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Grief & Addiction Recovery: Understanding Why It Appears

Experiencing grief with recovery sounds strange, right? Isn’t the person who is recovering from addiction celebrating leaving their addiction behind? Yes and no.

While a person may be happy to be on the way to recovery, grief is also part of recovery and takes many forms.

Recovering from opioid use disorder can bring up feelings of grief.

Why Grief May Appear During Recovery

Recovery is a journey of change, and with change there are almost always feelings of loss. These feelings of loss are not unlike the ones a person may experience when they lose a loved one. When someone is newly recovering, the changes they experience can create similar feelings of loss and disconnection that are often associated with grief over a deceased family member.

Some of the changes recovering persons face and may feel grief from include:

  • Cutting ties with people who contributed to their addiction lifestyle or were associated with it

  • Relocating to a new environment free of the influences of drugs

  • Letting go of unhealthy and dangerous behaviors and/or coping mechanisms

Each of the examples above is a form of loss and includes an associated experience of grief.

Additionally, there is often acute recognition of the ways that the past behaviors have hurt their friends and family, and grief may appear alongside shame or regret. The self-awareness of a recovering person can lead to experiencing cycles of intense feelings of shame for their past actions, as well as deep regret for the opportunities they missed and the relationships they damaged.

Why Do Feelings of Loss and Grief Arise if Recovery is Beneficial?

As humans, we need connection and intimacy. The communities we build around ourselves with our social networks provide this. While they are actively using, many addicts become entrenched in a community of other addicts and spending time in environments where drug use is accepted or even encouraged. The places they go and the people they interact with in those settings are often in the same boat– seeking out people and places to get access to drugs. As an addict sinks deeper into their drug use, they may physically move away from friends or family. The addict may sever relationships with people who don’t support their drug use.

Changing environments and social circles may impact an addict’s sense of self and connection

When the addict starts down the path of recovery, and commits to staying on that path, it is often necessary to remove themselves from the environments where they used and to distance themselves from people who were either using with them or providing the drugs to them. The newly recovering addict can find themselves feeling alone and lost, unsure where to go or who to interact with in this new phase of living. Even though the recovering addict knows that these places and people would put their recovery in jeopardy, it is still normal to feel a loss when they move away from them. Suddenly they are without a place to go and hang out and they are without a group of “friends” regardless of how destructive that set of friends might have been. The loss of what was their normal environment can result in a deep feeling of grief.

Recovering from opioid use disorder often involves finding healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.

Shifting to healthier coping mechanisms can feel like a loss as an addict’s personality and psychological triggers transform

In addition to the loss of regular hangouts and friends, the addicts often experience a sense of loss and discomfort when they must develop new coping mechanisms and behaviors. Often, an addiction to drugs or alcohol has occurred because it’s become a person’s significant coping mechanism. Whether they were having a bad day, got in trouble at work or had a fight with a partner, their drug of choice was the “solution” they used to make uncomfortable feelings go away.

When drugs are no longer a coping option, many people find themselves feeling empty handed and as if they have no tools to handle life’s daily stressors and struggles. Excerpts from Beverly Conyer’s Addict in the Family helps illustrate how a newly recovering addict can feel lost without the drug to deal with life.

“[M]]any people who become addicted lose (or never learned) important life skills. Because addiction stunts growth by preventing them from tackling life’s problems as they come, they fail to develop the emotional, social, and practical skills that are necessary for sober living.

“When I thought about getting clean, I’d feel sick. I’d lost my house, my car, my job, my driver’s license. I had a ton of bills. Everybody was after me. I couldn’t face it.

Reflection and increased self-awareness are critical but can create waves of regret or shame

As the person moves into recovery, they may experience immense feelings of regret and shame for their past actions. Reflection and self-awareness are critical to recovery, but along with those elements come feelings that must be processed and managed (i.e., why new healthier coping mechanisms must be developed). Parents may have severely neglected their children, spouses may have treated their partner abusively, and children may have caused turmoil for their parents. The recovering person begins to recognize their past behaviors and the magnitude of their past actions can often feel overwhelming. How can the recovering person possibly make amends for missing a school performance, verbally or physically abusing a spouse or stealing money from a family member? The anguish for their past actions can show up in the form of grieving for the person they failed to become and the actions they failed to take.

Going through recovery is a long-term process that requires a person to be patient, kind to themselves, and to seek out a compassionate support system to develop new, healthier habits, create safe and empowering environments and to work through their inner psychological traumas and harms.



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