Grief can be resolved
Each person who goes through the grieving process does it in his or her unique way. But 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 blunt the pain caused by grief, the problem is not solved in long-term. So, how do counselors, therapists, and mental health professionals help people cope with grief?
Q&A with a counseling expert
In this interview, we discuss how to deal with grief and addiction with Ben Carrettin, Board Certified and Licensed Professional Counselor. Ben is the owner of Texas Recovery Support and Practice Improvement Resources, LLC. He serves and has served on many local initiatives including as a board member with Greater Houston Area Treatment Providers (GHATP, the largest independent behavioral collaborative organization in Houston), a member of the Houston Group Psychotherapy Society (HGPS), an active volunteer with the Texas Society of Addiction Medicine (TSAM) and is the Founder and Lead Administrator of Greater Houston Wellness.
He has worked in a variety of settings including private practice, private and grant-funded intensive outpatient programs, partial hospitalization programs and full in-patient hospitalization. Ben is also a Certified Anger Resolution Therapist (CART) and has received intensive training in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISM). More recently been has completed an intensive training program incorporating Positive Psychology with addiction and an extensive training in pastoral/grief care of the terminally ill and families as a COH, International, lay chaplain.
In addition to his work in the clinical arena Ben has also worked in the corporate sector. In the Texas arena, Ben provides training in Ethics and Social Media for clinicians and medical in Texas, executive social intelligence training for business (ESI), strategic management training and consultative court services in Voir Dire processes.
Please send us your questions!
At the end, if you still have questions about dealing with grief and addiction, please use the comments section below. We will do our best to send you a personal and prompt answer.
ADDICTION BLOG: What are some of the main reasons people in recovery experience grief? Is grief usually related to the loss of a person or our drug-of-choice or both?
BEN CARRETTIN: There are many reasons people may be struggling with grief in the midst of their addiction recovery.
Although not always the case, there exists a high correlation between addiction and a history of trauma and I often find this to be present. This is not always the case, of course. Each of our stories is unique and the losses we may experience are as varied as all losses experienced in life.
Even so, I do not think that grief in recovery is usually related to a singular loss and definitely not because of the substance or behavior we used to seek refuge or self-medicate.
More often, grief in addiction is neither related to the loss of an individual person or to our drug of choice, but rather the losses, damage and neglect of our relationships, spirit, selves and opportunities in our lives during our active disease.
ADDICTION BLOG: Many addicts express feelings of loss when they stop using drugs or alcohol. How can they overcome this type of grief?
BEN CARRETTIN: There are two prominent factors in early addiction recovery: one is based on the “old” brain or limbic system; the other is based on the “new” brain or prefrontal cortex.
During early recovery, the “old” brain drives our reactions and experience towards a rawness or hyper vigilance of our emotions, essentially magnifying what we experience. We weep at a touching commercial, rage at a cashier who spills our change and hold a grudge all day against the co-worker who failed to make a new pot of coffee. Normal feelings with an abnormal intensity or reaction. This increased rawness of emotional experience can make grief seem nearly insurmountable.
We also experience at times, a painful clarity which I often call “raising the veil”. This is when our new brain, which analyzes, quantifies, judges and defines – stands in the face of and takes account of the losses we’ve experienced. Shame, guilt, regret and more are stepping stones in the path of recovery from and plight or disease; grief and addiction included.
Most importantly, all addicts in recovery have to deal with the many exits or “little deaths” of the physical, emotional and even spiritual losses that have occurred and that may or may not be casualties of our active addiction.
ADDICTION BLOG: Can you tell us a little about the cycle of grief? How do we move through it to come out on the other side?
BEN CARRETTIN: There are no stages of grief.
Let me explain what I mean. Both Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief and more contemporary suggestions of three stages of grief offer the same insightful utility and convenience a formal diagnosis can offer. That is to say, a label of convenience meant to guide.
The problem with this is that it easily and often detracts from the individual experiences and symptoms of grief. People will almost always try to fit themselves into a defined category if it is suggested to them. This is especially true of desperate people. I frequently find this takes the individual to a more contemplative or intellectualizing realm which prevents them from truly dealing with their grief on an experiential emotional level.
The recovery journey is not linear. Adherence to a linear paradigm can deflect our focus and keep us from being present. Keep in mind, there is no absolute or universal experience of grief and no absolutes in grief other than the loss itself. All loss experiences are unique.
In moving through grief and loss remember this: as long as there is no threat to your safety or that of another’s, and you are not suppressing or avoiding, there is essentially no “right or wrong” way to grieve.
ADDICTION BLOG: How long can the deep, acute feelings of grief last?
BEN CARRETTIN: How long can grief last? Technically, as long as a piece of string.
In general, we shouldn’t be bound to create a timeframe for our grief to finish. Healing happens, differently. However, suppression of our feelings, continued suffering and unhealthy behaviors need to be addressed.
One of the hardest things in both addiction and grief is that moment when we stand in the face of all the loss and come to realize just how fragile and impermanent everything is. It can feel like standing alone in a wide, dark and barren land. But running from this or allowing the sheer magnitude to frighten us can steal away one of the most powerful moments and even gifts that can come from the recovery journey.
The goal is to not deny the impermanence but use this epiphany to move us from fear and desperation towards embracing the preciousness of each moment and cultivating happiness back into our life.
ADDICTION BLOG: What are some practical ways for dealing with grief should a sudden loss occur in our lives?
BEN CARRETTIN: While there will be exceptions to this, in general we need to be connected to others. Even the most introverted of us is at our core a communal being. That is not to say that a little solitude respite from the bustling social world isn’t good, it can be. But in times of pain and anguish we need the presence of others.
We need community.
Our grief does not have to be the topic in every venue – we actually need time just being in the presence of those who love us. And as much as at times we might want to pull back and isolate – we need to stay active and involved in the life around us and not retreat.
It is also necessary to have set, safe arenas where we can talk about the details of what we are experiencing as we move through our loss and begin to heal. One suggestion I have is that you make sure that all of your confidences not be placed in the lap of only one person. Sometimes the weight of our experience in its entirety is too much for an individual to share with us and for this reason we should also reach out to a friend, partner, sponsor, pastor/clergy, support group or grief counselor. Keep “community” in mind – reach out and use the community available to you.
ADDICTION BLOG: What kinds of affirmations or messages can we repeat to ourselves in times of grief?
BEN CARRETTIN: Above all, “Be kind to me”.
It is so easy at this time to become self-critical or dismissive of our own needs and feelings. Most of all we need to allow ourselves the compassion and kindness we need. Another thing to remember is:
“All things are impermanent”.
This does not only reflect our loss, nor does it mean that the loss is always about something being gone or erased. Sometimes impermanence is about change or becoming. We continually change and evolve over our life and so too will our current experience of pain.
“My grief is unique, but grief is not.”
You are not alone. Not only are the support system, family, friends and others of your circle here for you – but others who are grieving, right now, just like you are. Support groups and counseling groups can be a spring board to recovery.
“Asking for help is an act of strength and courage”.
Many of us feel our grief is a “private matter” and I understand the want for dignity and discretion. I support that. But grief and addiction are bigger than one person, much bigger. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the presence of action despite fear. Asking for help, especially pre-emptively is a measure of emotional maturity and a sign of strength. Remember, community is everything.
“Be open to simple”.
This is important to all kinds of recovery. If things are getting clustered or overwhelming – simplify. This is not a permission to isolate – but more to set limits and restructure as a measure of kindness to yourself. It also means you don’t have to do it big to do it well. Some of the greatest and most pivotal moments in my life came from simple experiences. Be open to simple.
ADDICTION BLOG: What coping skills are often missing? How can people in recovery gain these skills?
BEN CARRETTIN: Depending on the time and length of our active addiction, our coping skills may be under-developed or absent altogether. This has no reflection on our intelligence or capacity as human beings; it only indicates a delay in developing this particular skill set.
Keep in mind that coping skills are social skills. They are learned over time through our social experience. During our active use we were in negative social systems or were absent altogether. So our learning is a reflection of that environment.
How do we fix this? Well, it sounds a lot quicker and simpler than it is.
“Surround yourself with noble people.”
Let me be clear. Noble character has nothing to do with position, success or wealth. Good examples can be some people with long-term recovery (not just long-term sobriety), those who have good boundaries and those who are emotionally grounded and available.
One last point – some of the wisest and noble people I know are not in addiction recovery. There are a lot of phenomenal people in the other 85% and a lot of them have had a recovery journey of another type. Don’t forget that. Diversify your sources of source and wisdom, just keep them of noble character.
ADDICTION BLOG: What other risk factors can raise the chance for substance abuse during the grieving process?
BEN CARRETTIN: Research indicates co-occurring mental health or process addictions, family history, peer behavior, legal issues and other significant stressors, and of course traumatic loss can all play a very significant role here.
More commonly, in our social support experiences, the discomfort others have with our grief can sometimes pose a bigger risk. Friends who insist you go out to the bar, or show up with drinks as an act of support are obviously only adding to the problem. But there are much more subtle challenges. At times it can be the way the griever is engaged in conversation.
“I know how you feel”
“It will get better with time. and
“Time heals all wounds”
…while very well-intended can be very offensive and even patronizing. They don’t really know how it feels in your individual experience and no, time does not heal all wounds.
I often remind my clients and their loved ones that “grief does not get better with time, but it can change from hollow anguish to heartfelt longing”.
These well-intended but poorly delivered comments from supporters can lead to us feeling resentful and bitter. As anyone in recovery knows, resentments only lead in one direction. So, it is important to set and keep healthy boundaries.
Don’t be afraid of offending someone by saying what you need or excusing yourself from a situation. And perhaps, in this time of much needed kindness and compassion for yourself, spare a little for tolerance of those who love you but are having trouble saying it.
ADDICTION BLOG: Should families be included in the treatment of grief? How can the environment help or make the treatment more difficult?
BEN CARRETTIN: A supported and safe environment is paramount for healthy growth during grief. Ideally, family should be a part of treatment. However, the healthiness of the relationships within the family should guide us in how or even if they will be involved.
Sometimes, a family can be engaged in family sessions in part or with a combination of members. This has a potential for healing that is frankly an honor to witness. Other times, family members are seen separately from the individual due to conflicts already existing within the family. There will be times when multiple members of the family are experiencing such intense emotions that putting them together may be a recipe for disaster.
It is common for all grievers to experience disrupted sleep, variations of eating habits, feelings of numbness, inability to concentrate and a roller coaster of emotions. These are normal and natural responses. But sometimes stacking all of this on top of the emotional intimacy inherent in a family system can be detrimental to the healing process for all.
Ultimately, I am a big fan of grief groups. While working with a seasoned professional therapist that specializes in grief and addiction is important, something special occurs in groups. Each of our grief experiences is unique but sharing the space with other grievers provides a level of authentic empathy we rarely find anywhere else.
ADDICTION BLOG: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
BEN CARRETTIN: Grief or addiction recovery on their own can be an enormous undertaking. Combined, they can feel completely overwhelming.
It is important not to deny who we are and how we feel in every moment. Kindness and compassion along with healthy boundaries are necessary.
On your own, unique journey keep mindful that every moment matters and this moment, however you use it is a gift. Sometimes, when we can no longer connect with the gifts we have, we can rediscover them by using our gifts to help others. Getting involved in volunteering can be an added support, more than many first realize.
I will sum this up with one of my favorite quotes by Marcus Aurelius, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love”.
For more information on services for grief and addiction please feel welcome to reach out to me at LiveBetterLiveNow.com or TexasRecoverySupport.com.