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) 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 and 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 paired substance/sex 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.
There are other profound losses in recovery that must also 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, post-traumatic 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.
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. I have 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.
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If you or someone you care about is struggling with sex, porn, or substance/sex addiction, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers residential treatment for sex, porn, and substance/sex addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups, including a workgroup specifically for male sex addicts.