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November 11, 2021

The Connection Between Grief & Addiction—10 Ways to Support Someone who is Struggling.

 

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The word “addiction” elicits a strong emotion for many. 

Not only does it have a strong energetic pull behind it, but there is also a hefty sense of shame and guilt attached to addiction. As if there is something inherently inept about a person who chooses a form of external substance (or thing) to comfort or soothe their inner world. 

We are clearly experiencing a form of grief, and the ability to self-soothe has been lost to something outside of us. 

Brené Brown has devoted her life to the workings and research of shame and guilt and what those emotions can do to a person. She is also a card-carrying recovered alcoholic—sober for 25 years—thanks to the action steps within Alcoholics Anonymous.

Gabor Maté is a leading psychiatrist in Canada who has dedicated his life’s work to helping people through addiction and trauma. He states the opposite of addiction is connection. He has written many books on the subject. In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts and Hold onto your Kids are two of my favorites.

So what is addiction, really? 

Could it be that addiction is a long-form of unhealed trauma due to grief?

Addiction, in simple terms, is a disconnection of self and the disconnection and disassociation of our head from our heart. It is the result of a time and place where your heart was broken from a certain life event or multiple. 

The events lead us to the mistrust of love, mistrust of God, Buddha, or whichever deity of the universe we choose to believe in. 

Our brain (or mind) often takes control when our heart has been broken. The brain’s job is  to ensure a safety mechanism for when the heart connection is disrupted, keeping you alive and moving. 

When trauma, stress, and grief occur in life, the result is often heartbreak. So the mind kicks in to act, instead of the heart, so the heart can mend and heal.

We can heal from a heartbreak and help our mind calm down and release its need to keep us safe once we have given ourselves the time and space to heal. 

We must take our time though, and sometimes, healing can take years. Allowing the mind to let go of control, when in fight-or-flight, can be a tricky balance, but with the right support and nurturing ourselves back to love, it can be done. 

Broken heart syndrome is a real medical diagnosis with real-life causation.

Sadness, grief, and pain manifest themselves in addiction:

 >> Drugs and alcohol

>> Gambling

 >> Sex/porn

>> Excessive shopping/spending

>> Workaholism

>> Perfectionism

>> Exercise

>> Overeating

“The first question is not why the addiction; it’s why the pain?” ~ Gabor Maté

The list goes on and on and includes anything outside of ourselves that aids in soothing our pain. 

Heartbreak can really wake us up to our lives and change our identity. 

For example, a man suffered a massive heart attack and survived. He began addressing his addictions to spending, gambling, and alcohol, and suddenly, he woke up to the reality that life is too short to be asleep and in darkness. He was stuck in pain, anger, resentment, and bitterness. He needed to make radical, positive changes to his life, and he did. 

As a result, he changed so much that people thought he was crazy and that he had lost his marbles—but he hadn’t.

He could no longer look at life with the old lenses he had on his eyes. He suddenly realized he had a choice to either stay stuck in bitterness and anger or choose differently. So his healing journey started again, holistically. 

Due to his healing and feeling into his authentic self, he brought on a new, better version of himself.

The opposite effect of awakening to heartbreak is a deep plunge into a dark sadness where we can become stuck in the in-between, believing we will never get out of it. 

We feel anxiety, anger, bitterness, resentment, and sadness, which leads us to believe that life is cruel and harsh and not worth living, or we choose to live it just getting by and going through the motions. These are all real and normal human emotions and internal signaling systems.

Finding the right balance of healing back to a reconnected heart and mind is a tricky one that only we can find for ourselves.

Addiction often manifests when a big trauma (or little trauma) occurs within our lives.

When we experience any form of traumatic events, there is always an element of grief attached to that trauma. We have brain fog, confusion, frustration, agitation, and often periods of isolation. A plethora of feelings and emotions ensue.

Unfortunately, most of us have not been truly taught how to deal with grief in a healthy way. The word “emotion,” especially in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, was a dirty word. 

You were thought to be crazy if you expressed yourself in a way that created discomfort in others. Interestingly, the statistics of addiction and mental health rates rose abruptly after the 1960s.

Grief cannot be felt, dealt with, or healed in a textbook way. Grief is an individual thing that takes a holistic approach. It involves the often slow process of reconnecting the heart with the mind, allowing the heart time to heal. 

It’s essential to have the space to grieve in our own time and the space to deal with the emotions that grief brings up.

We need to feel safe in the process. We need the space to take back the responsibility of our own lives. We must heal in an authentically individual way. 

Running away from grief will keep us stuck in cycles of pain that can last decades. We can use grief to learn about what makes us tick as a person, what makes us happy, what helps us love and trust again.

Nursing presented a lot of grief to me daily, and it’s a lot for a person to take on. This is probably why compassion fatigue and burnout are so high in the highly regulated industries. I have experienced my own fair share of grief and traumatic experiences.

Here are 10 supportive recommendations for someone who is struggling:

1. We can prioritize our own self-care, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. It’s okay to cry, scream, yell, pound the pillows, and hug your loved ones (but not too hard).

2. Feel everything and don’t be scared to feel. This is where you release and heal. Self-care will gradually reduce the overreliance on external substances and also the reduction of shame and guilt.

3. Surround yourself with healthy coping mechanisms and healthy-minded people. 

4. Never try to live up to the expectations of others—it will prolong your grief cycle. If you are not being adequately supported, find ways to support and meet your own needs, and trust that the right people will show up for you. 

5. If you don’t have anyone, reach out to me, and I can support you in a multitude of ways.

6. To those supporting others through grief, do not give up on the person experiencing it. 

7. Hold space for them and trust that person will come back again and surrender to the process. They will most definitely be a different person.

8. Be okay with and embrace the changes. Trauma, stress, and grief change a person, often for the better.

9. Please be kind, be compassionate, and hold space for those in grief. This allows others to heal, feel, and deal in a way they need.

10. No matter what, do not go through the aftereffects of grief alone.

~

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