Grieving the Addiction

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Dr. David Fawcett

There are many things to grieve when moving into recovery. While the idea of such loss may at first seem unusual because of the immediate relief involved in breaking addictive patterns, the addict soon realizes that there is much loss and grief involved in this process. For example, there is the intense grief that comes from being found out or having one’s secret life revealed. One must also face painful problems of the addiction itself, which often initiates a sense of grief. In recovery, addicts have to address all the consequences of their addiction, which may have been brought to light suddenly or more slowly. Finally, addicts have to realize that recovery itself represents the loss of a special association (the addiction itself) that is often the primary relationship in their lives.

The maladaptive coping mechanisms of addiction may have been destructive, but they served the addict in many ways. In fact, by numbing the effects of underlying trauma and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, the addiction may actually have helped the addict survive an adverse early childhood experience. Of course, addiction ultimately is highly destructive and the consequences become overwhelming. Nonetheless, recovery means the end of a very long dysfunctional relationship, the loss of which initiates grief.

Being found out or “discovered” can happen multiple times over the course of an addiction. There can be a slow-drip of staggered disclosures or a sudden torrent of truth that destroys the many fabrications that disguised the addiction. In either case, there is immense pain for both the addict and the addict’s partner or loved ones. This pain arises from the loss of relationship trust – sometimes a loss that is beyond repair. This can also occur with loss of standing in the community or status at work. Each of these losses must be addressed and grieved.

Perhaps the most difficult loss the addict needs to face is the loss of the addict’s escapist fantasy life and the neurochemical intensity that accompanies it. It is critical for intensity addicts – such as sex, porn, and co-occurring sex/drug addicts – to understand this loss and really spend time grieving it. Too many recovering addicts weaken or destroy their recovery by not properly addressing this loss. As described elsewhere, this intensity has reset minimum levels of arousal to such high levels that everyday life can seem pretty boring for a few months (and boredom is difficult to manage in recovery).

The intensity of sex and sex/drug fantasies and behaviors simply cannot be replicated in sobriety, and it is a mistake to try to do so. I remember a methamphetamine client who believed that without meth any sex he could have would inevitably be “vanilla, boring, or nonexistent.” He kept attempting to recreate “meth sex without the meth.” These were futile attempts that greatly interfered with his ability to stay sober.

The brain’s system for distributing dopamine has to readjust from high stimulation. This requires several months, during which one may experience anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure. Little things that were pleasurable before lack the luster they once had. These “normal” activities – including sex – will once again be pleasurable, but it takes time for the brain to reset, and the experience of pleasure will be different (less intense). Reawakening addiction fantasies, even in recovery, only slows down the readjustment period.

There are other profound losses in recovery that must be acknowledged, felt, and expressed. Many addicts realize that a lifetime of avoidance of unaddressed situations and feelings has led to a considerable backlog of unfinished actual and emotional business that must be dealt with. There may also be lifelong health impacts such as HIV, Hepatitis C, or HPV that can affect not only the addict but the addict’s partner.

It is advisable for people in early recovery to tackle the most urgent issues first while putting lesser issues onto the back burner; in this way, they can avoid overwhelming their fragile coping systems by trying to solve all of their problems all at once. The impact of this realization on self-worth is considerable, and many addicts experience significant mood disorders, the most serious of which are anxiety, depression, and, in some cases, posttraumatic stress disorder.

Recovery also means that the addict needs to face the void. Most addicts describe always feeling that they had a hole within that they try to fill with compulsive drug use and sexual behaviors. While these never worked, the realization that one now has to face this void can be overwhelming.

Moreover, nearly every addict has experienced trauma in his or her life. And now, perhaps for the first time, those issues must be addressed – not just with recovery support but with psychotherapy and trauma therapy as well.

Meanwhile, all the time spent by the addict trying to fill that addictive void will suddenly be freed. Many addicts significantly underestimate the amount of time they spent in the addictive cycle being preoccupied, planning, acting out, recovering from acting out, and feeling remorse. Once these activities cease, an enormous amount of time opens up. It is essential for the addict to recognize this and to plan for this time accordingly, implementing a schedule that minimizes open or unaccountable time.

Most people have heard about Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. She was an oncologist who observed countless patients moving through the grief process. She identified the following categories: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Dr. Rob Weiss has added a sixth stage that is relevant for addicts: remorse. In this stage, recovering addicts experience profound self-blame and long to go back and repair what can’t be repaired. They reflect on broken promises and missed opportunities, and this reflection is often accompanied by a sense of hopelessness.

While each of these stages is valid, it is important to note that grieving is not a linear process. One doesn’t move through the stages neatly from one to the next. It is much more typical to bounce around between various stages, sometimes all within a single hour. In my experience, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It is a highly personal journey. I think the one consistent goal is moving toward acceptance, which may at first be fleeting.

Finally, I believe it is important to note that recovery from addiction involves not only losses but things that are found. I call this the “lost and found” of addiction. For many, this may mean that for the first time they have a sense of belonging. For example, I felt I never truly fit in anywhere before I found Alcoholics Anonymous.

There are other things addicts “find” in recovery, such as self-worth, emotional skills, the ability to be vulnerable, and even a sense of purpose. Many people discover new gifts and talents and transform their lives in ways that allow them to fully embrace recovery and be of service to others. So, despite the many losses that go with addiction, recovery can provide many gifts. These were captured early on in the so-called “promises” section of AA’s Big Book. Anyone feeling hopeless and questioning the point of recovery is encouraged to read these and know that they have come true for thousands of people.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with sex, porn, or substance/sex addiction, help is available through our free resources website, SexandRelationshipHealing.com, our low-cost online workgroups, and our residential treatment center.