As discussed in the post, “The Addictive Relationship“, many people form a very real “relationship” with their addiction. Many even call it their “best friend.” When a person loses someone to death or divorce they understandably go through the stages of grief. It is logical then that someone would also experience the stages of grief when they stop an addiction due to the relationship they have formed through the addictive process.
This loss is more complex however. Imagine that one day someone came to you and said that you no longer could see or talk to your best friend. You knew they were out there, but you could not have contact with them. This is what it can be like for an addict who is forced into therapy or treatment. One could imagine the intense feelings someone would go through to lose a friend this way. It is important for loved ones and those going through recovery to understand the stages of grief and what may be experienced in the recovery process.
The stages of grief include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I will briefly explain how one might experience these emotions through the recovery process. It is important to note that not all who are in recovery will experience these, or for those who do, how intense they will experience them. It depends on several different factors such as how long they were in their addiction, how isolated they were from friends and family, how intense or strong their relationship to their addiction was and under what circumstances they started their recovery process. I have found that those that are forced into residential treatment or counseling have the most difficult time with their grieving process.
A good analogy is divorce. The way divorce is experienced can be different for each person involved. Oftentimes one spouse is unhappy and is thinking and planning divorce for years before they even bring up the topic. This person has experienced the stages of grief over a long period of time and by the time the divorce happens, they are at the later stages of grief. However, for the other spouse, when they are served papers, they get thrown into the grieving process. This is like the addict who wakes up one day and is told they are going to treatment. It has already been payed for and they have no choice. The spouse who, for years thinks about and plans for divorce, is like the addict who decides on their own to quit. They still, more than likely, will experience the stages of grief, but in a different way.
The first stage of grief is denial. This is different from the “denial” usually thought of in addiction where a person is in denial about having a problem in the first place. This denial usually comes in the form of “maybe I can drink responsibly” or “I bet I can use/ gamble recreationally”. The thought of “never again” is very overwhelming. Other thoughts may be “How did I let it get this far?” and “Life without my addiction seems impossible.”
The second stage is anger. People may experience feelings of intense anger early in their recovery. These feelings of anger can be directed toward those who encouraged them to change, themselves for letting their behavior “go too far”, or even God for “making” them addicted. This anger can lead to the third stage of grief which is bargaining. Not all people in recovery will go through this stage but some do. They may bargain with themselves, others or God that they can use “responsibly” or they will stop after “one more time.” Some may follow through on this bargain and relapse during this stage and others will not.
Once someone comes to the realization that they cannot engage in their addiction “like normal people” they can experience a period of depression, the forth stage of grief. They miss their “friend” greatly and it can be an extremely emotional time as they come to the realization that they can never see their friend again if they want to stay in recovery.
Finally, they come to accept this loss and know they are better off without their addiction. They become confident in their decision to stop their addiction.
Being aware of the stages of grief and allowing one’s self to go through the process is an essential part of the recovery process. This is important for loved ones to understand and the person in recovery themselves. Just like when someone in our life passes away, the grief process is an individual process. How one person experiences it may be very different from another. One may not experience all the stages or they may bounce back and forth through the stages several times before you get to and stay in acceptance. Some may even bypass them all and move right into acceptance. Much depends on how strong the relationship was between the person and their addiction and how long this relationship existed.
Garron Griffitts, LCSW, is an individual and couples therapist who specializes in the field of addiction and recovery. He is the founder of Reaching Greater Heights and is part of the Arizona Family Therapy Group.
He works with couples on establishing safety and security within their relationship and helps couples understand each other and how they can be a better support to one another.
Click here to read more about Garron Griffitts and his the therapy he provides at Arizona Family Therapy Group.