When you find out that someone you love is addicted to prescription pills, heroin, alcohol or any other drug, it can be absolutely overwhelming. In some ways, it can feel like the person you know has died, and the person who replaces him or her is a stranger. Whether you’re looking into the dark, sullen eyes of a heroin-addicted son or daughter, or watching as your spouse drinks until he or she passes out each night – the person you love is almost unrecognizable. Most people never think that they will one day witness addiction firsthand. Many people dealing with addiction in their family don’t fully understand the disease of addiction and how it not only impacts the person suffering with substance use, but everyone else in their life. Because watching a loved one succumb to addiction can feel so much like a loss of life, there are also five stages of grief in addiction:
- Denial and Isolation. Just like in grieving an actual death, we feel a similar loss when a loved one becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. Often, the first reaction in either scenario is a natural defense mechanism: denial. Because the situation can be so emotionally charged, our thought process is on overload – and out reaction is to shut it down and deny the reality of the situation. This reaction buffers out the facts and allows us to overlook and make excuses for behavior, actions and words. You’ve probably heard the expression, “Ignorance is bliss.” Sometimes living in denial can be the most comfortable stage for the family members because it’s easier than facing the problem of addiction head on.For many families, denial means:
- Rationalizing the behavior of a loved one (ie. “He has a stressful job”)
- Making excuses (ie. “It isn’t that bad”)
- Accepting excuses (ie. “Her phone was dead”)
- Never allowing themselves to believe he or she has a serious problem
- Anger and Guilt. “Why my son?” “Why my wife?” “Why us?” “Why me? When family awaken to the reality of a loved one’s addiction and move past denial, the anger and feelings of guilt can become unmanageable. The intense emotions that family members face at this point are redirected from vulnerability – to anger. Your anger may be aimed at other family members or even complete strangers (think the waiter, another driver on the road or the person ringing up your groceries.) For many, anger may be directed at our drug addicted loved one. Rationally, we know that they aren’t to be blamed for the addiction – but emotionally, we may resent them for the pain they have caused or are causing us. In this stage, angry outbursts can often leave us feeling guilty – which, in turn, can make us angry all over again. Anger and guilt become a cycle.
- Bargaining. One of the most prominent reactions we see from family members of those addicted to drugs or alcohol is a need to regain control. Addiction causes absolute chaos – and in the midst of the chaos, loved ones can feel helpless, vulnerable and at a loss for what to do. So, they resort to desperate attempts to maintain control and continue to live without any real changes taking place. If you’ve ever read any self-help books, you may know that a successful way to deal with stress and difficult situations is by “cooperating with the inevitable”. When it comes to loving someone in active addiction, instead of cooperating with the inevitable and admitting that a loved one needs true, professional help – we bargain by looking for ways to avoid the problem: “If only I had been a better husband.” “If only I had given him a better childhood.” Some people in the bargaining stage may try to make a “deal” with God in order to attempt to postpone the inevitable – which only turns out to be a weaker line of defense to protect them from reality.
- Depression. Sadness and hopelessness are two prominent emotions of the family and close friends of a person addicted to drugs or alcohol. In sadness, we worry that in our grief, we have neglected to care for our loved one in the way that they need us – and we also worry that we may have spent less time with others who depend on us. In hopelessness, we feel just that: That hope has expired for our loved one and that we need to prepare to bid him or her farewell. While the stage of depression can be the most emotionally painful, it also marks the initially phase for beginning of true surrender: No longer blaming ourselves, others, or even our addicted loved one – we come to grips with the disease of addiction and what it means.
- Acceptance. Acceptance is ultimately, the desired stage when it comes to grief – although not everyone will make it here. Drug and alcohol addiction can be so blinding to a family impacted by it, that they may never be able to see beyond their anger or their denial. Acceptance doesn’t mean that everything is okay and we feel happy. Rather, it means that we have the opportunity to make our peace and find our own personal calm. When it comes to loving a person in active addiction, for some family members, acceptance may even mean withdrawing from the relationship.
Just like Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, the stages of grief when a loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol can look and feel different for each person: Not everyone goes through each stage – nor do these stages follow a predictable pattern. Some people will find themselves in certain stages for an extended amount of time, while others may nearly skip that phase. Some of us will revert back to previous stages. Some of us may never reach stage five. Grieving the drug addiction of a loved one is a process that takes time, support and self-acceptance for you. If your loved one is in active addiction, it’s critical that you take care of yourself. For those who have not reached stage five – hang in there. It is possible.