The Challenge of Grief

“I pray to feel my feelings,” the veteran AA told me, “knowing that I will not be abandoned by myself or god.” What a prayer! Stopped me in my tracks. Over the years, I’ve passed it on. Reports are that others find it helpful. We all agree that it’s a challenge.

Do we addicts really want to feel our feelings? The experts tell us that all feelings fit into just four categories: happy, sad, angry, scared. You read that right. Fully three-quarters of these categories are painful.

And happy? One of the severn dwarfs, maybe, but not a known hallmark of active addiction. I’m not sure we believe in it.

Ever defiant, I rejected this schema when it was presented to me at rehab. (Sorry, Howland!) I simply would not accept that our feelings so unambiguously incline to the negative. Where’s the good news of sobriety? Why can’t I be promised continuous happiness in recovery? That might get my addict attention.

Because . . . life’s not like that!

For addicts, relief from feeling (especially those majority painful ones) is the pay off. “Dear Substance-of-Choice, Let me put my feelings on hold.” Yes, it’s a Faustian bargain and we lose: substances stop working before we do, we get sober, feelings come back.


Hence, the feelings prayer.

Back in the 1990s, a British tv movie, The Grass Arena told the story of homeless alcoholics. (Wonderful Mark Rylance – television’s Thomas Cromwell – starred as the true-life protagonist.) There’s a harrowing scene depicting their experience of antabuse, clearly intended as a deterrent. Of course, my filmic fellows drank the whiskey (wouldn’t you?), notwithstanding the inevitable violent illness to come. Still active, I nonetheless recognized the futility of this therapeutic strategm. “Addicts know all about pain, any pain” I told anyone who’d listen. “We’ve figured a way to live with it. With drink. Drink is the priority.”

Carl Jung put it more elegantly: “All neurosis [read: addiction] is the avoidance of necessary pain.” To the alcoholics of television drama, drinking poison with unavoidable and dreadful consequences is preferable to the (necessary) pain we suspect awaits us in sobering up.

When first struggling to come to consciousness, I asserted to my therapist that I hadn’t lost anything through addiction. She put me straight, and quick. “You lost your hopes and dreams.” Oh, that.

Then there was the inventory I set myself: listing the funerals I’ve attended over the years to assess whether I thought addiction was implicated in these deaths. It will come as no surprise that over 95% tested positive. Material for a towering grief.

(Best have another drink, my once-upon-a-time strategy.)

I come from a culture where acknowledging grief is discouraged: Don’t be self-indulgent. That’s just self-pity. Don’t think about that now. She wasn’t a member of your family, why do you care? Leave him alone – he’s just crying in his beer.

And that most damaging injunction to “honor thy father and thy mother” (no grief allowed for the compromised childhood of addiction). If all else fails, the three-fold iron rule of our dysfunctional training: don’t talk; don’t feel; don’t trust. Well, that’s it then.

We now know that our feelings don’t go away. Try as we might, repressed feelings will manifest, just not in healthy ways. If our bodies remember our pain, as they do, so too does our subconscious. There are repercussions. What more universal manifestion of unresolved grief than active addiction?

To complicate matters, I believe from experience that addicts know ahead of time that we’re in for an emotional ride if we’re so foolhardy as to get sober. I read Judith Herman’s book on trauma while I was still drinking – just because we’re addicts doesn’t mean we’re stupid. My takewaway? I would have to walk through my pain to recover. I didn’t think so. Jungian integration could be left to stronger souls; the first time around for all that grief was quite enough for me.

And then . . . you guessed it – alcohol abandoned me. I was devastated. Where now to find relief?

“Get in the middle of the group of drunks and stay there,” I was advised. “You may disappear in the crowd, but you won’t get lost.” “Let us love you until you can love yourself,” is – unbelievably! – a trustworthy invitation. I’ve come to believe that community is the genius of recovery, the community that doesn’t fail us.

I don’t evangelize on behalf of 12 Step fellowships. (For one, it’s against the traditions!) But I do champion the efficacy of their core way of doing business – that is, in group. The great psychodramatist, JL Moreno, essentially founded group work as a forum for mutual healing. He built a life’s work on the premise that, in groups, we co-create the therapeutic environment, we heal each other. Thus, the mechanism of 12 Steps meetings: self-selected individuals united in a common healing purpose. A power greater than any one person in the room. Together, we welcome and manage feelings and the challenges they raise.

Scary? Necessary.

As I write, I’m mindful that it’s the 70th birthday of my friend, Irish visual artist Donal O’Sullivan. He didn’t live to see the milestone. Rather, he reached the jumping off point of which Bill Wilson writes. Literally. Unable to live with or without alcohol, he threw himself into the River Liffey more than twenty years ago. There isn’t a day I don’t miss him. I felt (re)orphaned by his loss. Our lives had partly diverged some time previously; my grief is not generally considered legitimate. But I’ve learned that, as a sober woman, the opinion of others is (blessedly!) no longer any of my business.

I acknowledge my grief; I honor my loss. In community.

With the grace of recovery, I accept life on life’s terms, even when I don’t like it. I share my griefs as they arise. I accept that I’m never going to have had a happy childhood. (Apparently, this is a measure of mental health.) I accept that there’s been enough love to bear my losses this far, that there’s always enough love to carry me forward, that there will be new love to delight.

I don’t abandon myself to addiction today. One day at a time.

This blog post was provided by Ruth Riddick, a woman in long-term recovery since 2003, she is the Founding Director of Sobriety Together™ – Peer Education & Recovery Coaching Services.