The world is heavy with grief right now. Most people are experiencing some level of it. Even if you don’t know someone who has died, you are likely mourning something: loss of routine, loss of control, perhaps loss of employment. Those who are grieving a death may not be able to have a funeral—interrupting the usual mourning process. Some people may be processing the collective grief. Others may feel anticipatory loss.
Recovery, especially early recovery, can feel like a loss too. As this article points out, the stages of grief and the stages of change have a similar trajectory—at least in terms of going through a process of acceptance. When I was thinking of getting sober, I joined a group my therapist recommended that was about making a big life change. The thinking was that as hard as it would be for me to get sober—and it was hard—it would be just as difficult to process the loss of my former life.
And giving up the substance is losing an emotional attachment. The reward centers of our brain motivate us to seek connection and relationships as a major reward. Over time, the addictive substance becomes a reward—often sought out over anything else. This is why falling in love has been compared to using drugs in uncountable songs. There’s the same initial euphoric feeling, and in some cases a process of withdrawal in its absence.
In a further connection between grief and addiction, people will often use substances in response to grief. One study showed that people in bereavement for two years are more than twice as likely to have at-risk drinking habits. The highest rates of Alcohol Use Disorder in the country are in widowers over 75, which might say a lot about loss and addiction.
Mourning brings on symptoms that may overlap with Depression and Anxiety. As substance use commonly co-occurs with both of these mental health disorders, it makes sense that grief and substance use commonly co-occur, too. When you’re experiencing something as painful and consuming as grief, it makes sense that you would want an escape. But using substances always exacerbates the difficult feelings, making them much more unmanageable. Grief can’t be contained—it has to be felt.
Even anecdotally, it seems that many people with histories of addiction have either experienced profound—or are fixated on—loss. Many of the sober people I know (myself included) have a shared experience of prolonged or intense grief. People use substances to numb that grief, but they also tend to lose a lot in active addiction. Loss is a theme that comes up again and again in addiction and recovery stories.
But now the rest of the world has caught up. There’s already isolation, fear, lack of control, and many other factors that contribute to addiction. The grief happening on a mass scale is another thing to add to the list.
If you are grieving, allow yourself to feel those emotions without an escape. And don’t judge yourself for them. I’ve heard a lot of people say they “shouldn’t be so sad” about the loss of something they consider trivial in the scheme of what’s happening. But whatever you are mourning is valid. Underplaying your grief is a way of tossing it aside—which will make it come back stronger.
If you are suffering from a substance use or mental health disorder during this time of profound loss, there is help and hope. Amatus Recovery Centers is open and here for you, with hospital-grade sanitization and telehealth options so that you can feel safe in our care. At our facilities across the country, we will help you work through the losses, traumas and other root causes of your addiction so that you can thrive in long-term recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.