Grief is a heavy emotion. Facing it head-on, without numbing out on substances, can be a big challenge. When I was only seven months sober, I lost someone very close to me. At the time, I wasn’t as practiced in using healthy coping skills to deal with stress—but in retrospect, I’m glad I wasn’t drinking and using.
It’s common for people to use substances to deal with grief. One study found that people who have been in mourning for two years are more than twice as likely to engage in at-risk drinking. Widowers over 75 have some of the highest rates of Alcohol Use Disorder in the US. There may be other factors that contribute, but there’s a reason it’s widowers and not anyone over 75.
In the early stages of sobriety, we might grieve the loss of using drugs and alcohol. Any big life change may involve a mourning process. With addiction, that process can feel particularly strong, because your brain has come to rely on the substance. Addiction and interpersonal attachment are connected in the brain; the loss of each has its own physical and emotional grieving process. Just listen to the many, many songs comparing love—or the loss of it—to drugs.
In active addiction, many people lose a lot, even if they don’t experience the death of someone close. Relationships may end, which can be a huge loss. They may lose their job, their house—and even the loss of intangible things like a sense of self can be strongly felt. Grief comes in many different forms.
Recovery is an opportunity to work on coping skills, so that no feeling—no matter how intense and hard—seems unmanageable. When I was in active addiction, difficult feelings felt so stressful that I avoided dealing with them.
But that never works. Ultimately, they ended up coming back stronger and even less manageable. Living that way meant that I was always afraid of something bad happening, because I didn’t think I could cope.
Now at over five years sober, and with that much time in therapy, I’ve learned to face difficult feelings with a sureness I’d never experienced in active addiction. This doesn’t mean that grief isn’t still gutting and overwhelming, or that some emotions don’t feel difficult; it means I know I will be able to handle whatever happens.
Remember that your feelings are valid, no matter the loss you are experiencing. Trivializing feelings—or imagining that there’s a deadline by which you should be over them—is another way of avoiding them. A common saying for people in recovery is “the only way out is through.” This is definitely true when it comes to grief. You have to feel your emotions in order to process them.
Loss is hard, but you can deal with it sober. Checking in with your support system can be really helpful important when you’re grieving. Your friends and family can remind you that you are not alone.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. TruHealing Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. Our staff will help you cope with the loss of substances in your life, and replace them with something much better—a life in recovery. To learn more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.