Drugs and Alcohol are Not Grief Counselors

Choosing Self-Preservation Over Self-Medication 

Each of us desires to live a long life defined by rich experience and deep, meaningful relationships. The bonds of love and affection we create with others form the background against which all of our hopes and dreams are projected. As social creatures we need other people who will love us, listen to us and believe in us no matter how crazy things get or how momentarily lost we become.

One of the strongest motivations that helps bring addicts and alcoholics back from the edge of destruction is the realization they are hurting the ones they love and may lose them entirely if they don’t change their ways. Isolation is a frightening prospect for most human beings, and the thought of being cut off permanently from valued life companions can grab even the most hopeless addict by the shoulders and shake her out of her drug-induced slumber.

Grieving for the Death of Sobriety

But what happens when a recovering addict or alcoholic loses someone important? When one of the people she credits with helping her find meaning and purpose again suddenly leaves her behind to fend for herself?

Grief can tear holes in the soul of even the strongest person, and for recovering substance abusers it is a potent trigger that can provoke a relapse. When addicts tell their stories of hard-earned sobriety squandered, they will often mention the loss of a parent, grandparent, spouse or child as the primary factor that sent them running back to drugs and alcohol. Their pain was so great that escaping into a chemical haze seemed like the best alternative, like the only way to avoid drowning in their misery and unbearable sorrow.

There is of course a puzzling contradiction here, because if anyone should know that drugs and alcohol are a road to nowhere it is the recovering addict. But excessive grief saps life of its meaning, and the self-destructive impulses a person possesses, whatever they might be, will often rush in to fill the void. Recovery from addiction requires a daily commitment to sobriety and an ability to navigate through the rough spots, but intense grief is so overwhelming that it can totally undermine an addict’s resolve and leave her unable to stay focused on her plans for the future.

It is ironic that what gives us strength also makes us weak, and yet that is exactly how it is with loving relationships. Caring about people gives us a reason to live and to fight back against poor health, but it also makes us vulnerable to the heartache that inevitably accompanies the sudden death of a treasured family member or companion. For every hello there must be a goodbye, whether we are ready for it or not, and this makes grief as unavoidable as it is devastating and discouraging.

But within this realization lies the basis for a better philosophy and a greater depth of understanding, especially for addicts who must find a reason to keep moving forward. It is an undeniable fact of life: many if not most of those we love will leave us at some point, and that is why addicts must value every moment they have with the people who mean the most to them. Every single second a person sacrifices to drugs and alcohol is an irreplaceable point in time that could instead have been spent enjoying, cherishing and honoring the friends and family members who give her joy and bring her happiness. When a one loved one dies, the grieving addict will still have others who love her, need her and want the best for her, and for their sake as well as her own she should resist her self-destructive impulses with every ounce of her being and reject any path of action that could bring all she has worked so hard to accomplish to ruin.

Grief Too Shall Pass

On principle and out of respect for themselves and their loved ones (including those who have moved on as well as those who are still here), recovering substance abusers in mourning should refuse to regress regardless of how strongly they are tempted to do so.

This is good advice for addicts and alcoholics but it really applies to everyone, no matter their background or personal history. Grief doesn’t need to be denied or suppressed but it shouldn’t determine our choices either, and we must always make an effort to remember what our goals are and why it is so important that we stay on course even when it all seems pointless and impossible. Feeling and acknowledging the pain doesn’t mean that pain should be allowed to take control, and recovering addicts must realize that grief will eventually give way to acceptance and that it makes no sense to cast sobriety into the wind based on what will ultimately prove to be a passing state of mind.

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