Emotions & Recovery: Grief

A.Addicts are both victims and victimizers.
Anyone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol leaves behind them a trail of destruction. This could include everything from harm done to loved ones – both physically and emotionally, as well as violence and criminal activity of all sorts in which many become involved. On the other hand, we need to recognize that the majority of addicts have, themselves, grown up in painful, dysfunctional families. In homes where one or both of the adults are out of control because of addiction or other life-consuming problem, they we subjected to a daily diet of physical and emotional trauma.

Effective rescue mission recovery programs recognize the importance of helping addicts to repent of their sin and become responsible the wrong they have done. Steps 4 & 5 used with Steps 8 & 9 are practical guides for helping recovery addicts to gain a clear conscience and to take the extra step of restoring broken relationships and acknowledging to other the hurt they have caused them. This is dealing with the “victimizer.”

We must also be careful to also deal with the “victim.” Some Christian workers have tended to shy away from this, though, for fear of sending the message that we are excusing the destructive behavior of the addict. But, if we do not deal with this aspect of recovery, our program participants will have great difficulties in coming into genuine emotional freedom.

B.The Impact of Childhood Messages.
The single most common message experienced in dysfunctional families is, “you’re not allowed to feel.” When someone is told that their feelings are no good, they hear, “I’m no good.” As we’ve mentioned in earlier installments of this series, the only way to survive in such an environment survival is to “shut down” emotionally. The truth is, emotions cannot be split off in one area without affecting the total emotional life. I make it so I am not able to experience pain; I am not going to experience joy, either. If I can’t be sad, I can’t be happy. I am out of touch with my own feelings; I can’t ever connect with yours, either. I am living life from the neck up, you might say. Is it any wonder these people become addicted to alcohol and drugs? There is no more effective way to manage one’s emotions than mind-altering chemicals. So, whatever happened emotionally in childhood is made all the worse by pouring chemicals on top of all the shame, hurt, and resentment.

C. Emotional Re-connection: Recovery’s Gift.
One of the greatest gifts that God ever gives people when they begin down the tough road of recovery is the ability, the freedom, and the permission to feel again. In recovery, we learn that everyone has emotions, that feeling are neither “good or “bad”, and that feelings are not to be feared or rejected. Instead of being disconnected from them, in recovery we learn to be unaware of them, to connect with them, and to experience them. Instead of feeling numb most of the time, recovery means experiencing – both intellectually and emotionally – the joy and peace and that are an essential part of this Christian life.

D. Grief, one of the first feelings to return to emotional health.
A sure sign that a person is beginning the process of genuine recovery is the return of the emotional life. They begin feeling again, and much of what they feel is pain and grief. With a clear mind they begin to experience reality, often for the first time in years. And, the reality they find themselves in is usually terrible. By the time they reach out for help, most addicts have lost all that is dear to them – family, career, and self-respect. After drowning their feelings with drugs and/or alcohol for so long, they can experience feelings very intensely. The feelings of grief and loss can be profound. They may find themselves grieving the death of a loved one or some other loss that occurred years ago. In these cases, their grieving process has been cut short through use of mood altering chemical (which includes alcohol). Adult children of alcoholics and others who have experienced abuse in their lives usually feel totally ripped off. They may sense for the first time the deep loss of not having a family where they felt safe and loved. Many grieve a childhood where they were never able to be kids because of the adult responsibilities that were trust upon them by parents who were out of control.

The key to working through all of this is to avoid using alcohol or drugs to turn them off their feelings again. This is a common cause of relapse for those in recovery programs. Instead, the recovering person needs to “feel the feelings” with a clear mind in order to work through them – and eventually leave them behind.

E.Some final thoughts.
A necessary part of reconnecting with their emotional selves is to begin to grieve what they’ve made of their lives, how they’ve destroyed the relationships. And this is one of the greatest gifts that we will ever bring to our program participants, so we need — but it is not going to happen on its own. It has got to be actively programmed into our activities. And that is when they need to know we are going to be committed to them as they work through this process. Time must be set aside to give them the opportunity to talk freely about what they are experiencing. There is a tremendous therapeutic value in verbalizing feelings instead of stuffing what is going on within them.In order to keep moving forward in recovery, program participants must feel supported in the process of reconnecting with their difficult feelings, including grief. It is the responsibility of the program staff members to create an environment where participants sense that they can safely and freely express the struggles they are experiencing.