How Will You Handle Loss? Here’s How Substance Abuse Makes Grieving Harder
Tragedies are frequently unexpected. When we think about worst case scenarios, we assume our planning is all hypothetical, but tragedy in one form or another hits all of us sooner or later. How can you make sure you’re ready for the emergency or crisis headed your way? Your most important tool may seem obvious: preparing to grieve.
Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author of the book Ending Addiction for Good.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Luckily for us all there are several practical ways you can strengthen your ability handle stressful experiences and their aftermath before finding yourself in the lions’ den. Of course, making plans for supporting and being supported by close friends or family in the event of an emergency is always a good idea. But you should also take a moment to assess your own coping mechanisms, or the techniques you use to process, metabolize and move on from tragic experiences.
Grieving the loss of an intimate friend or family member will likely be difficult, draining and painful, yet as a practice mourning the death of a loved one is a healthy way to respond to this loss.
If you don’t take the time to consciously consider how you will cope with tragedy, you may be more easily drawn toward coping mechanisms that are unhealthy. Unexpected loss can create feelings of grief so powerful that they drown out other aspects of your personality and motivation. The promise of a few hours without the kind of pain that often accompanies grief can easily overpower your hesitation to abuse substances, or cause relapse if you are in recovery. There’s no question that a few stiff drinks will ease the grief you experience in the short term, but the consequences of ongoing substance abuse are devastating.
Once you begin leaning on drugs or alcohol to help you cope with your negative experiences and feelings, it can be hard to stop. Substances trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. This creates, with prolonged abuse, a dependency on the outside drug to produce these essential neurotransmitters; you literally need your drug of choice to experience the chemical side of happiness. And while the loss of your loved one may leave you fewer external reasons to feel happy, drugs will dump feel-good neurotransmitters into your system even when everything else about your situation leaves you feeling cold. This artificial altering of biochemistry can have lasting negative impacts. Once you begin to work through your grief, you may find that your brain has a hard time bouncing back.
Your best defense against grief will never be your ability to plan around and corral it. Instead, try following a radical practice of gratitude. If you love someone in your life, make sure they know. Listen and appreciate others when they share how they feel about you, too. Knowing your loved one understood your feelings for them and appreciating how they felt about you can help you move through the loss that accompanies death in ways that bring you comfort and healing.