Grief, Addiction and Surrender

Posted on April 23rd, 2015

Barb RogersGrief, Addiction and Surrender passed away in early 2011 after what was described by her publisher as a “brief and final illness.” Before her death, the costume designer and author of multiple books on addiction and recovery spent many years of her life becoming intimate with tragedy, grief and loss. She had survived abuse early in life, and had gone on to experience the devastating deaths of her children. Later, she would experience multiple illnesses and the pain of addiction. But Rogers sought recovery, and through her recovery, came to embody the 12th step of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of [the] steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Through her writing, Rogers was a guide and teacher to many. She was humble and real, and felt like a friend.

How Addicts ‘Grieve It Forward’

Of course, she didn’t get there right away. Barb wrote very openly about the long time it took before she found recovery, or could be humble enough to attempt it. She lived with multiple addictions—including alcoholism and sex addiction—as a result of the fear, anger and grief she experienced and held onto for a very long time. When describing the period before her recovery, Barb wrote of how she spent a lot of time “grieving it forward,” which she explained is the opposite of “paying it forward,” where a kindness you pay someone becomes a kindness they pay someone else, and on and on. Grieving it forward, according to Barb, is when our anger and pain blind us, causing us to treat people unkindly or with deliberate cruelty. Imagine a woman, a little wild-eyed and shut off, cutting off other drivers in traffic and flipping the bird, shouting at store clerks … you get the idea. Nothing ever seems to go right for her. That was the before recovery Barb.

She wrote that for a long time she felt split in two; that she experienced herself as both actor and witness. One part of her actively treated people badly and couldn’t seem to stop (and didn’t care), while another part of her observed herself from a distance, uncertain why she behaved the way she did, ashamed. When Barb finally entered recovery and began attending 12-step groups, she learned that her experiences were not unique. Lots of other addicts share the sense of being split into actor and witness, and many of us spent time grieving it forward, even though we felt ashamed and embarrassed by our behavior.

Acknowledging Grief in Order to Release It

Most addicts spend a long time blaming the world—pretty much everyone else—for anything that goes wrong with us. A lot of bad things we couldn’t control may have happened to us, and our pain feels too heavy for us to carry. But instead of acknowledging this, we lash out—not only at the world, but at ourselves, too. As a result of our incredible pain, we compulsively seek substances or behaviors we think can give us just a little bit of release, when of course they never can. Even a second outside our skin is enough, we pretend, and so we get high on booze or drugs or skin. But for one problem: our pain gets bigger as a result, and now we have ourselves to blame and not just the world.

We have to be willing, at some point, to stop living split in two—if we ever truly hope to diminish our pain. And to do that, we have to be willing to acknowledge that what has hurt us is not the traffic, or the store clerk or even the world. Whatever it was that hurt us can’t be undone, but it can be felt—we are capable—and it can be released, even if not right away.

As Barb put it, the solution is simple, but not easy. It helps to know, as she reminded us, that you are never alone unless you want to be. There are too many of us out here going through very much the same thing. “Your job,” she said, “… is to acknowledge your problem, ask for help, and be willing to do whatever it takes to find recovery not only from your addiction, but from fear, anger and grief.”

From shame & pain to resilience & joy.

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