Grief is a normal reaction to loss. While no one looks forward to grieving, it is a sign that we cared about someone and they were important to us. At first, the raw emotions are the most difficult to bear. At this point, a recovering addict is most vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed by their grief. Relapse is always a concern during these difficult times, but it is possible to avoid the slippery slope that leads down that road.
What Is Grief?
Grief is something that almost everyone has experienced at one time or another, but it is difficult to find a single definition for this five-letter word. It implies sorrow on the part of those experiencing it, but grief is not solely connected with death. The word can also be used in connection with change occurring in our lives, even if those changes are positive and anticipated. Grief also includes the feelings we experience when things change or a behavior pattern changes.
Life Transitions That Trigger Grief
Losing a loved one through death is one reason why we experience grief. Examples of life transitions that trigger a grief response include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Being involved in a serious car accident
- Being diagnosed with a serious or chronic disease
- Experiencing severe or chronic pain
- Sustaining a serious personal injury
- Being the victim of a mugging or assault
- Having one’s home burglarized
- Getting arrested
- Being unable to conceive
- Experiencing the loss of a child due to miscarriage or stillbirth
- Having a child diagnosed with special needs
- Going through the breakup of a marriage or other significant relationship
- Losing your job
Other events can also trigger feelings of grief. Grief is about accepting that things have changed and won’t be the same again. For example, earning a promotion at work may trigger happy feelings due to the increased responsibility and larger paycheck. However, it’s possible that the promotion also comes with some grief because you won’t be working with the same people anymore.
Grief and Addiction Recovery
A person in recovery is figuring out who they are without drugs, so they may need time to mourn their relationship with their drug of choice. If someone was actively using for a long time or was a heavy drug user, they may not have many memories of times when they were not high.
The toxic relationship has to end in order for an addict to become well. Through treatment, an addict has to learn who they are when they are not under the influence of chemicals. The process takes time and involves work.
Once an addict enters treatment in an inpatient rehab, the first step is to go through detox. This initial step frees the body from the influence of the drugs. Like grief itself, the length of time it takes to move through the stages of recovery varies from person to person. Detox is medically supervised, and clients are given medications to counteract withdrawal symptoms as necessary.
Once the detox stage is completed, clients move into the rehab stage of their treatment. At this point, they are working toward their treatment goals. Part of the treatment plan may involve seeing a counselor and undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), where the client receives therapy to work on changing their thought patterns and replacing them with ones that are more positive. Once a client’s thoughts change, their behavior starts to follow.
CBT and Identifying High-Risk Situations
CBT is especially useful to clients in treatment for substance abuse because it helps them identify high-risk situations that could act as triggers for a relapse. Once the high-risk situation has been identified, the client and the therapist work together to challenge the client’s existing thoughts or beliefs to determine more appropriate behaviors. The first step is to create a functional analysis.
The Five Ws of Drug Use
The five Ws offer a way to understand how drug use fits into a client’s life. An addict doesn’t use substances in a random manner, although it may seem as though they are constantly getting high. It’s important to examine the five Ws of drug use to better understand the situation:
- Whom — the specific people with whom the addict uses drugs or from whom the addict buys them
- What — specific physical and psychological benefits the addict experiences from using drugs
- Where — The places where the addict goes to buy and use drugs
- When — The exact time periods when the addict uses or is most likely to use drugs
- Why — The emotional states (internal cues) and sights, sounds or smells (external cues) that can trigger a drug craving
CBT and Cravings
A number of clients who enter drug rehab believe that when they experience a craving for their drug of choice, they will start to use again. No one can guarantee that a recovering addict will never experience a craving to use again. The goal of CBT is not to eliminate the feeling of drug cravings, but rather to give clients tools to deal with the cravings successfully when they occur.
The counselor uses the client’s five Ws of drug use as a guide to develop a treatment plan for triggers. The counselor uses techniques such as role-playing to stop the cycle of trigger, thought, craving, and drug use. Learning to say no — even to themselves — is a skill that many clients need to learn during their stay in rehab. In one study on CBT and cocaine addiction, 60 percent of participants tested clean at the one-year follow-up.
Practicing Important Skills
A client isn’t expected to learn how to deal with triggers in a single therapy session. The skills must be practiced and used outside of the counseling sessions during real-life situations. The more often a client has the opportunity to practice dealing with triggers in low-risk situations, the more likely they will be able to apply them to a high-risk one.
How to Avoid Relapse When Grieving
The strategies for how to avoid relapse when grieving may be different, depending on how much time has passed from the initial loss. In the example of the sudden passing of a loved one, the recovering addict is immediately thrust into an emotional crisis situation, where the news may seem unreal at first. The shock is a normal reaction to receiving bad news, and it can take a bit of time for the reality of the situation to sink in.
Addicts use chemicals as a sort of emotional anesthetic. If a person has a history of using drugs as a way of coping with strong emotions, they may have thoughts about turning to drugs to numb the pain of their grief. In its initial stages, loss is very raw and painful. It’s human nature to look for something that can lessen its impact or make it go away.
Crisis Management Suggestions
To maintain sobriety, using drugs is not on the list of options. There are crisis management suggestions that a recovering addict can do to feel better in the initial hours and days following a loss, when emotions are often the most raw:
- Accept the Reality of the Situation. As soon as a person accepts the situation, their mind can start to work on dealing with it. This step can take some time. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, it may not seem real until the visitation, memorial or funeral service.
- Engage in Healthy Activities. Engaging in activities during this time can be a good coping mechanism. Some people find that distractions are helpful during the first few days after a loss. Mild exercise, listening to music or watching television or a movie can help. It’s also helpful to engage in these activities with a supportive friend or family member.
- Do Things for Others. In the example of the loss of a loved one, a recovering addict can look for opportunities to be of service to family members and friends. There may be tasks associated with making final arrangements, picking up relatives arriving from out of town or simply spending time together for support. People in recovery also have the option of calling or emailing relatives to offer support if they do not live close by.
- Focus on Sensations. Focusing on other sensations using the five senses is a method of finding some other way of self-soothing that doesn’t involve using drugs. For some people, slowing down to have a cup of coffee or tea will help. Others will find cuddling up under a blanket or petting their cat or dog is something that relieves stress. Watching the sun rise or set or listening to nature’s sounds while on a walk can also be soothing. Cooking or baking is an activity that can be comforting, and the results can be shared with others who are grieving.
Crisis management suggestions are meant to help you through the emotional pain of a situation when the problem cannot be solved immediately. Doing something impulsive, like turning to drugs to try to numb the pain, is not going to help you in the long-term. Once the effects of the drugs wear off, the reason for the grief will still be present.
How to Avoid Relapse After Crisis Has Passed
Once the crisis of the initial shock of a loss has passed, it doesn’t mean that the pain of grief ends. There is no precise timetable for finishing the mourning a loss — it is different for everyone. The deep sense of sadness will not stay at the same level day after day or week after week, but it willprobably ebb and flow over time.
There will likely be good days, not-so-good days and some bad days as part of the process. It can take several months before the feelings of deep sorrow begin to fade. Here are some suggestions to avoid relapse during the stage after the crisis has passed:
- Allow the feelings of grief to come, without projecting what they will be like in the future. Experience the ebb and flow of grief. Don’t assume that one bad day means that every day will be difficult. The best way to deal with grief is to go through it. Holding feelings in will only make the process longer and more difficult.
- Continue to go to therapy sessions and 12-step meetings. It’s important to seek support from others when hurting. When you’re hurting, it can take a lot of effort to go to meetings or counseling sessions. Take these opportunities to tell the therapist or fellow members that you have experienced a loss and that you are grieving.
- Lean on family and friends for support. Call or email family members and friends to support each other during your time of loss. Talk about your feelings, and ask them about how they are coping as well.
- Write in a journal. Keeping track of feelings in a journal is an excellent way to deal with the pain and the waves of emotions that often accompany a loss. It can be helpful to review the journal entries after a time to see how far you have come in your journey to heal, especially if it doesn’t feel as though you’ve made much progress over several weeks or months.The best part about journaling is it’s a private creative outlet. Unless you choose to share the information with someone else, it will remain entirely private. You are free to talk about whatever is on your mind at any particular time. If you want to be angry with the person who left or remorseful because there were things you didn’t get to say but wanted to, the journal can be a place to express those thoughts or simply say how deeply your loved one’s passing has affected you.
- Eat a balanced diet. Good nutrition is important during this emotionally challenging time. Be sure to eat a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean proteins and whole grains. A balanced diet should also include a certain amount of fats, but sugary snacks and junk foods should be reserved for special occasions.
- Get enough rest. It’s difficult to deal with the feelings that come with grieving when you are having trouble sleeping. Make a point of going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. This will make it easier to get enough rest. A regular bedtime routine will also help. Some people find that taking a warm bath before bed is helpful. Reading, listening to music or watching television to relax before bed also can be a relaxing way to make the transition to sleep.
- Have a strategy for dealing with insomnia. For nights when it’s difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep, don’t simply toss and turn in bed for an extended time. After 20 minutes or so, get up and read or have a light snack. Try going back to bed when it seems as though going back to sleep may be possible. The occasional sleepless night is not something to worry about. If the pattern continues repeatedly, consult a physician.
- Exercise regularly. Staying physically active is a great way to reduce stress. It also helps to lift depression and calm anxiety on days when emotions weigh heavily on a person’s mind. On difficult days, going for a short walk can help improve your mood because it releases endorphins in the body. Endorphins are “feel good” hormones, which are the natural by-product of any type of physical activity that lasts for more than a few minutes.
Engaging in a variety of activities is a good way to pass the time and avoid big chunks of unoccupied time. If your time is not filled with some type of activity, it could lead to thoughts about using. It’s a common thought that one slip won’t make a difference, especially on a day when feelings are running high and sadness or loneliness are difficult to keep under control. It’s easier to stay in control of those types of feelings when you stay busy.
- Give back to your community. Find ways to serve others while grieving. Many community groups are always looking for volunteers. You have many choices beyond helping out in a soup kitchen, nursing home or hospital. Consider working for a cause your loved one held dear as a way to do good work for your community in their name. If no particular charity comes to mind, choose an organization you like. Consider a local Habitat for Humanity, American Legion, United Way, pet store or charity. Look online for organizations that need volunteers in your community. Community newspapers and bulletin boards in public places are also good places to find available opportunities.
- Continue living. Everyone experiences loss in their life, but it shouldn’t be a reason to stop living. Grieving individuals often catch themselves having fun and then feel guilty about it. Don’t do this. Living your life does not mean you do not care about the person you lost. It’s important to honor your memories and continue on with your life in a positive way.
Contact 12 Keys Rehab
If you know someone who needs help with a substance abuse issue, contact 12 Keys Rehab today. Our comprehensive rehabilitation program includes a custom-designed aftercare treatment plan to help our clients maintain long-term sobriety.