Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Similarities between the loss of a loved one and the loss of addiction
by, Erica Ives
I speak not only from my work as an MFT with addicts but also from my own experience as an addict. I have lost several close relationships to death and losing my addiction, even though it was my choice to let go of, felt so similar to grieving a death, particularly my best friend of 30 years. What I found was that there were so many more similarities than differences. Worden (2009) writes about grief behaviors broken down into categories to include a “wide range of emotions, various physical sensations, an extensive array of cognitions, as well as behaviors” (p. 22). I also experienced all of the feelings noted in Worden’s (2009) work including sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, shock, yearning, emancipation, relief, and numbness. The physical sensations were similar as well and incorporated the same most commonly reported sensations experienced by those seeking grief counseling as indicated Worden (2009). These include hollowness in the stomach, tightness in chest and throat, oversensitivity to noise, sense of depersonalization, shortness of breath, weakness, lack of energy, and dry mouth.
Even the cognitions were the same and ranged from disbelief to confusion, preoccupation, and even hallucinations. My behaviors incorporated many of the same symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Some of these that I faced were sleep and appetite disturbances, absentmindedness, withdrawal from others, “using” dreams, sighing, restlessness, and extreme bouts of crying.
The sadness I felt was so strong and felt at such a gut-wrenching level. I lost my best friend of 30 years, Tracey, to cancer and losing my addiction resulted in a deep sadness that most definitely intensified into a depression. Along with my anger, that I turned inward, the depression worsened and it felt like it would never end. It left me with such a feeling of helplessness, like nothing I was going to do, except possibly having my addiction back to engage in, was going to make it go away. The same way I felt like nothing other than bringing Tracey back, was going to make the depths of that despair even lessen, let alone go away. I believed I could not exist without my addiction similarly to how I felt my life would be empty forever without my best friend.
The guilt emerged from the enormous amount of shame surrounding hurting the ones I love when I was in active addiction. I punished myself for some time. If I didn’t make the decisions I made, so many people I loved and cared about would not have had to deal with their feelings of helplessness, guilt, and shame, etc. My loneliness resembled that feeling that nothing or no one would or could ever fill that deep void. My fatigue was incapacitating at times to the point that I felt like I had no energy to get the simplest of tasks done.
I experienced a shock when I first stopped using drugs and so many times thereafter, especially the first year. While Tracey was sick for a year before her death, it took me approximately the same period to decide to get clean. Especially during that first year of grieving, I would be faced with something I had not yet faced in sobriety or life without my best friend and was left with a feeling of dismay and panic. I was constantly flooded by good, bad, and indifferent memories when I least expected it. Feelings of overwhelm riddled me daily in my early recovery and I felt like I was doomed no matter if I was using or sober. I yearned for my pills more days than I would like to remember. I fantasized about them, believed they would make all of my pain go away, the same way I yearned for Tracey.
The dependence in my relationship with both my addiction and my best friend, grew year after year in depth and intensity. In active addiction and during the period of mourning the loss of my addiction, I was preoccupied and substances were the first thing I thought about in the morning and the last thing I thought about at night. I had the same experience after Tracey passed away. I never wanted to be separated from my addiction so saying goodbye was like losing my best friend and worst enemy, while with Tracey it was saying goodbye to my best friend. Both losses were extraordinary and insurmountable. They followed me like a gray cloud for quite some time. I began to cry at the drop of a dime over something insignificant. My emotions were raw, my thoughts were cunning, and in recovery, I thought my life was supposed to get so much better, not what like instead felt so much worse.
Facing myself, forgiveness, and letting go of the destruction I left behind while still trying to hold on to some hope and blue skies in the future is a different piece that came solely with the loss of my addiction. I have come to accept that no matter how much a part of me loves my addiction, I can never go back or I will die. I look at my recovery through the same lens of my addiction in that it cannot and will not ever be able to come back. The permanence feels much the same as death. I finally had to surrender and accept the death of my addiction just like I have had to do the same regarding the loss of Tracey.