Death: A Sobering Experience
All Dan could hear was the humming and beeping of the machines his father was hooked to. Machines breathing for him, cleaning the blood that his failing kidneys no longer could. He had recently made the decision that his father was past the point of no return. Soon the machines would be unhooked. Though there were some close family members there, ultimately, he was alone with his thoughts. So many questions ran through his head: was he making the right decision? What would his father think? What do I think about this? Am I going to get high over this? Heroin was on his mind. Something to make the pain go away; something to silence the voices for a while. No one would know. And if they did, they would understand. His father was dying, after all. Surely a relapse is justified. No one could reasonably deny him the warm embrace of oblivion. Am I going to get high over this? Is it worth sacrificing all of the progress I’ve made? No. Not today. Dan made it through his darkest moments clean and sober. It was traumatic, but it was absolutely worthwhile. He came out the other side stronger than he has ever felt. You can do this too.
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A Foreword Regarding Handling Loss in Recovery
This handbook was written specifically for the recovering addict who is dealing with grief and loss in life. Though this may be your darkest moment, know that you are not alone. Many of us have walked in your shoes and come out the other side clean, sober, and stronger for it. This isn’t easy for anyone; especially the recovering addict. We will discuss how to cope and deal with the five stages of grief without regressing in your recovery, so that you can come out the other side of this whole and healthy. Because no matter where the dark recesses of your ailing mind may carry you through this journey, you are worth coming through whole and intact on the other side. You have value to this world. The insights and strength you have gathered during your journey through recovery are beacons of hope to those still struggling.
Denial: The First Stage of Grief
Denial is our natural inability to accept what is readily apparent in front of us. When we are in denial, we will actively avoid dealing with the circumstances causing our grief. Some of us may pretend they do not exist at all. The mind only allows in what it can handle at any moment. It is a primary defense. Denial prevents our world from crashing in around us when something catastrophic or unbelievable happens. Others may see that what we are running from is obvious, real, and needing dealt with. That’s okay. Denial allows the person in grief a reprieve, where they can slowly begin to process what is occurring without panic. Panic will occur with denial though. The thoughts and realizations creep in that what is happening is real and unavoidable. Terror and sadness can strike in our hearts as the denial begins to recede. It is natural that denial in the mind can lead to avoidance as the realizations begin to set in. Here is where the action must occur for anyone, especially the addict. Many of us, addicts and non-addicts alike, will want to sink into avoidance in the face of tragedy. It is human nature. How we cope with this avoidance is what is of paramount importance. Of course, the easiest way an addict has to avoid the pain and suffering that is beginning to surface is to self-medicate the pain away. In our old way of life, we would find ourselves buried inside the bottom of a bottle or staring down the loaded barrel of a needle about to pierce our skin, waiting to sink into that comforting grasp of oblivion. The pain would be gone, temporarily. In recovery, we no longer have that option, tempting as it may be to recede at this point. You must be strong and stay the course here. Your loved ones need you and are glad to have you back. To make whatever tragedy is unfolding worse by relapsing would carry grave consequences for you and everyone else involved as well. In this stage of grief, you will not be able to actively deny what is happening forever. No matter whether it is the death of a loved one or some other personal crisis, be proactive here. In your old life as an active addict, you knew how to run away from life all too well. Now is the time to change that. Now is the time to show your strength and personal growth. Show that you are no longer an island, adrift alone at sea. Reach out to others that this tragedy may be affecting and see if you can be of service. If this tragedy is only affecting you, do not suffer in silence. Go to a meeting. Call a friend. Share your pain, for pain shared is pain lessened.
Anger: The Rage of Sadness
“My heart burnt with indignation and grief; we could think of nothing else. All night long we had only snatches of sleep, waking up perpetually to a sense of great shock and grief. Everyone is feeling the same. I never knew so universal a feeling.” – Elizabeth Gaskell Anger is necessary to the healing process. As you slowly heal, anger will gradually replace denial as the primary emotion you are dealing with. Indignation will grow as the situation becomes more undeniable. The reality of the injustice you have been dealt will set in. This is necessary, because anger is another defense mechanism of the mind. Anger allows us to complete trying tasks in the face of obstinate odds. Anger fills the mother as her child is endangered. It wills her to go to any lengths to protect her loved one. Indignation at injustice has fueled all great changes and progressions made throughout history. Righteous anger fueled the Union when destroying the Confederacy; it decimated the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Anger is an emotion of action. This powerful emotion can be used to achieve many great and significant things. But like fuel on a fire, righteous anger and indignation can also be used to make very rash decisions. Because, do not forget, under anger lies pain. Pain from the perceived injustice you are in. Pain from the chaos and confusion that your life is becoming. We want to lash out when we are angry. We will curse our loved ones, doctors, friends, even God. As addicts, we tend to not want to hurt those that we love the most. We internalize those burning feelings of rage and try to smother them with impotence. When we turn this rage inward, we feel as though we may self-destruct. We feel we may want to self-destruct. But there are some things to consider before we overreact and do something regrettable. Consider these steps to deal with your anger in a healthy fashion:
- Think before you speak. In the heat of the moment, it is easy to say painful and regrettable things. If you hurt someone who is only trying to help you, your anger may turn inward, leading you down a self-destructive path.
- Take a walk. A few minutes’ exercise releases endorphins–our natural feel-good chemicals. Those same chemicals that we liked to stimulate chemically when in active addiction.
- Take time for yourself. A few moments daily to just breathe and be quiet whenever you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed will do wonders for your psyche.
- Speak to someone. Once again, no one in recovery is an island. We need each other. We need you to reach out to us and tell us what you’re going through; how you’re feeling. Because listening to you and keeping you sober, helps keep us sober.
Bargaining: Grief’s Gambler
“I’ll do anything if this will just stop,” or “Please, God, if you don’t take her I’ll rejoin the church and give more to charity.” Bargaining tends to be a very personal phase of the grieving process, and it is seemingly irrational at best. At this stage, one pleads with whatever powers that be. The grieving will hope that any action they may take will change the course of this painful experience. Though it may seem irrational, bargaining at its root typically coincides guilt. The guilt comes from memories that will resurface under times of duress; times that you may have not thought of in ages. The would-haves and should-haves torment us. “If I only would have spent more time with her while she was still here, she would have known how much I truly care.” This stage can be extremely painful for the addict. Many of our actions while in active addiction have been plagued with self-centeredness. As we tried to mask the pain of our daily existence, we may have caused undue hurt to the loved one we are saying good bye to. This will feed into our overactive sense of guilt. It can lead back to our self-destructive tendencies. Here, we must be careful to monitor our actions. If the person you are mourning the loss of is still alive, speak to them. Let them know of the guilt you carry regarding some of your past decisions. Let them know that you care. For who better to absolve you of that guilt than the person you have harmed? This is pillar of the ninth step, and is a totem of recovery. If you are unable to speak directly to whom or whatever you are mourning the loss of, speak to someone in a position of authority on the topic. Whether it be an intimate friend, a pastor, your group, or family member is no matter. Do not stay inside your own head at this point. It is a dangerous place to be. Speaking to someone about the topic will allow you to see that the guilt you are carrying should be let go of. You are not responsible for this situation, nor can you do anything to change it.
Depression: An Addict’s Old Friend
You are not responsible for this situation, nor can you do anything to change it. This is a harrowing thought. Some circumstances are simply out of our control. There is absolutely nothing we can do to change them. Our actions have no effect on the direct situation. It leaves us feeling helpless, empty, and broken. Those old feelings of self-doubt can easily begin to seep back into the uneasy mind of a burdened addict at this time, which is completely normal. Everyone feels this way from time to time. What is important here is recognizing what depression truly is. Many simply think of depression as overwhelming sadness, and while that is a symptom, depression goes farther than that. Depression is a syndrome, meaning myriad symptoms. The mind enters a fugue state. This is normal at this point in the grieving process. As we stare into the darkness, we will question ourselves about everything we have ever known to this point. Why go on at all? What is the point? We lose enjoyment in all of our daily activities. The things that once gave us the greatest happiness will not remit the slightest bit of joy to the despondent mind. While depression is completely normal at this stage in grief, it can still be dangerous. The recovering addict must be wary of where his or her mind wanders. This is where outside support can come in helpful. When dealing with depression, all of the normal avenues of help should be utilized. Tell someone what you’re going through. Don’t isolate. Talk to your group. If the depression persists for some time, do not hesitate to contact your medical provider to consider antidepressants. What is important this remembering that this too shall pass. And when it does, you will finally enter the final stage: acceptance.
Acceptance: They Key to Freedom
“I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength in distress, and grow brave by reflection. It is the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles boldly until a pleasant and happy death,” – Leonardo Da Vinci Acceptance doesn’t mean that you’re completely okay with what has happened. It means that you have reached a healthy point in coping with what is your new reality. Your sense of loss has settled in. At this point you are developing new coping mechanisms for dealing with the loss. While the struggle, the hurt from missing your loved one, is never easy to swallow, it will eventually recede into the past. Time will heal all wounds. While we may never like this aspect of our new reality, we will learn to accept that this is our new reality, and that life must go on. Slowly, you will begin to live again. One morning, you will walk outside and smell the cool breeze of the spring air and notice the vibrant color of the flowers again. The music of the world will resonate in your ears again; it will no longer be the muddled background noise is has been for so long. Accepting that everything is okay again can come with an undeserved sense of guilt for the recovering addict. We may feel sad that we are becoming okay with the loss of our loved one. We may suffer from a form of survivor’s guilt. Do not fall prey into this fatalistic mindset. Your loved one does not want you to suffer. Recovering addicts are some of the most beautiful people the world has to offer, for they have been through the darkest recesses of the world and come through tempered and forged in love and strength on the other side. Remember to share this strength and hope with others who are suffering, no matter what their travails may be. Every bit of pain you have experienced through this ordeal has made you stronger, and now it is your responsibility to share it with the world. You will survive this. If at any step along the way you feel you are faltering, always remember to reach out. Search inside for the coping mechanisms you have developed. You are not alone in this. Hang on, breathe deep, and remember, the sun will shine again. Do not let your pain become too deep though. If you or someone you know is struggling with serious depression experienced from the loss of a loved one, and you feel that the burden is too great, reach out. There are many crisis helplines you can call where someone understanding will be available to listen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Help is never too far out of reach.
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Grief is one of the most painful emotions for a human to endure. It may be especially difficult for an addict. There are many pitfalls for us along the way as we navigate through it. We have a tendency to overextend ourselves. We can forget how we have learned to care for ourselves in these trying times. That is the most important thing to take from this handbook. Be sure to take care of yourself through this process. We need you. Your loved ones need you, and you will survive and carry on. Love yourself.