Why do we turn to vices in times of grief?

Date

Amy Middleton

"My mum's advice of 'trust your responses' took a back seat once she realised my grief involved a daily ritual of booze ...

"My mum's advice of 'trust your responses' took a back seat once she realised my grief involved a daily ritual of booze and chain-smoking." Photo: Tara Romasanta Images

I hardly want to talk about it, it's so strange and horrible, but 2015 was a year of loss and death for me, and a lot of others around me. The deaths were from different circles – family members, acquaintances, old friends, and one really good mate. All were lost (whatever that means) during the arbitrary calendar period that was 2015.

For me, grieving a good mate was one of those firsts in life that really rock you. It shook up my priorities, and sent me into a kind of existential madness where the only thing that mattered was connecting with my closest friends over drinks – many drinks – and talking about her, desperately trying to find her again.

I spoke to a grief and bereavement counsellor regularly, who also happens to be my mum. She told me that in grief you need to 'be with your feelings', which I think is counsellor-speak for 'Don't pretend you're not sad'. She told me to listen to my needs in grief: go with my responses, and try not to judge them.

This was handy advice, because I was completely blindsided. I had expected to be sad, maybe a little confused, but the rest of it came as a huge shock.

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What Happens During Grief should be a compulsory session in Life Preparation 101, as part of the school curriculum. So much weird shit happens during grief. It's different for everybody, of course, but from talking to people, there a few experiences I've found to be quite common.

One is an extraordinary feeling of loneliness or isolation, despite the amount of friends you might have around you. I felt this, in a big way.

Another is the bittersweet symptom of seeing the deceased person everywhere you go. Sometimes you stare and let yourself believe it's them, because for one sweet second they're back in the world and you're almost in their company again.

Another common symptom seems to be a return to vices. Alcohol has always been my vice, and my relationship with it has been complicated for most of my life. I keep a close eye on my intake, and my reasons for consuming, because I need to stay on top of it.

In grief, this relationship really ramped up, and smoking became its trusty sidekick.

Needless to say, this wasn't ideal. My mum's advice of 'trust your responses' took a back seat once she realised my grief involved a daily ritual of booze and chain-smoking.

Apart from the ultra-depressive effects of alcohol and the obvious health risks of drinking and smoking, I'm also asthmatic, and my body is no ox. Each morning, I'd awake to a tightness of breath, a searing throat, and a self-hatred seeping through my chest.

I had nightmares about cancer. It was an odd combination: as I tried to come to grips with mortality, a voice in my head kept warning me I was closer to death with every inhalation.

I knew exercise was the better option. I'd feel healthier, my mind would be clearer, and perhaps the endorphins would relieve my sadness for a moment. I can't attest to whether this works, because I never tried it.

The toxic smoke, the beer and whiskey, and the solitude of my dusty porch in the late afternoon – these made me feel closer to her. More importantly, they gave me a space where I was allowed to feel sad.

In my drinking seat, there was no-one I had to be polite to. If I was joined by anyone, it was a close mate. There was no-one I had to give my energy to, or check-in with. I could just sit and feel.

So I argued when that voice warned me of addiction, sickness, depression and remorse. I tried to hold my head high in my lowest hour. I was indignant in my intoxication.

As I reached out to those who were grieving around me, I saw my behaviour reflected back at me. It wasn't just me, there were others using their vices – alcohol, sex, sleep, solitude, work, food, whatever – to get in touch with sadness, or to distract from it, or to explore the depths of their pain.

It's not a healthy response, but what is? We aren't taught how to grieve. When the story of loss is not straightforward, when the person was too young, or did not die easily, or their passing left behind questions and confusion, we have no narrative to abate the unknowns.

We cope using the methods we know, and the methods western society has taught us, problematic though they might be. And judging ourselves for it seems counterproductive. Every time I got drunk, I could feel her body against mine. I would not deny myself that warmth, in my coldest hour.

I'm lucky to be surrounded by supportive and loving people. I was lucky to have almost daily contact with a grief counsellor who is also a parent. I was given the tools to stay safe, and keep an eye on the risks involved with my path of grief.

Information, solidarity through other people's stories, and lots and lots of talking – these are the tools that helped me stay afloat.

So now it's 2016. Another arbitrary calendar period is upon us. According to Facebook posts this week, some people are relieved. Some are confused. Some are in the thick of their vices. Some have turned to exercise, while some work the muscles of their creative abilities.

I've stopped drinking and smoking. I gave my body the respite it needed, because I finally could. But I did it when I was ready.

On New Years Eve, I stood at a gig in a crowd of drunken punters. I looked to my left and saw a girl's forehead and hair – it was familiar to me, she looked just like my mate who'd passed. My heart hurt.

When the song finished and the crowd cheered, I looked over again. My friend's lookalike was gone. I scanned the crowd, but I couldn't see her anywhere.

I started to cry – standing among friends on New Years Eve, applauding. I cried because things are lost. But I also cried with relief, because the year was over, and because I was starting to let go.

GriefLine, Australia's dedicated grief and loss helpline, offers support to individuals and families between 12pm and 3am. Call 1300 845 745

For drug and alcohol support and information, call DrugInfo on 1300 85 85 84.