What is grief and how does it relate to addiction? This is the number one question I have been asked since joining Full Life Counseling. Grief is the natural response to the loss of a person, place, or thing. To grieve is the process of dealing with grief and working towards the goal of having acceptance with the things in your life that will never be the same. Someone who is grieving learns that instead of moving on you can learn to move with life again.
Dr. Katherine Shear’s Center for Complicated Grief notes, processing grief after a loss is similar to moving to a new country.
“In the beginning everything is hard. All kinds of daily life exchanges seem strange and unfamiliar. It’s common to feel lost and alone, like you don’t belong. It’s important to know that even though your mind may feel muddled, you have tools and instinctive motivation to adapt to this new place even if it feels impossible to do so.”
Grief and addiction intersect as a person in recovery begins to grieve their life before recovery, grieve the loss of their primary drug, and other life experiences or the loss of loved ones. Coming home after treatment can feel like moving to a new country as you are unsure how to re-connect with friends, school, work, and your family. You may find that your friends enjoy girls’ nights with wine or Monday night football at the local bar with beer. These are get-togethers that you wish you could attend but currently don’t feel comfortable going to. How do you tell your friends this? What do you say? How do you feel apart of the group? Grieving the loss of life before recovery is a hard step to make but you have the tools to take that step. One of the first steps is working with a counselor who can help you see the tools and signs for relapse prevention.
Consider the story of a young woman I met recently, for the sake of her anonymity we will call her “Rachel.” Rachel was a high performing student through her education career. Tightly wound and prone to anxiety, she struggled to cope with everyday life until she found drugs and alcohol when she was 18.
“The first time I took a drink, it was like falling in love. I felt so stupid for waiting so long to drink! Suddenly my worries were gone, and I could have fun like ‘a normal person.’ I quickly learned that when I was angry, sad, or elated, my peers would drink and use alongside me. When my world fell apart, though, I ended up feeling alone.”
Rachel describes the process of getting sober as humbling and scary. She told me that learning to walk with others brought her hope but that she had to learn how to do basic tasks again. “Things as simple as going to the grocery store freaked me out. Alcohol is everywhere, and I learned I couldn’t simply avoid it.” Figuring out how to go out with her friends and have a social life was made easier for Rachel by attending regular AA meetings and meeting with a counselor weekly. With optimism in her eyes she recounted,
“It’s so much easier than when I started but there truly was a grieving process. There’s a dying to the old self that I have had to accept. I am not the person I used to be and, in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing! I have choices today, and I know it can only get better from here.”
Grief is not just experienced by the person in recovery but can also be felt by each family member. Parents, children, and siblings each process addiction, recovery, and grief from a different perspective developmentally. The beginning of grief is hard and often a blur as you take each moment and day one step at a time. Is it normal to have feelings of emptiness, sadness, or guilt while also experiencing happiness and joy? As your body adapts to the change and loss in your life, you learn to move with life again while remembering and honoring the loss in your life.
As a grief and addiction counselor, my role is to walk in tandem with each person on their grief journey as they learn to walk with life again. I come to Full Life Counseling with over 10 years of personal understanding of grief having lost my father. Clinically, I completed my graduate study at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York where I studied under Dr. Anthony Mancini and completed an internship with New York’s Visiting Nurse Services Hospice Bereavement. In the Triangle, I have maintained a private practice since finishing graduate school.
Joining Full Life Counseling, I will be expanding our services in Raleigh including co-facilitating Professionals’ Relapse Prevention Groups with Ginny, a new relapse prevention group for young adult women, working with families of individuals in recovery and psycho-educational workshops for high school and college students.
I am thrilled to be working with a supportive, like-minded team who sees life in recovery just as I see life with grief; life full of hope, joy and growth. I look forward to taking this first step on your new journey with you.