There is something many of us don’t consider when we give up alcohol, and that is the role that the grief process plays. Grief emerges in reaction to intense change. So, grief is not only something we experience when losing loved ones who have died or perhaps moved away, it is also something we go through when we lose a way of living or way of life.
It may sound strange but even if alcohol caused complete havoc and destruction, it can still feel like a loss at the beginning. You are letting go of a way of life that was familiar for so long. You may have used the alcohol to escape and now need to experience life without a buffer. Just as solidly as a job or home is built into one’s life, so are places and patterns associated with drinking.
Rituals that have become a major part of daily life need to come to an end and for some, whole social groups and years of friendship need to be given up in order to avoid returning to old behaviour that caused so many problems. Living an addictive life will involve avoiding accountability and responsibility, whereas a life of recovery means a great deal of being accountable. Suddenly having to meet all commitments and responsibilities.
Sobriety means making a lot of big changes and this can feel really frightening and uncertain. For some, even while the excessive drinking was destroying their lives it was always there, that constant companion. It is not until you embrace the unknown and begin to see the joy available in life that you realise you only miss the concept of your old life.
You may think back through rose tinted glasses at the ‘care-free’ drinking days and boosted confidence, but there isn’t much to miss about a life revolved around that compulsion to drink and then the depression and despair that inevitably follows. We are all guilty of picking out all the good bits sometimes and conveniently forgetting the heavy price we paid in order to continue a life that we knew.
Let’s take a look at the cycle we go through in early sobriety and try and make some sense of it. Before we do, I know it all sounds really daunting, and to be honest not particularly cheerful, but I always think it’s really important to know the facts. When we give up drinking, we know it’s not going to be a walk in the park, and that there are things we will have to go through and face. I found that knowing and understanding that these emotions are all part of the journey really helped.
There are 5 stages of grief, and this cycle is the same when giving up an addictive substance. The first is always denial. Denial is actually a safety mechanism that protects us from being overwhelmed by our feelings. So, this is the stage that can initially help you survive the loss. However, you are not living in actual reality but instead a preferable reality. Denial will help stagger the full impact of the change and loss and provide a defense mechanism that says ‘hang on, this is too much to handle all at once’.
Anger is the second stage. This can be an extension of denial in some ways as you still aren’t seeing things for what they truly are. The feelings that you were once suppressing are now coming to the surface. The anger stage of grief exists as an attempt to avoid the true underlying addictive problem. You may look to blame others and lash out, redirecting your anger to close friends or family. This can be a reaction that occurs instead of acknowledging the true problem itself.
The third stage is bargaining. When something bad happens, have you ever caught yourself trying to negotiate with yourself or others? This is where we try and maintain control and, in a way, hold on to a false sense of hope. You make excuses and promises but in reality, you are carrying on without any real change taking place, promising to quit tomorrow, next week, when you are less stressed and so on. Whether we are bargaining with ourselves or others, it is difficult to truly face reality when stuck in this stage.
The fourth stage is depression and this is a really tough part of the cycle. It brings a sadness and feeling of hopelessness. In this stage you are really starting to realise the serious consequences of drinking and that the choice is to either live without it or suffer from the addiction forever! It is unfamiliar and frightening to imagine leaving the life you have known. In this stage it is also really common to feel remorse and guilt and an overwhelming fear of an uncertain future.
It’s ok, things are about to get a whole lot better………
Acceptance is considered the final stage. Although you may go through the previous stages more than once, when you reach acceptance, you can finally see that there is a sober path laid out for you. One that millions of others have followed successfully. You can entertain a new vision of how your life can be, free from the clutches of alcohol. Deciding to make a change is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and those you love.
Change is hard for everyone, especially when it’s so final. We all struggle with closing a chapter of our life and accepting that it’s gone. I can assure you however that the grieving process is perfectly normal and absolutely necessary in order to find true closure. Everyone will experience this process differently. It will be just as unique as the way the journey began for each person in the first place. Like everything in life, this too shall pass.
I remember going through this cycle myself and it feeling like a complete rollercoaster. The onslaught of feelings and raw emotions seemed relentless at times, but then came peace. It is something I could never feel when I was drinking. Drinking could make me feel numb, but peaceful? No. It was the acceptance that brought me that peace.
Acceptance of the realities of life and the fact that I will only ever be able to control myself and how I deal with situations and feelings. My emotions came back quickly and it felt strange to feel again. I was told in the early days of my sobriety that the good news is, you get your feelings back, and the bad news is, you get your feelings back. This is so true, it’s amazing in so many ways but also hard at first.
The rational, thinking brain is back, after so long of being hijacked by alcohol. The real me was underneath it all somewhere, so it just took some time to claim that back and start to heal from it all. The escape route was gone and it was time to feel all those tough emotions again. There is a reason they are there, and yes, we are supposed to feel them.
Every time I go through something tough now, I always come out the other side in a far better place, because there is no confusion or feeling unsure. It becomes a very calming and affirming way to live. There is an upside of course, that while you do have to feel those tough emotions, you also get to feel all the good ones too. They aren’t forced by a liquid drug, they are real. The real highs, you will find, will rival any chemical enhancement.
Having given up the drink and gone through the grief and loss stages, we then need to be very self-focused for however long it takes to undergo this huge transformation. Only after that period of time passes can we relax into the person that we knew we were all along. Friends and family also begin to adjust and realise that this new sober person is here to stay!
How did I get through the grief cycle and go on to live a happy sober life?
First and foremost, self-care. I started running in the mornings to clear my mind and boost the happy hormones. Allowing me to start the day on a positive note. I also paid attention to whether I was getting enough sleep? What my diet looked like? Was I getting a healthy life balance? Spending time with friends and family, making time to relax, as well as time spent doing something I enjoyed.
I knew I wanted to help others who had been through similar experiences to me, so I started helping at a local charity and facilitating alcohol recovery groups. This was rewarding and I felt really grateful to be in the position to give something back. Purpose is really important in early sobriety, along with keeping busy so if you have time on your hands that you need to fill, voluntary work is a great option.
The other thing that helps every day, even after years of sobriety but especially useful in those early days, is Gratitude. This is the most uplifting emotion there is and can literally change how you feel instantly. It can be the smallest things that we often take for granted but when you stop for just a second and think about the good things that you are grateful for, it switches your mind set from negative to positive. This is a powerful tool.
I will end by reassuring you that it is 100% possible for you to survive that emotional rollercoaster ride and climb over any obstacle that might stand in your way when you first give up drinking. You will get to the stage where you can connect to the joy, freedom and peace of mind that sobriety brings and then you will know that it was all so worth it!