Today, America celebrated Memorial Day. Families all over the nation gathered together to honor both our surviving and fallen veterans. Some of these celebrations were quite joyous, revolving around a loved one who only recently returned from overseas. Others, however, were spent in grim mourning and solemn remembrance. The sheer number of those who have suffered great tragedy at the hands of war is overwhelming. But when faced with great tragedy, people have an amazing tendency to stand together more strongly than ever and lift each other’s burdened spirits with offerings of hope.
Among the men and women who spent the day in mourning are doubtlessly many addicts and alcoholics. Some of them will not go to bed sober tonight. Others may overdose or drive drunk, leaving their families with yet another tragedy to mourn. But many others will continue to remain sober, no matter how many more tragedies life throws at them. Why? Because they realize that even the most tragic day of sobriety is often a relief compared to the most joyous day in active addiction.
For many, this lesson took quite a bit of time. Those who entered recovery through treatment, however, were able to gain a head start. No matter what tragedy may lie in wait for us in sobriety, we have often faced several by the time we enter recovery. In treatment, we learn to face these tragedies and overcome them. We will talk about how this works below. First, however, we would like to discuss the way in which tragedy affects our health—both mental and physical—and how this plays a role in fueling our addictions.
How Tragedy Impacts Our Addictions
Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While these are fundamental parts of the healing process, problems may arise when we become stuck in them. Curiously, we also seem to display aspects of each of these stages while in active addiction. We deny that we have a problem, become angry at those who question our behaviors, and bargain that we may find a way of both controlling and enjoying our substance abuse. When it begins to rule who we are, we sink into depression. It is not until we are ready to become sober that we finally enter the acceptance stage by taking Step One.
Problems can arise when we become particularly mired in one of the first four stages. Denial has its limits. When we try to keep up our denial despite clear evidence of our problem, we enter a state of cognitive dissonance in which we aren’t sure what to believe. Those who become mired in anger may suffer a tragedy of their own making, driving others away through verbal abuse or even violence. Bargaining keeps us in a cycle of self-harm through substance abuse. And depression, when left untreated, can result in the ultimate tragedy when we finally give up hope.
Tragedy can also result in physical health problems as well. A 2014 article by The Atlantic notes that those who have recently suffered a tragedy such as the loss of a spouse or family member can actually become more susceptible to infection and disease. Now, bereavement does not necessarily have this impact on younger individuals. Around the age of 30, however, we begin to experience a decrease of DHEA, the hormone that keeps cortisol from weakening the immune system when we experience distress. The longer we suffer emotionally due to tragedy, the more danger we face of becoming weakened in this fashion.
This is problematic for addicts and alcoholics, as we may encounter unusually high numbers of distressing circumstances. We may become injured or cause injury to another person while driving. We may lose using buddies to overdose. And on top of this, there are those who develop addiction in the military while exposed to potentially traumatizing circumstances. If we come from a family of addiction, we may also lose loved ones or even become abused by them. Pile this on top of every other standard tragedy that life throws at people every day, and suddenly we are burdened with emotional and physical problems that cause us to begin self-medicating. And once we have begun, it can be very difficult to stop.
Learning to Face Tragedy in Treatment
The only solid way to break the cycle of self-medicating is to begin facing each tragedy in our past and learning how it has affected us. We must learn to see the resentments we have built, or the guilt that we have carried, and how we have allowed these feelings to torture us until we felt that self-medicating was the only possible escape from our emotions. Those who have suffered trauma may require specialized therapy such as EMDR. But those whose tragedy takes another form may be able to work through these issues in a mixture of individual and group therapy.
Amethyst offers personalized care so that we may take every patient’s individual circumstances into account. When enrolled in our programs, patients may find that their treatment team might adjust certain exercises they are required to perform in therapy so as to focus more strongly upon the specific issues that have troubled the patient during (or even prior to) their addiction. These issues do not go away the moment we enter recovery, so it is important to begin addressing them early on.
Over time, as patients go through each stage in our full continuum of care, they will find that they become a bit better at learning to accept loss and overcome tragedy, regardless of which specific form their tragedy may take. But this is not due to therapy alone. While in treatment, patients will hopefully be building meaningful relationships with other recovering addicts and alcoholics. We even have special weekend outings such as kayaking and fishing trips that our patients can use to bond with one another.
Having an extensive support network will make it much easier to overcome tragedy while we work on building our inner strength. This is something that everyone, regardless of whether or not they are addicts, should know. Strength requires unity with our fellows in addition to our own internal resolve. And once we have both, we need never relapse over any tragedy, no matter how profound. In fact, if the tragedy in question is the loss of a loved one, we should work harder to stay sober in their honor. It isn’t easy to accept loss…but it’s much harder when we feel we have done wrong by that person.
To Overcome Does Not Mean to Forget
Oncologist Edward T. Creagan of the Mayo Clinic wrote an article about dealing with grief, in which he discusses his own mother’s passing and how he learned to confront the pain of this tragedy. Creagan notes that we must rely on our support network, avoid major decisions, and be sure to continue taking decent physical care of ourselves. But he also notes that, while time will make our tragedy easier to accept, we might never truly cure our pain. Nor should we—when we are feeling pain, it should be acknowledged. We must grieve actively, rather than bottling up our emotions and pretending the tragedy has had no effect on us.
One of our employees was fortunate enough to attend a Memorial Day celebration in Texas. There were dozens of veterans in attendance, and even more people who were either celebrating a loved one’s return or spending the day in remembrance of someone they had lost. Several individuals made toasts around dinner time, and many of these toasts were accompanied by tears. But for every tear of loss that was shed, there were a thousand tears of joy. Not because these people were happy to have lost someone, but because they were proud of who that person was. More than that, they were grateful to have so many friends to lean upon on this day of remembrance.
When tragedy has befallen you, it is okay to acknowledge your pain. But you must also acknowledge the bright side of things. Express gratitude for ever having had whom or what you lost in the first place. Be joyous for the fact that your experiences have made you a stronger person today. This does not necessarily make it easier to lose a person, or to accept other tragedies such as disease, the loss of a limb, the decline of one’s career or the painful admission that addiction is incurable. The pain may resurface from time to time. But when we look upon our lives with gratitude, it will be easier to keep living in the face of whatever tragedy may befall us.
We’d like to leave you with a song, “There Are No Words” by Kitty Donohoe. Found on her CD, Northern Border, this song was written about the tragedy of September 11. In keeping with the theme of Memorial Day, it might easily apply to anyone who has lost someone due to military action. But when you’re listening to this song, do not focus solely on the sense of tragedy that pervades the lyrics. Focus also on the message of unity and hope that we experience when we stand together in the presence of our fellows. No matter what the cause of our trying times, the people who stand by our sides as we face them are the greatest gifts this world has to offer.