Drowning the Pain: Loss, Grief, Depression and Addiction

Even if you can stay in recovery from your addictions, as long as you hold on to the fear, anger, and grief, there’s a good chance you’ll either pick up another addiction, or return to a previous one.” ~ Barb Rogers, Addiction & Grief: Letting Go of Fear, Anger, and Addiction

Did you know that loss, and the resultant grief, can contribute to unhealthy substance abuse? In fact, for many people, these can even be the root of the problem.

What is Loss?

In psychological terms, “loss” refers to losing someone or something deeply and personally important to us. Most often, it refers to the death of a loved one, but there can be other kinds of loss, such as:

  • Loss of Innocence—due to childhood trauma or abuse
  • Loss of Sense of Personal Safety—due to an attack or assault
  • Loss of a Relationship—divorce, separation, or estrangement
  • Loss of Trust—infidelity, betrayal, etc.
  • Loss of Youth—advancing age
  • Loss of a Job—termination, layoffs, downsizing
  • Loss of Health—illness or injury
  • Loss of Mobility—injury, illness, or age
  • Loss of Independence—due to health or financial reasons
  • Loss of home—due to foreclosure, fire, or natural disaster

What is Grief?

Grief is the sorrow felt because of that loss. And how much grief someone feels is determined by how important the lost person or thing was to them.  For their mental well-being, the grieving person must be allowed to process their loss and express their emotions in a healthy manner.

There are several Stages of Grief:

  • Shock—Initial paralysis upon hearing the bad news
  • Denial—Refusal to believe what has happened
  • Anger—Outpouring of frustration and other withheld emotions
  • Bargaining—“Making a deal with God ”; looking for a way out
  • Depression—Intense sadness, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, decreased motivation, etc.
  • Acceptance—Recognizing the reality of the loss and moving forward

The grief cycle is not a straight line.  Some people will not experience every stage, while others will go back to a single-stage multiple times. The speed with which someone processes their loss isn’t that important, because grief is a highly personal emotion.

But what is important is that the person does cope with their loss in a healthy way and eventually becomes able to move forward in a positive direction. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

The grieving process can be complicated when the loss is extremely sudden or there is some kind of stigma attached.  For example, someone who has lost a loved one after a long illness has had more time to mentally prepare than someone who loses a loved one due to an accident, an overdose or a suicide.  Similarly, someone whose marriage has ended because of their own infidelity will feel more guilt than someone who got divorced through no fault of their own.

Denial and guilt can interfere with healing after a loss.  And the longer the person’s grief remains unresolved, the more likely it is the person will suffer prolonged emotional or mental pain that may result in severe depression or manifest in self-destructive ways.

How Loss and Grief Lead to Substance Abuse

And one of the most common—but unhealthy—ways that people attempt to deal with loss is by turning to alcohol or drugs.  This is especially true for someone who already has a “recreational” habit.  They want to numb their pain and avoid dealing with the upsetting reality, and intoxicants offer an easy and tempting escape.

It starts out innocently enough—a couple of drinks in the evening or a few pills, just to take the edge off.  But here’s the sad part—these things DO work for a little while.  They dull the grief and help the person forget about their pain, problems, and fear.

How do they do this?

All substances of abuse trick the brain into releasing excessive amounts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.  The resultant high or buzz provides a temporary respite from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

But eventually, drugs and alcohol become part of the problem.  Although no one ever intends to become physically dependent on the substance, that tragic transition often happens far too easily.

Artificial over-stimulation of the reward pathways changes the brain. The person becomes:

  • Substance dependent
  • Unable to feel pleasure without the presence of alcohol or drugs
  • Driven to compulsively drink and use
  • Vulnerable to painful withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit
  • Qualified for a medical diagnosis of Substance Use Disorder

In the beginning, they needed the addictive substances to deal with the pain, but in the end, the pain and fears associated with loss are closely related in the brain the addiction continues to develop until there is a crisis that takes the person into treatment. At that point, the person is detoxed from the addictive substance and the feelings can be processed that will begin the healing journey of recovery.

Science supports this.

In 2012, a Hungarian study looked at the relationship between bereavement and alcohol consumption. Researchers made the following discoveries:

  • Among non-bereaved men, 9% engaged in risky or harmful drinking behaviors.
  • Among men who had been bereaved for one year, the rate climbed to 4%.
  • And among those who had been bereaved for two years, the rate of risky/harmful drinking jumped to 8%.

What Does All of This Mean for San Diego Residents?

On an average day in San Diego County, around 55 people die—accidents, natural deaths and suicides. Like any other city, there are assaults, fires, and natural disasters. People lose their marriages, homes, and jobs. Loss is a part of life.

But San Diego faces also faces unique challenges when it comes to the availability and the widespread abuse of alcohol, illicit drugs, and misused prescription medications. For example:

  • San Diego has recently been named the “booziest city in America”.
  • San Diego was once known as the “Meth Capital of the United States”, and in 2016, meth-related overdose deaths reached an all-time high.
  • Between 2012 and 2017, fentanyl deaths in San Diego County surged by 700%.
  • In 2017, 15% of San Diego saw 15% of all the opioid overdose deaths in California.
  • Coca plant cultivation and cocaine production in Columbia is at record levels.
  • Because most of the illegal drugs entering the United States come from Central and South America, San Diego’s proximity to Mexico poses a problem. . The San Ysidro Port of Entry is the busiest land border crossing on the planet. On an average day, 20,000 pedestrians and 70,000 vehicles cross over into the US from Mexico.  Obviously, this creates a logistical nightmare.

This easy availability means it is entirely possible that you and the people you care about are already at increased risk of substance use.  And if a loss is suffered and the grief seems unbearable, then drugs and alcohol might look like the only option.

Getting the Help You Need When Grief Turns Becomes Addiction

Self-medicating by abusing alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription medications is NEVER a good idea.  This is especially true when you suffer a loss because unresolved grief can continue to affect your life and cause problems for years.

But there is a better way, and there is hope.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with grief and you are drinking too much or using more drugs as a result, you probably need professional help. With the right program, you can:

  • Process the trauma and loss you have suffered
  • Express your grief in a healthy manner
  • Learn positive coping skills
  • Regain your sobriety by becoming alcohol and drug-free
  • Obtain better mental health when you receive treatment for other co-occurring conditions such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD
  • Find support, strength, and inspiration from group therapy
  • Find out how to prevent relapse into dysfunctional or self-destructive thought patterns and behaviors

If you live in Southern California, your best local resource to accomplish these goals is Lasting Recovery.  As the leading dual diagnosis rehab program in San Diego, Lasting Recovery provides an evidence-based treatment strategy that helps restore your sobriety, mental health, and balance.

Lost is unavoidable, and grief is normal.  And when it all gets too much and you need help, contact Lasting Recovery TODAY.

Lasting Recovery—“Where Wellness Begins..”

Help is waiting. Contact us now.


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