5 Stages of grieving your addiction

healing from grief

Letting go of your addictive personality ain’t no walk in the park. Neither is going through any of the 5 Stages of grieving your addiction. As a human being we are hard wired not to change most of who we are. We function from learned experience. We then try and repeat those experiences that we feel work for us in some way. Addiction to the brain can feel like an easy-out to many of life’s conundrums and even to the hardship that is life itself today for so many. Addict brain screams affirmations like get lazy, love nobody, don’t work, don’t think anything new, sell the hard to accomplish dreams, never get hurt and feel great while doing it. These are the the dark whispers our conscious and sub-conscious minds bring to the game of life. Addiction requires one to be impulsive and selfish for example. These are no brainers.

When addicted and using substances, you can forget real control of emotions, your body, your minds obsessive thinking patterns. One can become ‘someone else’, a person that no longer acts from their own innate value systems, and loses their own moral compass. What this all means in recovery is that if you want to heal from addiction, you will need to let go, get rid of the addict, or the ‘someone else’ you have created a character and persona for. Making a few changes and expecting recovery won’t be enough. It requires a total overhaul of self and ego where the one person living within you is defected by character and stubborn enough never to change.

Getting rid of the addict side of the self will require grieving the loss of not only the substances and the loss of the beloved bottle, but also the seemingly carefree lifestyle. Where worries were obliterated in an instant. Where enabling by and from others took place in the form of handouts, charity and pity. All of it will have to be replaced by accountability, responsibility and utter acceptance of what is. Leaving no gap for the ego-addict persona to thrive or survive in. When we enter the grieving process, we will go through at least 5 basic stages of grieving the person, the lifestyle and the daily all encompassing compulsions the addiction came with. Here are the 5 Stages of grieving your addiction.


Denial is a psychological buffer that protects us from knowledge or feelings we’re not yet ready to deal with mentally, emotionally or spiritually.  All of us deny reality we’re not ready to accept.  Perhaps you can remember hearing about someone’s death and immediately saying to yourself, “I don’t believe it!” That’s denial and it can last momentarily or for years, unless we can work through it and say, “Okay, it happened. It’s real.  Now, how do I feel? Now what do I do?”  The trick is to have the reality presented to us in a way that we can see it and admit the loss has happened.  There is also a correlation between the importance of the person, addiction or thing lost and the degree of denial.  In other words, the more we have depended on the thing lost, the stronger our denial. Eveyone comes into recovery swimming in denial. Most of them are oblivious they are even in denial. This seems like madness to the rest of the world. A cunning, baffling and powerful disease it is indeed.

Even denial of powerlessness over alcohol or another chemical is a healthy response – up to a point.  But such denial easily becomes very destructive, as many of us know.  It can lead to even more loss – loss of jobs, families, property.  It can even lead to death, whether it’s from cirrhosis of the liver or a car accident.  So it becomes critical at some point to face reality and stop denying our powerlessness, to take the First Step and admit (but not necessarily accept yet) that we are powerless, even to the 5 Stages of grieving your addiction that you will face in recovery.


Have you ever gotten angry when you’ve lost something and can’t find it? That’s part of grief.  We seem to be powerless over our ability to locate the lost object.  When someone you’ve loved dearly has died, have you ever been angry at that person for dying? Or have you been angry at God for taking the person away? That’s part of the grief we all feel when we lose someone close. It’s a natural, healthy response to a painful loss.

It’s exactly the same with chemical dependency or co-dependency.  It just makes us furious that we can’t control our own or someone else’s behaviour and feelings.  “Just one drink on the way home,” we used to say, and four hours later we’re closing the bar drunk as skunks.  The next morning we’re filled with anger at how powerless we are over our drinking.  And those of us at home, as spouses and children, are furious because no matter what we do, no matter how loving we are, our spouses or parents continue to drink.  We, too, are powerless.

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The problem with anger is that it can become very destructive unless it’s expressed in healthy ways.  It can turn into bitter resentment and lead us right back to drinking or using again in order to escape from those feelings.  Held in, it can come out at family members or on the job, and our behaviour ends up out of control.  It can lead to physical violence toward ourselves or our families.  It can turn into depression (one definition of depression is anger turned inward in the 5 Stages of grieving your addiction), and lead to despair and even suicide.  So with anger too, it becomes vital to admit we are angry and express this natural, healthy response to a loss in ways not destructive to others or ourselves.


This is the response we normally associate with grief, but it’s actually only one part of the whole process.  Tears and sobbing are ways sorrow is expressed.  It’s the natural, healthy way to express the sorrow anyone feels after a loss.  When someone dies, there are rituals to help – funerals, wakes, memorial services. These are safe situations we have developed, times we allow ourselves to be sad.  They help us express the deep feelings we have over the loss.

Many recovering people going through one of the 5 Stages of grieving your addiction talk about their drug of choice as an old friend.  “The bottle was my best friend,” is a statement often heard.  When we lose that friend, we are going to be sad. It’s as simple as that.

Despair comes with sorrow too.  It can be frightening to lose someone or something we’ve come to depend on.  The death of a spouse or something we’ve come to depend on.  The death of a spouse is one example.  The loss of a drug we’ve depended on to keep painful feelings away is another.  We end up despairing for our very lives and give up, wanting to die ourselves.  It’s a very lonely, hopeless feeling.

The problem with sorrow is that, like anger, it can become destructive.  We can easily become trapped and start feeling sorrow for ourselves.  The self-pity, unless we do something about it, often leads right back to drinking or using.  Or it can lead back into a destructive relationship we’ve been trying to let go of.

Sorrow can lead to depression, which can immobilize us and leave us feeling totally helpless.  We don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning. We can’t sleep, or we sleep all day.  Depression can also lead to suicidal thoughts or actions.  If that happens, we need to get professional help immediately.  It’s easy to see how important it is to express the natural sorrow that comes as part of grief over the loss we’ve experienced.  Crying is healthy, a good way to express sorrow.  It’s a form of healing and cleansing.  Tears literally wash away the sadness.

However, crying may be very difficult for some people – especially for American men who are taught from birth that “big boys don’t cry”, that it is a sign of weakness, and men must never show weakness.  But the message here is: It’s okay to cry, even to sob.  Crying is a sign of strength, not weakness, because it signifies the courage to face grievous loss.  It signifies admission and a growing acceptance of powerlessness, and thus humility.  Crying is healthy and wonderful!


Bargaining as one of the 5 Stages of grieving your addiction is a desperate attempt to stay in control, to have things the way we want them.  Trying to control our use is bargaining: “If I have only one or two drinks, it’ll prove I’m in control and therefore not powerless.  If I only use on weekends, it means I’m not powerless.  Then I can drink.”  Or a spouse might say, “Well I talked her out of having another, so I must have some influence over her using.”

Bargaining keeps us from facing reality, and in that way, it’s a form of denial.  Again, up to a point, bargaining is healthy.  It protects us from a reality we’re not yet ready to accept.  It also helps us find out for ourselves whether or not we’re really in control.

But as you might have guessed, bargaining, like all other stages of the grieving process, can also be destructive if we allow it to continue too long.  As one recovering alcoholic found out, we can bargain our way right up to the edge of the grave.  This older man had been in and out of treatment centres for years, and he’d never been successful at getting sober.  In fact, when he went in for treatment the last time, doctors told him he’d die from liver problems if he wasn’t successful this time.  The reason he hadn’t been able to stop drinking became clear during a grief group session in treatment.  Thirty years earlier, the man’s young son had contracted leukemia and was clearly dying from the disease.  The man, a devout Catholic, had made a bargain with God that if God healed his son, he would never ask for anything else from God in his life.

Well, the bargain paid off. Or did it?  The son recovered, and the man, seeing God’s hand at work in his son’s miraculous recovery, kept his part of the bargain too.  For 30 years, religious as he was, he never asked God for anything! Can you imagine how trapped he must have felt? How lonely? Having to do everything by himself, with no help? Think of the 30 years of suffering he went through because of that bargain.

It’s no wonder the man couldn’t even begin to recover from his alcoholism.  If he couldn’t ask God for help, which is what the Third Step is all about, he couldn’t recover.  He’d bargained away any chance he had.  So, bargaining can also be destructive if it goes on too long, because it keeps us from the reality of the loss.  It leaves us with the illusion we’re in control.  It keeps us from that final stage of the grieving process.


This is the final of the 5 Stages of grieving your addiction is grief, the goal of the grieving process.  Having gone through denial, anger, sadness, and bargaining, we come to accept the loss which has occurred.  We accept that we are powerless over alcohol (or another substance or person), that we are not the people we thought we were.  Having grieved, we can accept the loss of our power and go on with the rest of our lives, which is what the Twelve Steps are all about.  Having grieved and accepted our powerlessness, we find serenity and peace.  We have come to terms with reality.

One more thing needs to be said before we leave the grieving process.  There is a distinction made here between admission of powerlessness and acceptance of powerlessness.  They are two very different things, for it is relatively easy to admit something is so (almost anyone can say those words), but it’s quite another to accept it. Acceptance can take as much time as grieving, and the time needed for both differs with  everyone.

For more information on the 5 Stages of grieving your addiction contact Pathways Addiction Treatment Centre about or drug and alcohol recovery programs. Call 0824424779 or email info@pathwaysplettrehab.co.za