GRIEF PAVES WAY TO FREEDOM
We must face up to our grief in order to move forward and give up our addictions. Father Jack McGinnis illustrates the importance of grieving, starting with his own intense experience of his alcoholic father’s death.
This article was published in Addiction Today in 1994 – it remains 100% relevant.
By the time I was born, my father's and mother's alcoholism was at a critical stage. When I was five years old, they divorced and my mother left our home. That abandonment was the most painful event in my life.
One evening, when I was 10 years old, my father drank late into the night. He went to bed smoking a cigarette. The bed caught fire and he sustained third-degree burns over 90% of his body. He died the next day.
When my father died, I felt totally alone and abandoned. I went to live with my aunt and uncle, loving people who tried to surround me with support. However, in an attempt to cope with the intense grief of the family, they developed strategies that were not at all healthy. We could not openly express our feelings.
Most nights for a year or so, I cried in my pillow, learning to grieve alone. I also learned to cover my anguish with looking good, staying busy and convincing people that I felt okay.
When I was 13 years old, I took my first drink of whisky and discovered what alcohol did for me. I was experiencing deep anxiety, fear, loneliness, shame, guilt, pain and anger. When I drank, I felt different. The pain left temporarily. I felt I had some control over my life. I never drank just a little from then on. I was alcoholic from the first moment and continued to drink heavily.
When I was 18 years old, I entered a seminary. Eight years later I was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and was sent into parish ministry. I became overwhelmed with the demands and stresses, especially the fact that people were coming to me with the pain of their lives and I was not able to respond. In 1964 I attempted suicide with drugs and alcohol.
I just wanted to stop hurting. But I woke up the next day, took a shower and went on about my business as usual.
By 1969 I was drinking, smoking marijuana and taking tranquillisers and sleeping pills, all to short-circuit the intense pain. At times I would drive around Houston at night, drinking, crying for my father who had died 20 years before.
On 14 July 1970, I was driving home drunk. I heard a voice, in my mind, that was clearly not my own voice. The words were: "You don't have to do this any more. It's all over". I went right away to the home of a friend I knew was in recovery. The next day he took me to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and I have been sober since. But it was not all plain sailing…
GRIEF AS A BLOCK TO RECOVERY
GRIEF AS A BLOCK TO RECOVERY
Nine years ago, after 15 years of recovery for alcoholism, I was blocked spiritually, emotionally and physically. I sought help at a treatment centre. There I discovered that unidentified losses and unresolved grief were at the core of my anguish.
I had continued to try all sorts of behaviours to restore the emotional losses of my childhood. These behaviours eventually became my addictions. They could not give me what only healthy grieving would deliver.
As I have learned to grieve, I have experienced extensive freedom from addictive behaviour. Now I believe that identifying losses and completing their grieving needs to be central to my experience of recovery. The unresolved grief in which I was stuck most of my life blocked nearly everything else.
What lessons have I learned from treatment centres? In many, emphasis is placed on identifying our own childhood abuse as the origins of codependency and addictive behaviour. I believe we also need to identify and grieve what we lost as a result of that abuse.
GRIEF RESULTS FROM LOSS – BUT IT ALSO CAUSES LOSS
What have we lost? In workshops I have facilitated, participants have shared losses like these:
– the ability to choose
– love, spontaneity, freedom to feel
– the ability to live 'in the now'
– security, safety, the ability to trust
– self-worth, a sense of a separate self
– the right to be a child, innocence
– a healthy relationship with God
– a life-giving, trusting relationship with people in authority
– a sense of our abilities, creativity
– a sense of past and future
– faith, hope, unconditional love
– a sense of reality
– healthy dependence on other people
– a sense of boundaries
– the ability to make mistakes.
You can see from this – incomplete – list how deep our losses can be. The only process which will effectively deal with such loss is grieving.
Have we lost these qualities of life forever? We have reason to believe that much of what we lost can be restored to us. That is one reason for the recovery journey. I cannot get my parents back as I wish they had been. But I can have my sense of self, my creativity, my spontaneity, my identity restored.
I believe that is what recovery is about: the restoration of my life and my sense of purpose so that I may live in joy. However, I also believe that, as long as my inner space is filled with frozen childhood feelings about my losses, I do not have room for restoration. Thus, grieving frees me up to have much of my life restored.
Click here to share what has become my most helpful, 10-point approach to grieving childhood losses.