The Grief of Getting Clean

Lottie Madden is Social Media Executive for international addiction treatment providers, The Cabin Group. Notably, she began her recovery journey at the age of 21 and experienced first hand the challenges and struggles associated with losing one’s identity as an active addict.

The grief of getting clean

In the dictionary, the word bereavement is defined as, ‘a period of mourning after a loss, especially after the death of a loved one’. Mourning the loss of a loved one is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the word bereavement but what about the other losses we experience in life?

What about the loss of identity, lifestyle and coping mechanisms (albeit unhealthy ones) of an addict going into recovery? What’s rarely talked about, or acknowledged, are the very real stages of grieving which an addict experiences when letting go of their old lifestyle and embracing a new one in recovery.

There are so many things an addict must relinquish when embarking on a healthier way of living. Often, it’s suggested that someone newly in recovery should change the people, places and things they surrounded themselves with during active addiction. This can seem daunting; not only is the person having to give up their drug (or drugs) of choice but they must also change almost every aspect of their life in order to successfully maintain their sobriety.

When looking at the commonly accepted stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – there are obvious parallels to the experience most addicts go through when making the transition from active addiction into recovery. However, strictly adhering to this model can put pressure on people to grieve in a certain way, even though there’s no right or wrong way to process any kind of loss. Everyone has their own approach to life’s challenges and grief is no different.

For many addicts, their drug of choice can be like a best friend, the one constant and reliable thing in their lives. Therefore, being told to stay away from it can be an incredibly distressing ordeal. Regardless of the consequences, an addict will keep going back to their drug of choice (or drug of no choice), in the way that someone in an abusive relationship may continue returning to a toxic partner. Even though they know the outcome will always be the same, or worse, they seem powerless to change. Learning to accept oneself, free of chemicals, can be a daunting prospect. It is one of the most crucial and difficult parts of early recovery for those who have been addicted to drugs for many years.

In most cultures, loss is usually marked with some sort of ritualistic and ceremonial event as a way of getting closure and 12 step programmes use ritual in the same way. Picking up keyrings when arriving at a 12-Step meeting to signify that you’re new to the programme and continuing to get them when achieving sobriety milestones, could be seen as a way of incorporating ceremony and ritual into life in recovery that we, as humans, so clearly require.

Undoubtedly the most important similarity between getting clean and losing a loved one, is the process of healing. Both require moving from a mindset of denial to acceptance. The most successful way to achieve this is to create a safe, non-judgemental space for the individual to talk and process their emotions about whatever loss they have experienced.