Tracey Shipley
Youth, family and addictions counselor/creative therapist

Addiction and the Five Stages of Grief

In my work with youth and their families over the last close to thirty years I have seen my patients and their loved ones struggle with the pain of confronting the reality of their situation.  Most of my clients have been battling with their inner addict since their early teens. What is an inner addict? I look at addiction as a form of schizophrenia. There is the person, the one we know and love, and there is this other side of them that we don’t understand.  Actually we don’t want to understand. They are too far from who our loved one is or used to be. They are selfish, self centered, careless, self righteous, indignant, insensitive, immature and reckless. They can’t hear what anyone has to say about their behaviors and their downward spirals. That actually makes a lot of sense.  If they allow themselves to listen to our concerns and view themselves as we view them they would be confronted with having to make a change.

Giving up one’s life as an addict is very scary. They have to admit that they have a problem, that their lives are unmanageable and virtually insane and that they need to make serious changes in order to live a healthy, happy life.  It means changing virtually everything about them. Their habits, their attitudes, their behaviors, their image; basically everything that defines them.  Their biggest opponent: their inflated ego which in general indicates a seriously deflated self esteem.  This inflated ego often keeps them from admitting that not only do they have a problem but that they need help. Keeping in mind that the addict’s higher power is generally himself and often his drug of choice the concept of needing help is something they seriously battle with.  The thought of admitting that their lives are out of control is often too overwhelming to entertain.  So many remain in this vicious cycle of pain, using, more pain, more using and so on.

When I began my studies in Art Therapy in the 1980’s, around ten years before I began my work in the field of addiction, I was introduced to the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who, back in the late 1960’s  wrote the well acclaimed book “On Death and Dying”. In this unprecedented book she presents the process of grief through her understanding of the five stages mourners go through when a loved one dies.  Unrivalled until today, these stages have helped, dare I say, millions of mourners to prepare for the inevitable.  Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Grief are:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance in this order though the order may be different in certain cases and mourners may relive certain stages over and over again.  Interestingly enough, this process can also relate to the addict’s struggle in fighting their addiction as well as their loved ones’.

The more I learned about the five stages of grief the more I saw how these stages can be used to understand the stages addicts go through should they decide to change their lives and “destroy” their addict.  Stage one: Denial. Admitting they have a problem and that not dealing with it may be a fatal decision. Stage two: Anger.  Anger at us as parents and loved ones, anyone in their lives that they can blame for their current situation and most challenging, anger at themselves. Stage three: Bargaining.  Wanting to believe that they can still have a beer or smoke a joint at a party, only use on weekends, use only with certain “safe” people, etc. which of course has been proven again and again to be a myth for millions of recovering addicts. Well known actor Seymour Phillip Hoffman was sober from drug use for twenty years. Shortly before his death, he was dealing with some painful issues and started drinking. Next was the use of pills and finally death by a heroin overdose. Switching using habits does not prevent addicts from going full on into their addiction. Stage four: Depression. Profound sadness that there is no way to find true happiness and health if they continue to head in the direction they are going.  Lastly Stage five: Acceptance.  This equates to surrender. “ I have an issue, I can’t keep living this way, no one can do this for me, I have to do it myself, I have to accept the consequences of years of avoiding healthy choices, I have to pay that price and take responsibility for my choices and worst of all I HAVE TO GROW UP!!” THIS…. Is a very scary thought for an Addict.

Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief are often experienced by parents and other loved ones as well.  We don’t want to admit that our loved one is an addict, we want to bargain the inevitable believing that it is just phase; they will grow out of it; it’s not really so bad, we become angry at our addict and ourselves for letting this happen, we get depressed at the thought of our loved one having the disease of addiction, and finally having to accept the reality and deal with the consequences.

As we see our loved ones struggle with addiction, addictive and any other negative behaviors our natural inclination is to catch them, pick them up off the floor, cover up for them, take the blame for their choices, enable them, the list goes on….. What we need to keep in mind is that this is not the love they need. They need the love of us telling them that the cliff is approaching and we suggest they stop running toward it. If they don’t, no net that we can spread will catch them.  And if and when they stop running toward the cliff and if they fall we will be there to help them stand up, brush off and start their lives again with all of the love and support we have to offer!

About the Author
Tracey Shipley is a youth and family counselor specializing in addictions and family communication. She was born in the US and moved to Israel in 1984 to continue her studies in Art Therapy. She moved back to the US in 1989 and began working in a drug rehab for teens where she was trained while she worked as a primary counselor. She moved back to Israel in 1996 and continued her work in addictions at the Jerusalem Methadone Clinic for a total of 9 years. She initiated projects for the children of the addicts at the Center, for Ethiopian Teens and a Sober Music Bar for teens and young adults: Sobar Jerusalem.
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