I was once told that “most substance abuse arises from poor coping skills.” A speaker at a seminar I attended said “the decision to use always seems like the ‘right’ decision in the short run.”
What those two statements tell us, taken together, is that we started using alcohol or drugs because they provided some benefit, and often that benefit is relief from stress, distress, anxiety, or thoughts that lead to frustration or anger. In the short run, the substance relaxes our mind, settles our brain, allows us to seek social distraction, etc.
But in the long run, continuing to turn to the substance for that short-term relief leads to habituation and dependence, and it becomes difficult to stop. Meanwhile, we haven’t dealt with the distress or the unhappy thoughts—we’ve merely postponed them. So we haven’t coped. We’ve just set aside the things that upset us. When we’re sober again, there they are.
A sudden shock, trauma, or a life-changing event such as the death of a loved one can raise a whole lot of emotions all at once. Everything I’ve read lists anger and guilt as two of the most common, and often the anger seems to be directed at things that don’t make sense. ‘I love my mother but I find myself getting angry when she is crying’ fits right in with that. There’s also a kind of mental confusion, a dysphoria, that makes it more difficult to process the emotions. Rational thought processes are jumbled and it can be difficult to make healthy decisions.
Years ago we had to make the decision to put down my old dog because the pain of his cancer was increasing. My first dog, raised from a puppy. My wife offered to take him to the vet, and I drove to work determined to carry on. When I arrived, I realized I had made the entire 15 minute drive entirely in a mental fog, more or less on autopilot. I didn’t remember a thing about it, probably was terribly unsafe, and for the rest of the morning I couldn’t focus on anything.
Rather than try to ‘carry on’ in a state of shock or profound sadness, it is healthier, even necessary, to
“(1) Accept the loss;
(2) Work through and feel the physical and emotional pain of grief;
(3) Adjust to living in a world without the person or item lost; and
(4) Move on with life.”*
We tend to want to suppress any outward expression of the emotional pain. But that can be very frustrating. Most people find that talking with someone about loss can be very helpful. If you can find someone you trust to talk to in person, great. If not, online peer support is an option that many find useful. So that is one purpose of this forum.
One advantage of talking to a professional would be to watch for signs of depression. The article linked below has some of the signs of clinical depression. Techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and Rational-Emotional Behavior Therapy (REBT), used by counselors for dealing with depression, have been found to be effective for substance abuse issues as well.
Part of achieving acceptance is being realistic. REBT uses a simple tool to help organize the process of dealing with the beliefs that are distressing us. The ABC isn’t intended to solve your grief, or even to make you feel ‘better’. It simply provides an outline for how to think about each specific disturbing thought. The objective of the ABC is to get to a new belief which leads to healthier outcomes, in this case a reduction of your sadness. ‘I’ll never see him again’ or ‘My life will be empty forever’ can be heart-breaking thoughts. See the link below for more info on how to do an ABC.**
So it can be helpful to take those thoughts and work consciously towards new beliefs. Try restating the thoughts more accurately: ‘My life feels empty because I miss him deeply, but I know that as time passes I’ll accept this.’ Redirecting a thought to make it more affirming can work: ‘I’ll never see him again’ can be turned in to ‘I’ll never forget him’, which is more comforting.
The goal is to help you process each thought which might otherwise lead you to seek temporary relief by drinking or using drugs, or engaging in other self-harming behavior. And self-harming behavior can include cutting, eating disorders, getting into unhealthy relationships, sabotaging healthy relationships, or other activities that make you feel bad or interfere with your life.
Some ideas that may help you with grief and avoid turning to substances:
“This too shall pass.” It sounds banal, but time really does heal. No, you don’t ‘get over’ loss. You adapt to it. The loss you’re feeling is real and has changed your life. But the intensity of sadness you’re feeling right now will diminish, and you will smile again.
There’s nothing wrong with the way you’re feeling. Anger and guilt and irritability are all normal reactions. The people around you probably understand better than you think. Cut yourself some slack; there is no ‘right’ way to grieve.
People do care, including complete strangers. It hurts to see someone sad and feeling alone. So please don’t hesitate to reach out when you’re upset. What you don’t realize is that someone else will come along and read your post, and feel comforted to see they are not alone in their feelings. So thank you, and please take care of yourself.
Š How To Deal With Grief, from the National Mental Health Information Center:
Š ABC: A Crash Course, from the SMART Recovery home page: