Unresolved Grief

Unresolved Grief and Addiction: How Self Medication Turns into Addiction

Grief hurts. There is no magic pill for healing your grief. And honestly, it’s insulting when people tell you to just get over it and move on. It just plain sucks.

Who among us can say it takes this amount of time or that amount of behavior to stop grieving? Time heals nothing you don’t work on.

And it’s tough. The emotional pain of grief is tantamount to a slow recovery from major surgery. So, naturally, we avoid it if we can. But avoiding it heals nothing either.

It’s easy to see why people use substances to avoid the pain, often falling into addiction and adding another problem to their grief.

What Causes Grief? 

There are many life events that cause grief. Here are some of the things that cause normal grief:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Death of a friend
  • Divorce
  • Divorce of a parent
  • Loss of a pet
  • Ending of a friendship or relationship
  • Loss of a job
  • Trauma of physical or emotional abuse
  • Seeing a loved one suffer
  • Loss of familiar surroundings
  • Remembering past losses and abuses
  • Major change in any meaningful part of life

Any great loss, change or traumatic experience can cause significant grief. Perhaps particularly apropos for people abusing substances, the loss of identity, loss of self and a life wasted in substance abuse can be the biggest grief-causing trauma of all. Regret turns into grieving.

The Impact of Grief

Although grief and loss are deeply personal issues and there is no typical response, psychology experts recognize five main stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

These stages aren’t necessarily in order, and are as individual as human DNA. However, being aware of our feelings and understanding them does help us cope. It’s also nice to know we’re not alone and we’re not the only ones who’ve ever felt this way.

Being capable of coping and being able to accept loss does not mean we’re OK with what happened, but it does mean we are willing to get better and begin to live again.

Uncomplicated Grief

Uncomplicated grief, or normal grief, is the natural sorrow we all go through when dramatic situations arise. Going through the grieving process is how we deal with loss. It’s not a bad thing; it’s a healthy response to a difficult situation.

Symptoms of uncomplicated grief include:

  • Pining for a lost relationship
  • Longing for a person who has passed away
  • Yearning for a lost companion
  • Preoccupation with loss, sadness and depression
  • Difficulty accepting a change in one’s life
  • Agitation, irritability and anxiety

While these symptoms are excruciating, people learn to accept them and come to terms with their loss. Although the memory of a loved one or relationship will never be forgotten, bereaved individuals learn that they have other people and goals in life to pay attention to. After a period of emotional work and spiritual growth, people with uncomplicated grief recover.

Complicated Grief

Unresolved Grief and Addiction: How Self Medication Turns into AddictionTen to 20 percent of those grieving develop complicated grief. In these cases, sorrowful feelings worsen over time instead of improving.

People with complicated grief are often predisposed to addictions. They can be codependent, love addicted, sex addicted or have none of those conditions. Grief itself can be an addictive habit.

People suffering from complicated grief do not let the memory of the person or loss go. They keep the memories alive in their heads by focusing on them and inadvertently feeding their own pain. Stimulating these thoughts in one’s head activates the reward center in the brain.

Similarly, clinging to a past love fires the brain’s pleasure signals, resulting in a chemical reward resembling being with your lover in person. In this way, complicated grief sucks people into an ever-winding whirlpool of sadness and painful/pleasurable emotion. Having complicated grief or bereavement disorder makes one prone to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Coping with Drugs

For people getting clean and feeling emotions, they are not used to coping with without substances, it can be overwhelming. Many of us can’t handle the rush of emotions that flood our souls once the drugs and alcohol wear off. So much of our society buys into the “I need a drink!” way of thinking, and we learn to numb our feelings with alcoholism, substance abuse and other unmanageable addictions that give our brains feel-good chemicals.

It seems fine at first. After all, “It’s what everyone does,” we reason. Unfortunately, substance use turns into addiction and numbing the pain becomes the only way we deal with (or neglect dealing with) feelings. When grief is stuffed down and out of mind, instead of getting better, people get worse.

Addiction and Grief 

While drug and alcohol abuse seems to offer solace to grieving souls, that temporary escape fuels the same neural pathways as the grief-love cycle. Both addiction and relationship attachment – including the memory of love – arouse the same part of the brain.

People in bereavement are vulnerable to drug addiction, and people abusing drugs are prone to cling to grief until it becomes a disorder. Ultimately, which comes first is irrelevant.

Self-Medicating Grief

Cross-addictions come in many forms like alcohol and heroin, meth and Oxy, alcohol, and gambling. For people suffering from loss, it is not uncommon to self-medicate grief with alcohol and drugs.

When simple grief evolves into complicated grief, it becomes a chronic, debilitating mental health condition. And in this weakened state, seeking emotional pain relief through self-medicating substances ramps up.

Codependency and addiction to a person, love or sex carry much grief and loss when the relationship ends – whether due to death or a break-up. At times like these, people are drawn into drugs and alcohol to quiet their minds and to stop feeling.

Toxic Grief 

Grief is painful. Pain makes us gravitate toward relief of suffering. It’s natural.

Even superheroes grieve. With powers like the ability to regrow limbs and stave off cancer, they can find no superpower to avoid emotional pain. And without treatment, even heroes grieve violently, ingest large doses of drugs or attempt suicide. Prolonged complicated grief is toxic.

In dealing with grief and substance abuse in men, effective treatment involves addressing not only the symptoms of substance abuse and addiction, but also the work necessary to overcome deep grief. Although feeling pain is tough, going through it with guidance and support is the way to get emotionally healthy and abandon self-medicating habits.

Summoning the strength to quit drugs and let go of unhealthy attachments takes work. It takes a commitment and surrender to the process. But with the proper treatment and a desire to change, men are accomplishing such feats every day at Reflections Recovery Center.

How to Help a Family Member Suffering from Grief and Addiction

If you have a loved one dealing with substance abuse and you suspect it’s tied to grief – either through the loss of a family member or friend, a divorce or other type of deep-seated grief from the past – you need to get your loved one help at a dual diagnosis rehab center. A dual diagnosis treatment center for men, specifically those dealing with grief and addiction, will offer the best chance at a full recovery from both co-occurring disorders. Reflections Recovery offers just such a program for men.

Regardless of whether your loved one is predisposed to addiction or not, whether the addiction or grief came first, treating substance abuse is the initial therapy. Until a person can think clearly and feel things soberly, no grief work can be done.

Only getting help for addiction and not treating the grief leaves people vulnerable to relapse or developing another addiction. Unresolved emotional issues like complicated grief can wreak havoc for a lifetime.

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