Losing someone you love is one of the most painful trials life can throw your way. It’s common to experience a range of emotions, from denial and anger to sadness and despair. Each person who goes through the grieving process does it in his or her unique way. Some, however, will turn to alcohol or drugs in a desperate attempt to numb the intense pain, sadness, and grief that so often follow a major loss. Unfortunately, for some, self-medicating emotional pain can lead to the development of a full-blown alcohol or drug addiction.
Grief’s Impact on Mental Health
Grief can take a serious toll, even on the most resilient individuals. During the grieving process, it’s important to experience and express emotions in order to eventually heal and get on with life. However, some people struggle with unresolved grief — grief that lasts much longer than normal. This type of grief makes it very hard for anyone to adequately manage life’s daily tasks.
Unresolved grief often develops when a person feels guilt over the loss, considers the death unfair, or has lost a loved one through an unexpected or violent death. Unresolved grief can also occur after a loss that others might not consider particularly traumatic, such as a miscarriage.
Sometimes individuals experiencing this type of grief act as though nothing has changed. In fact, they may refuse to talk about the death or about the person they lost. This most often occurs when there is shame or stigma connected to the death; for instance, if the loved one died because he or she was driving under the influence. Others who struggle with unresolved grief may become preoccupied with the lost loved one and have a hard time talking about anything else.
Grief can also trigger clinical depression. When this occurs, the grieving person may start to feel hopeless or helpless, experience persistent fatigue, have difficulties sleeping and find it hard to concentrate. Depression also increases the risk of suicidal thoughts or actions. While it’s not uncommon for grief to elicit thoughts of wanting to be with the loved one who was lost, unresolved grief and depression can make suicide seem like the only way to end the unrelenting pain.
Grief and Substance Abuse
Unresolved grief and depression can make a person more vulnerable to developing a substance abuse problem. Someone unable to work through their feelings of loss in a healthy way may self-medicate, turning to alcohol or drugs. While these substances may relieve or numb the grief-induced pain, the effect is short-lived.
Unfortunately, self-medicating with substances won’t take away the pain of loss. In fact, alcohol and many drugs act as depressants in the body. They may intensify negative emotions, such as sadness or shame. In addition, substance abuse complicates every aspect of life, from the ability to hold a job to the quality of relationships. Abusing alcohol or drugs creates negative emotions and conflicts that make it harder to work through grief in a healthy way.
Other risk factors can raise the chance for substance abuse during the grieving process. For example, a person with a history of anxiety, depression, previous addiction, or a lack of social support is more prone to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope after a loved one’s death. Those with a family history of alcoholism or drug addiction may be more vulnerable as well.
Recovering from Grief and Substance Abuse
Find treatment. People who self-medicate with alcohol or drugs are best treated for both grief and substance abuse at the same time. An alcohol or drug rehab treatment center may start with a medical detoxification, if necessary. During detox, patients are supervised by health professionals, as the toxic substances are eliminated from the body. The staff will provide medication, when needed, to ease discomfort and reduce withdrawal symptoms from alcohol or drug addiction.
After detox is completed, the real work of treatment begins. Grief counseling will play a critical role in the recovery process. If grief isn’t addressed it will create tremendous potential for a relapse. A skilled therapist can help you express grief-related emotions, like sadness, frustration, or anger. He or she will help you find ways to cope with painful feelings as they arise, without the use of substances. The therapist will also give you strategies for dealing with the waves of grief you may continue to experience for some time. For example, you may develop new traditions to honor your loved one on birthdays or holidays.
Treatment will also address other factors that may contribute to substance abuse. For example, you may be dealing with major depression or another psychiatric disorder that will make you more vulnerable to relapsing. Your treatment providers will develop a plan that addresses all underlying conditions so you have the best chance for maintaining your sobriety.
Stick to your treatment plan. Both substance abuse and grief may require ongoing treatment even after you complete your rehab program. The loss of a loved one can produce complicated emotions that are hard for anyone to reconcile on his or her own. For example, some people may feel extreme guilt that they may have somehow played a part in their loved one’s death. If these emotions aren’t addressed and processed properly, it can increase the risk for relapse. You owe it to your physical and emotional health to continue grief counseling and substance abuse treatment as long as needed.
Reach out for grief support. In the days and weeks following a death, loved ones left behind are often inundated with support. Over time, however, that support significantly drops off, leaving a profound sense of isolation for those who are still grieving. A grief support group can provide much-needed support and resources so you no longer need to feel as though you are alone. If possible, find a group that matches your unique situation. For instance, if you’ve lost a child, seek support from those who have gone through the same experience. When a local group isn’t available, consider online support forums.
Consider family counseling. Both grief and alcohol or drug addiction impact the entire family. A death in the family often revives past hurts and resentments, in addition to creating new ones. Not only that, substance abuse and addiction can divide families and create tremendous strife. A skilled family therapist can help family members address those issues and teach constructive ways to handle conflict.
Substance abuse does not provide a healthy escape from feelings of grief and loss. If you are grieving a loss and struggling with substance abuse or addiction, professional treatment will help both. Contact an alcohol or drug addiction treatment center to start putting the pieces of your life back together, so you can find the joy and hope you deserve.