Stages of Grief During Addiction Recovery

When recovering from an addiction, it is common to go through the 5 stages of grief.  These stages, which are best known to take place after losing a loved one, do not always look the same for everyone.  The stages also do not have a set time frame, or go in the exact order listed.  Several stages can even occur at the same time.

So what are the five stages of grief?

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

In the Denial stage, a person does not believe that they have a problem.  They often continue with the addictive behavior because they do not think it needs to end.  This is often a difficult stage for family and friends to witness because they so clearly see what the addicted individual does not believe exists.

Anger about having an addiction often involves asking “why me?”  A great example of this is when someone in the beginnings of recovering from alcoholism goes to a restaurant and it seems everyone else is enjoying an alcoholic beverage.   “Why can they drink and I can’t?  It’s not fair!”

Bargaining is a stage that is often also seen during active addiction.  It’s all about finding a loophole that allows the addict to keep using.  “If I have just three drinks, then I’m obviously not an alcoholic.”  “If I only use on the weekends, then I am obviously not an addict.”  “If I can go a week without drinking or drugging then I can use for one day.”  There are all sorts of bargains an addict can make, the above only represent a sampling.

The Depression stage involves a deep sadness and feelings of hopelessness.  This stage involves both sadness at gaining the knowledge that drinking and drugging really isn’t an option, as well as sadness at losing parts of their previous life.  When moving into recovery, it is important to stop spending time with friends who you used with.  Many people who have an addiction also experience mental illness in some form.  This can make the depression stage feel that much worse.

Acceptance is the goal throughout the process.  This stage occurs when the addict acknowledges that they do have a problem, and start to see the small (and large) ways their life has started to improve since becoming clean and sober.  Acceptance, though often seen as the last stage, is just as fluid a stage as all of the others.  It is possible to be in acceptance and then move back to anger, depression, bargaining, or even denial.  This is why it is so important that addicts continue working on their recovery, even when they are feeling good about not using.

These same stages can be seen when experiencing a mental or physical illness other than addiction.  It is often helpful to receive therapy while working through these stages.  If AA and/or NA work for you, then that can also be a great resource to help stay clean and sober.  If AA/NA don’t feel right to you, there are also SMART recovery meetings popping up all over.

Whatever works for you is the right thing to do.  It may take trial and error, but figuring out how to safely make your way through the stages of grief is a worthwhile endeavor.

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