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Addiction & Grief
Letting Go of Fear, Anger, and Addiction
By Barb Rogers
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2011 Barb Rogers
All rights reserved.
Grieve It Forward
Most people have heard of the "pay it forward" concept: A person with no expectations commits a random act of kindness, the receiver of that kindness does the same for another, and on and on it goes. For those addicts holding fast to their grief, there is a similar concept I call "grieve it forward." A person with an agenda commits a specific act of cruelty to another, who then carries that into his or her day, and passes it on to another, and on and on it goes.
As kindnesses are paid forward, they tend to grow. And they also tend to come back to us. If we are kind to others, somehow it happens that others are kind to us. Or maybe it's just that we notice kindnesses.
Unfortunately the same is true with grief. When we treat someone cruelly—yell at a clerk or flip off another driver or some more serious breach—we not only hurt that person. We pretty much guarantee, unless they or someone else steps in to break the cycle, that the insult will be passed along. The world will be a bit meaner. And unless we can find a way to break the cycle of grieving forward, it's going to come back to us. Things are going to escalate. Even if it's only our own self we're nasty to, the principle still applies.
Years ago, I knew a woman who lived the "grieve it forward" concept to its fullest. Around the bars where she worked, others had nicknamed her "Smiley." Looking back, the irony isn't lost on me. Behind that perfect white smile—which, by the way, was as fake as she was—lived a pissed off woman who always had an agenda, and it certainly wasn't to help others or make their lives better.
Grieving for her early loss of innocence, any power and control she had over her life taken from her through rape, and feeling conflicted about what she thought life should be versus what she'd experienced, she lived mired in self-pity from a very young age. One by one, those closest to her hurt her, walked away, or died, and she turned to one addiction after another. She raged on this way for years, visiting her grief on everyone who crossed her path—she was grieving it forward in a major way.
I watched helplessly as she purposefully committed hateful, hurtful acts on others. It was as if releasing her fear and anger on another person would lessen her own pain. Instead, this cruelty merely compounded the feelings of guilt and shame she was trying so desperately to escape. I heard her blame everyone—including a God, who she professed didn't exist—and everything in her life, as she spiraled completely out of control and into the deep end of addiction, unable to get past denying her true feelings and anger.
I wanted to help, but the situation seemed hopeless. She would probably die like she'd lived—stuck in the early stages of grief. It would take a bigger person than I to help her find the way out of this downward spiral. I'd seen what had happened to those people who tried to help her: they either got dragged down with her, or she fought back so hard that they gave up for fear of going down with the ship.
You might be wondering who this woman was, what happened to her, how did I know her so intimately? She wasn't my mother, my sister, or a friend. Sadly, I must admit that she was me. During those years, it seemed like my life had split in two: the watcher and the actor. The watcher dwelled in shock and denial while the actor lived in pure anger, with many addictions.
Addicts will understand the concept of watcher and actor. It begins with the inability to move through the process of grief, and ends with the product—a behavior used to cope with a problem by becoming the problem. That's when the split happens. A part of the addict stands helplessly by, stunned, shocked, even appalled by his or her own actions, but fearful that to let go of the addiction would bring on a flood of unbearable emotions. And they aren't necessarily wrong—except about the unbearable part.
If you had a 200-pound log to move, and someone offered to help you, wouldn't it just make sense to let the person help you carry the burden?
If you had a 200-pound log to move, and someone offered to help you, wouldn't it just make sense to let the person help you carry the burden? That is the point of support groups, no matter whether you choose a church group, a grief group, or an addiction recovery program like the one I joined. The point is to make your burden bearable by allowing others to help you carry the load.
When I became tired of hopelessly standing by as the actor part of me raged on, committing unthinkable acts against myself and others, I sought out a 12-step meeting for alcoholics. I discovered that others in the group had joined for the same reasons. Some of them had actually succeeded in finding their way not only to recovery from addiction, but to a place of peace, even happiness. Desperation may have driven me to the meeting, but curiosity kept me coming back. If it was possible for them, maybe there was hope for me too.
During my early years in recovery, I figured out that the "watcher, actor" concept could work in my favor if I applied it in a different way. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are hovering around at a distance, watching yourself involved in some activity? It's like removing yourself from the situation. As part of my recovery program, it was necessary for me to look back over my life—what had been done to me, how I'd reacted. Through that process, I came face to face with the years of fear, anger, and grief that brought me to my addictions.
How did it happen? I stepped back, hovered nearby, and imagined the scenes from my life as if I were in a dream. Let me tell you, it was easier in my dreams! As I sat down with pen and paper to write out my inventory, I allowed the memories to return. That old familiar rage, self-pity for all the great sorrow I'd experienced, and fear of becoming overwhelmed grabbed my heart and twisted it. Bile began to rise. How in the world was I going to revisit the past without my old friend, whiskey, by my side?
It seemed like I'd left something out. Yes, I'd admitted my powerlessness over my addictions. I'd acknowledged that the power of "we" (the support group) could help me find some sanity in my otherwise insane thinking. But I hadn't yet been willing to open myself to the concept of a Higher Power. I was informed that until I could do that, my clever idea of using the "watcher, actor" concept in my recovery simply wouldn't work. Just as whiskey, drugs, and sex stood by me through the bad times, I would need a presence to hold my hand, to give me assurance as I relived those same situations. Although I didn't believe it at the time, I was told that my answers would come through complete surrender to a Higher Power of my choice. Oh my God! That was never going to happen!
Just as whiskey, drugs, and sex stood by me through the bad times, I would need a presence to hold my hand, to give me assurance.
Stuck, that helpless, hopeless watcher saw the actor continue on in her selfish, hateful, self-destructive ways, still visiting her grief on those around her. I wasn't using alcohol, drugs, or inappropriate sex anymore, but I thought about those things all day every day. I lived with a huge amount of resentment because I could no longer indulge in my addictions, and I spewed my venom around at every opportunity. I saw people at those meetings who had what I wanted, who gave me hope. Believe me, I'm sure no newcomer encountered me and thought, "That's what I want."
As stuck as I was, fighting the urges every day, struggling with the strange thoughts that constantly flitted through my mind, and fearing moving forward into the unknown, there was still a part of me that didn't want to go back to the life I'd known before. What if I did it—surrendered to some Higher Power—and I didn't like his plan for me? My anger said, "Every time you prayed before, it turned out bad." My fear said, "What if it doesn't work for you? What if you put it all out there and fail? What if this God doesn't think you deserve happiness?" But then my misery whispered loudest, "If you're planning on sticking around, you'd better do something. Nothing else you've tried has worked. Why not give it a shot?"
Have you experienced the split into watcher and actor? What is your watcher seeing? Is your actor doing things that go against your true nature? Have you jumped on the grief/addiction merry-go-round and can't seem to get off? Are you grieving it forward, hurting the people you profess to care about, denying yourself the very things you say you want?
The solution is simple, but not easy. The good news is that you are not alone, unless you choose to be. There are many of us out there who have gone through the same things you're experiencing. We've found a way out, and we are willing to share that with you. Your job in this scenario is to acknowledge your problem, ask for help, and be willing to do whatever it takes to find recovery not only from your addiction, but from fear, anger, and grief.
A commonly held concept of faith is that it is believing in something for which there is no "proof." But what is proof but determining a certainty based on results? Imagine a person whose life had been consumed with thoughts of drinking, drugging, and dying, who, through a sincere act of faith, began the journey to a life beyond her capabilities alone.
All I wanted was some peace, to be able to shut the dark thoughts from my mind, to sleep through the night without fear of waking in terror. I wanted to function without having to drink myself into oblivion. To wake up in the morning without that feeling of dread brought on by my grief over all I'd lost—without the need to constantly feed my addictions—would have been enough. But I received so much more.
I could share with you how I arrived at that moment when I fell to my knees, surrendered, and asked for help. But I think it's more important to tell you the results of my first encounter with a Higher Power. My discovery wasn't like a magic wand that changed my circumstances, but it was the beginning of seeing things through new eyes. As soon as I took the action and said the words, "I give up. I need help," something grabbed the other end of that 200-pound log that I'd been trying to move alone for thirty-five years, and I knew I could move forward.
As I repeated the same thing each morning, subtle changes took place. I felt like someone had taken my hand and was showing me the way to go—I felt safe and loved for the first time in a long time. No longer did I live with that feeling of being a rudderless ship in a raging ocean. I'd seen the star that would lead me to solid ground, and a better way to live. I can't recall ever knowing that feeling in my life before I found my Higher Power. It was better than getting high.
My discovery of my HigherPower wasn't like a magic wand that changed my circumstances, but it was the beginning of seeing things through new eyes.
As time passed I noticed that I was looking at others differently. Before, I'd always resented those who had more than me. I was filled with envy and bitterness for anyone who I believed hadn't suffered as much as I had. After I found my Higher Power, I began seeing these people clearly—hearing them with my heart instead of my ears. Their pain was as real to them as mine was to me, and comparing pain was like comparing apples and oranges.
This profound change became clear to me one night when I went to a speaker meeting in the small town where I lived at the time. It was one of those little towns where everyone thinks they know everything about the other residents, and I was acquainted with the man who would be sharing his recovery story. I can remember wondering how he fell into addiction, what he was doing in a 12-step meeting. He had everything: money, cars, property, a family, and the choice to live his life any way he wanted ... all the things I thought I needed to be happy, so why wasn't he? Early on I figured he was stupid, that he didn't deserve all that he had. But that night I was curious, and I stuck around to hear his story.
As I listened to the man speak, I was filled with unfamiliar emotions. Tears rolled down my face. This man may have had more than I, but we weren't so different. He'd grown up with a demanding, controlling father who expected total compliance and excellence in everything he did. And no matter how hard he tried and how well he did, it was never good enough, which translated to him that he wasn't good enough. The only port in his otherwise tense life was his mother, who, like my mother, took her own life. He'd spent his life achieving and accumulating things, but he lived in fear of never being good enough, choked with anger toward his father, who'd ruined his childhood, and his mother, who'd deserted him when he needed her most. He was grieving for the little boy who'd been denied the love and acceptance all of us want.
I couldn't believe I was weeping for this wealthy businessman who was looked up to in our small town. There was a time before my spiritual connection when I would have thought things like: "What a whiner. He needs to get over himself. He's got it all. His kids are alive, he doesn't have to struggle for every penny. My life is so much worse than his. What is his problem?" But that night I understood that although our lives had been different in many ways, inside each of us lived the same hurt, frightened, angry child, stuck in grief and seeking escape through addiction.
As I was sitting in the local coffee shop one morning, I heard the news: this man was dead. He'd taken his own life. I'd gotten to know him over the past year, and I understood his struggle with spirituality and the idea of surrender. He'd relapsed several times, but he always returned to the meetings, sad and sorry, but unable or unwilling to find faith. Through his death, I learned to have compassion for myself. I only wish he could have seen himself through my eyes. He had a good heart, was kind and compassionate. But he couldn't give himself what he needed most, and he refused to ask for spiritual help. He carried his burden alone until the weight of it was too much.
Like my friend, I sometimes struggled with the spiritual connection, but instead of stepping backwards, I fell to my knees and begged for help until the doubts passed. What I discovered was that finding faith isn't a onetime thing. Each day is a new beginning, with new opportunities and different circumstances, and if I'm to navigate, I need a God of my understanding to lead the way. There may be times when I'm not certain of what to do, but there is never a time when I don't know what not to do.
I can share with you how I found faith. Others can do the same. You can read books; listen to speakers; attend support groups, therapy, or church. But finding faith is as unique as each individual, and it is a very personal experience. It's not "thinking" that there is a Higher Power—it's knowing it with unfaltering certainty. If you are looking for proof of a Higher Power, of how faith can change a life, the only way you'll find it is within yourself.
What happened to that 200-pound log I'd been carrying around? A God of my understanding began carrying half the burden, and as I moved through the twelve steps, I whittled down those feelings of fear, anger, and grief little by little until I was free of it altogether. Without help, without divine intervention, I could not have done it. That is proof enough for me.
Keep in mind that sometimes you have to get down before you can stand up.
The Storm Within
Brace yourself! A storm is building. The flood will come. For as long you've been active in your addiction, you've been building a protective wall to keep your emotions at bay. Once you're in recovery, the wall will begin to crumble, and soon you'll be flooded with emotions. Just as you had to hit a life bottom with your addiction, sooner or later you will hit an emotional bottom with your fear, anger, and grief.
I'm reminded of a story I heard years ago. A flood swept over the countryside. As the water rose, a man climbed higher and higher in his house until he stood on the roof. He wasn't worried, because he knew that God would save him. When a rescue boat came by, he waved it away, saying, "God will save me." Meanwhile, the water kept rising. A helicopter flew overhead. He waved it away, saying, "God will save me." The house tumbled into the raging water, and the man died. When he awoke in Heaven, he said to God, "I thought you were going to save me." God said, "I sent you a boat and a helicopter. What more did you want?"
The boat is other people in the same circumstances who can help you, and the helicopter is a Higher Power sending you a lifeline. Unless you are willing to get in the boat or grab the lifeline, you will be lost in the flood. The moral of the story is that unless you are willing to accept help, you will be left standing atop a flooded house with nothing to grab hold of.
Unless you are willing to accept help, you will be left standing atop a flooded house with nothing to grab hold of.
Over the course of my years in recovery, I've seen many go it alone: they slip under the water and then struggle to the surface, rebuilding their great wall as they struggle to manage their on-again/off-again addiction cycle.
Excerpted from Addiction & Grief by Barb Rogers. Copyright © 2011 Barb Rogers. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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