — to a life of sobriety is going to produce some emotions and some feelings. We will do well to look at these feelings honestly and give ourselves space and time to sort them out.

Giving up addictions

When you give up an addiction, you give up more than a substance; you give up a friend and confidant, a constant companion and comfort, and a means of navigating — however ineffectively — life. Naturally there may be some feelings of loss involved in the process. Though much good is to come, and though you may already be feeling better about your decision to become sober, you are not alone if you also feel loss and sadness.

What we find is that it is better to recognize and confront these normal feelings than to let them drag us into the kind of depression that may also drag us out of sobriety. Moving through loss and grief is a process. Rather than deny the process, we can engage it in a healthy way and work to bring effective closure to our life of addiction and unhealthy dependence.

It would not be off-base to view the death of an addiction as we might view the death of a close friend or spouse. Our relationship to our substance or behavior really is that deep, intimate and entangled. When we acknowledge our very real sense of loss, we can deal with our feelings in a healthy way. We can make peace and we can bring about the kind of closure we need in order to start our new lives without a lot of baggage, unfinished business or stuffed emotions.

Tools for recovery

We all experience loss a little differently, but ultimately in a fairly universal way. Therefore, some of the tools that help people understand and move through the loss of a relative or close friend, and come to a place of closure, can also help us as we heal from the loss of our addiction.

The amount of time you spend in each phase will be unique to you. But take heart, you will move through this. There is not a specific order or time frame, and the stages of grief are not always experienced finitely — you may go through more than one at the same time. Be patient with yourself, be honest, and stay sober as you progress toward the final chapter in your relationship with alcohol.

The stages of grief

1. Denial, Isolation

At some point, we will be tempted to deny that we have an addiction, that we need recovery, or that our new found sobriety is affecting us emotionally. We don’t want to feel what we’re feeling or acknowledge the truth of our condition, let alone confess it to others, so we isolate and pretend there isn’t a problem.

2. Anger

This is where we’re angry and asking “Why me?”

Addicts have two anger modes; either we are rage-filled, perpetually angry people, or we’re emotional stuffers who pretend we never get angry. Giving up alcohol and facing the reality that there is no other option can inspire feelings of anger in even the meekest among us. Ultimately we have always been people who wanted our own way and were willing to do whatever it took to get it. For some it was rule by force and fear and for others it was calm, subtle manipulation. Either way, when we give up alcohol, a period of anger is unavoidable.

3. Bargaining

Many of us have been bargaining throughout our entire drinking careers as we sought to find some way in which we could control our drinking and become “normal.” We may continue this pattern even into our early recovery as we seek the magic loophole that would allow us to drink and not destroy ourselves.

4. Depression

Deep sadness coupled with feelings of dejection or hopelessness is normal as the addict goes through separation from alcohol. Fear of the future or a sense that life is no longer worth living drive us deeper into depression and despair. This is a phase in the journey and it will not last forever. Honesty and openness about these feelings with other fellows in recovery or with a professional will help you to see that what you are feeling is normal.

5. Acceptance

Eventually we come to a place of being able to accept that we are alcoholics and that we will never be able to drink again. As we become sober, things are starting to look up. We are meeting people who are living successfully and joyfully in sobriety. We accept our condition honestly and begin to learn how to live peacefully without alcohol in our lives. We aren’t fighting — we are choosing to do what we know is right for us.

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Brought to you by Elements Behavioral Health

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