How to Avoid a Relapse While Grieving
Whether you recently lost your spouse of 25 years or have been diagnosed with a major illness, the deep pain you feel can easily threaten the recovery you worked so hard to achieve and maintain. You may find yourself toying with the thought that getting drunk or high-and staying there-is the only conceivable way to ease the gut-wrenching emotions weighing on you. Despite everything you learned in your drug rehab treatment, grieving can be a risky process for any recovering addict. But, as painful as it is, it’s a necessary process.
While grieving is often associated with the death of a loved one, there are other life transitions, traumas, and circumstances that may lead to a period of grieving – and a potential trigger for relapse. These include:
- A traumatic event, such as a sexual assault or serious car accident
- Death of a fellow recovering addict
- Finding out that you’ll never be able to conceive
- Loss of a child through miscarriage or stillbirth
- Diagnosis of a major or chronic illness
- End of a marriage or other significant relationship
- Loss of a job
It’s important to realize that almost everyone who experiences a major loss goes through a range of emotions. The lows can be especially dark; making it particularly difficult for a recovering addict to resist the temptation to drink or use. The gamut of painful emotions may include:
Grief: Mourning the death of a loved one typically involves grief, a process that experts have defined by stages. While no one experiences grief the same way as another, many people struggle with feelings of denial, anger, or even depression. These are all normal emotions, but they can trigger a relapse in someone going through alcohol or drug rehab treatment and recovery.
Fear: Loss often produces intense feelings of fear. You might feel helpless after being laid-off from a job or insecure after the surprise breakup of a significant relationship. Death can also elicit fear. For instance, the substance-related death of a peer in recovery may generate deep fears about your own addiction – and your ability to manage it.
Loneliness: For addicts who have lost a loved one, particularly a life-long partner, the loss of connectedness can be profound. Holidays and anniversaries are especially hard to endure. The little things that remind you of that special person can also trigger the temptation to relapse, such as a special song playing on the radio or a specific scent that reminds you of that person.
Loss of purpose: If you’re an addict dealing with the loss of a job or a having recently retired, you might find yourself straddled with the feeling you’ve also lost a reason to get up every day. A sense of purpose in your life is important; it often serves as a motivator for staying sober. Without it, things can quickly become precarious, making you vulnerable to relapse.
Avoiding Relapse while You Grieve
- Increase recovery meeting attendance. If 12-step or other support group meetings are part of your alcohol or drug rehab treatment, then it’s crucial to increase attendance during this tough time. Fellow recovering addicts can be a surprisingly strong source of support. Be open about the sadness, fear, or anxiety you feel, and be honest about any urges you’ve had to use again.
- Work with your addiction counselor. Always stay in touch with your drug rehab treatment professional as you grieve. He or she will help you identify grief triggers, such as the anniversary of a loved one’s death, and build strategies to help you get through those difficult times without turning to alcohol or drugs.
- Talk with a therapist. It can be challenging to deal with the pain of a serious loss alone. If you find the process is too overwhelming, reach out to a qualified therapist or counselor. A mental health professional experienced in grief counseling can help you make sense of the emotions you’re experiencing and work toward your life’s “new” normal.
- Be screened for depression or other disorders. Grief that springs from the death of a loved one or the diagnosis of a serious medical condition can jumpstart other conditions like depression. If you continue to struggle with intense grief or extreme anger and bitterness over a loss, ask a mental health specialist to screen you for depression or stress-related disorders. By finding treatment for all underlying medical conditions, you are building the solid emotional foundation that will help you stay sober.
- Don’t grieve alone. No matter what challenge life has presented to you, don’t shoulder these emotions by yourself. In addition to therapists, sponsors, or counselors, you might consider sharing your feelings with family members or close friends; after all, they may be dealing with the same shock, sadness, or anger as you.
- Volunteer your time. Channel your emotions in a positive way by giving back to others in the community. Spend time working with a charity that was near-and-dear to your lost loved one’s heart, or renew your sense of purpose after a job loss by volunteering with an organization that helps other unemployed workers. Research consistently suggests that people who volunteer report higher levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of anxiety and depression .
- Find a creative outlet. One way to bolster your sobriety is to express your emotions, and, for some, the best way to do that is in a tangible form. Channel your feelings by writing poems, keeping journals, creating scrapbooks, or composing songs. Your creations can be private, or you can share them with others, such as fellow members of an alcohol or drug rehab treatment recovery group.
- Reduce stress levels. You may have already learned anxiety-coping strategies, like meditation or deep breathing, in your addiction treatment. As you grieve a loss, continue to use those techniques to reduce the grief-related stress hormones that may cause you to drink or use again.
- Spend time with sober people. When we experience heartache or loss, it’s not uncommon to seek out people we’re comfortable with or those who make us feel good. The danger for an addict, however, is that those people may also abuse drugs or alcohol. Don’t threaten your sobriety by seeking out good-time people to drown out your grief. No matter how determined you are to resist temptation, painful emotions can make it difficult for you to make healthy decisions about your sobriety.
- Recognize that grief is not a straight line. Recovering from a loss doesn’t happen on a straight path or at a constant pace. Instead, the process will ebb and flow. You might feel good for a few weeks, and then see a sweater that conjures memories of something your lost loved one used to wear. Don’t allow frustration over fluctuating emotions to drive you back into a life filled with alcohol or drugs.
While grief is a natural part of life, it can threaten your ability to maintain your recovery. The alcohol and drug rehab treatment community offers a host of resources that will guide you through this very difficult time. Don’t allow grief to sabotage the sobriety you’ve worked so hard to keep. Be proactive and contact your sponsor or addiction counselor today.