Grieving the loss of alcohol.
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Giving up alcohol forever reminds me of finally making the choice to leave an unhealthy or abusive romantic relationship. I've been in a few of these types of relationships as well as watched my Mom go through one when I was a child after she and my Dad divorced. The good times can be really good and the bad times can be REALLY bad. I would be lying if I said I didn't have some great memories of times when I really enjoyed alcohol. But for me, the bad moments heavily outweighed the good.
In talking with a bunch of different people about sobriety, I found that I was not the only one who mourned my relationship with alcohol, especially in the beginning. I've heard a lot of people say that they aren't happy with their relationship with alcohol but they can't imagine giving it up forever. This idea scares a lot of people. If you look up the 5 stages of grief you will find that they are
and by just reading these, I can tell you that I absolutely went through each and every one of these stages before I finally got to the "acceptance" stage.
In an article I was reading titled "The 5 Stages of Grief & Loss" by Julie Axelrod, she breaks down perfectly how we experience these stages in addiction recovery. I'd like to share these with you and then share with you how I personally experienced each stage.
Stage #1. Denial
Denial is a hallmark of active addiction; in order to protect your relationship with alcohol, you must deny the nature of that relationship to others and even to yourself. At this stage, you are not willing to acknowledge the harm alcohol is causing you or your relationships with other people, and you may go to great lengths to minimize and hide your use, sometimes lashing out in anger if someone expresses concern.
Stage #2. Anger
Anger often emerges when you finally realize that you are in a damaging relationship with alcohol and aren’t in control of your use. This anger may be targeted at the drug (alcohol), at the painful consequences of addiction, at those around you who are pressuring you to get sober, and at yourself. You may feel betrayed and abandoned by the substance that was supposed to be your friend and partner for causing the situation you now find yourself in. While this anger may be distressing, it can also spur you toward healing if properly harnessed; you can take this energy to create real change.
Stage #3. Bargaining
You understand that your relationship with alcohol isn’t perfect, but rather than ending the relationship altogether, you try to bargain with yourself to see if you can simply modify it. Maybe you can just have one or two drinks. Maybe you can still go to the party where everyone will be drinking. Maybe you can only use on weekends.
Stage #4. Depression
The depressive stage of grief comes when you fully understand the depth of the damage you alcohol abuse is causing you, and can be tremendously broad in scope. You may experience deep despair for how addiction has affected your life, harmed your relationships, and impacted your physical and emotional health. You may feel overwhelming remorse for the things you have done during active addiction and a sadness for the life you could have had were it not for alcohol. But alongside the depression you feel for the destructive effects of addiction, you may also feel deep mourning for the loss of your relationship with drugs.
A woman in recover named Emily remembers saying: “I realized that I would never again be able to get drunk with my friends around a bonfire on the beach. I wouldn’t feel that warmth that comes over you when you’ve had two whiskeys because I would never be able to have just two whiskeys. I wouldn’t make a champagne toast on New Years or share a bottle of wine with my boyfriend before we went out dancing. Instead, I was going to be going to AA meetings and ‘doing the work’ for the rest of my life and that felt so unbelievably depressing."
Fear of living without your substance of choice is one of the most common sources of depression during this stage, as you are left to cope with life without the ostensibly protective padding of alcohol.
Stage #5. Acceptance
Acceptance comes when you finally understand the true nature of your relationship with drugs and move beyond anger, bargaining, and depression to come to terms with your past and see the possibility of a future. You can begin to entertain a new vision of how your life will be lived without being in relationship to alcohol. New healthy recovery relationships and support have begun to replace isolation and lies. The addict has been sober long enough to begin to develop new ways of coping and managing their life circumstances, often utilizing hidden creativity and ingenuity formerly lost to their addiction.
For me, these 5 stages spanned 5+ years. They don't all happen right away and they can look very different for different people. Everyone is on their own journey and no 2 journeys look the same.
I started drinking at a very young age when I was in middle school. I feel like technically I was in the stage #1 "denial" phase for my entire life until I finally reached stage #2 which was anger at the fact that I was no longer just able to "have fun" with alcohol. It was in the anger phase that I started to realize the damaging affects alcohol was having on my life and relationships. In my case specifically, I noticed I had a problem before anyone else did. I was surrounded by extremely heavy drinkers, hanging out and working in a heavy drinking scene (nightlife industry in Atlanta) who were used to this kind of destructive behavior and patters. Other people were just stuck in the loop, but for me, deep down inside I knew this wasn't an okay way to live. This is where I started challenging myself to take off just one night of drinking here and there and really started to become aware of my alcohol abuse. I stayed in phase 2 for a long time. I knew that my relationship with alcohol was unhealthy but was not yet ready to consider any long term sobriety. Stage #3 came years later for me when I was in a relationship with my ex that lasted 3 years. We had been super heavy drinkers from the very first day we met. We got hammered on our first date and literally just kept that going our entire relationship. It was during this relationship that I really started feeling like something needed to change. I started having more frequent blackouts and my time being sober became less and less. I felt like I was drunk more than I was sober. There were multiple times after a night of blackout and violence that I decided I could not drink anymore or else I would lose my relationship and more. These were the times that I started seeking support in the forms of AA meetings, sobriety books, blogs, podcasts etc. Sometimes I would go weeks without drinking, sometimes I went months. But I noticed a pattern starting to occur which I now see clearly was part of Stage #3 and that's bargaining. I was past the denial, I knew I had a problem, I wanted things to change, but I wasn't yet ready to give up alcohol forever. I would go weeks or months without drinking and then try to convince myself that I might actually be able to just change my relationship with alcohol instead of giving it up completely. I guess if you compare this to an abusive romantic relationship, this would be the point where you've been beaten and bruised so many times and you know you need to leave but you are still just holding on to the little bit of hope that things might be able to change. Maybe therapy would help. Or maybe if we gave each other some space things might get better. This is when we are holding on to those few good memories instead of focusing on all of the horrible ones that are clear signs that you should leave. I went through this phase with alcohol for a long time. It was a long time of me trying to moderate or trying to only drink on the weekends. None of those every actually worked for me, but man, did I try. I REALLY wanted to be able to change my relationship with alcohol instead of give it up forever.
I feel like I hit the Stage #4 of depression when I realized the hold that alcohol had over me. When I started to have feelings of powerlessness over alcohol. When I started to feel that I was no longer in control and felt that even though this substance was ruining my life, I couldn't get away from it. This is also when I had these back and forth feelings of knowing I needed to quit but then thinking about all of the things I would miss out on. This is when I realized that my life would change drastically if I gave it up forever.
Stage #5 came for me when I was completely FED UP. When I was sick and tired of alcohol having this hold over me and sick and tired of not being in control of my own life. I was sick of not being able to decide if I could give it up forever. I was sick of trying new methods of moderation and failing miserably. I was sick and tired of hurting myself and the people I loved. When I FINALLY got to stage #5, I knew I was ready.
I have to be honest and say that there are still times when I think about alcohol. I see alcohol on every TV show and every movie I watch and for the most part people seem to be able to drink responsibly in social settings. When I see these type of drinking habits on TV/Movies often enough, I start to wonder "why can they drink in moderation and I can't?" Then I have to to go back and remember that I've already been through the phase of experimenting with moderation and it DID NOT work for me. Those people casually drinking on TV are not me. I have to remember my own journey and remember all of the things that I've been through in the past and remind myself that alcohol is not for me and never will be.
This sobriety thing is not easy guys. That is why most people never seriously consider it. Being sober is not popular by any means and that's because the idea scares a lot of people. If you are considering sobriety and are currently at any of these phases, just know that what you are doing is brave and admirable. You are going against the current in the name of your health and well-being. We all deserve a life that we are in control of. Know that no matter where you are at in your journey, somebody else out there in the world has been there too. What you are feeling and experiencing right now, somebody else has felt or is feeling right now too. You are not alone. I encourage you to keep going. Don't give up. Continue trying to figure this thing out no matter how hard of confusing it may get.
We are all in this together.
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