My life was good; I was finally feeling happy and healthy. Richard, my partner of four years, and I were navigating the pandemic together and were having as much fun as we could while cooped up in our apartment. We spent our days working from home, barbequing on our patio, perfecting our homemade coffee, playing cards and Scrabble, watching murder docs, talking for hours on end, and going for warm summer walks in the evenings. We were planning our future and enjoying the time we had together like we always did.
Then on July 20th, 2020, Rich didn’t come home when I expected him. I called everyone I could think of, looking for him. I searched our neighborhood on foot and by car, frantically called hospitals, checked accident reports, and whatever else I could think of. When I’d exhausted all options, I sat and waited for news. Six hours after I expected him home, I finally received a call that my love had experienced a medical emergency while out that afternoon and hadn’t survived. I collapsed on the floor, huddled next to our bed, phone in hand. “Are you sure it’s him?” “Yes. I’m so sorry.”
He wasn’t coming home. He was ripped from this world — from me — at just 33 years old because of a heart condition we hadn’t known about.
There’s no escaping the horror of a loved one’s death. It is unbearable — truly, truly excruciating. I searched for strength, and called upon my experiences in early recovery as inspiration.
Right around this time, I was nearing three years of recovery from an opiate addiction that had taken over my life for nearly six years. Rich had helped me through it; he encouraged me to seek counseling, held my hair when I threw up from the withdrawal, warmed me when my body was shivering, and held me up as I hobbled into the methadone clinic that eventually saved my life. He was there through it all. His love for me made me love myself and inspired me to change.
And just like that, he was now gone.
As I tried to wrap my brain around the gravity of what had happened, I began to realize that I would have to pilot this awful journey alone. The one person who could help me through this was gone. My love. My life. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
There’s no escaping the horror of a loved one’s death. It is unbearable — truly, truly excruciating. I searched for strength, and called upon my experiences in early recovery as inspiration. While I’m not in any way saying they’re the same, grief and recovery do share some common ground. Here are seven important lessons I learned about both, and some helpful tips for those dealing with either one.
1. You are forever changed.
People like to think the bereaved will eventually get back to their old selves, the same way we expect those recovering from substance use disorder (SUD) will. Even the word “recovery,” which is defined as, “A restoration or return to any former and better state or condition” implies this. The truth is, the person you were is no longer there to go back to — both grief and SUD change you fundamentally. The old you is long gone. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a new you waiting to be discovered. That sounds cheesy, I know, but it’s true. I have to believe that.
2. Don’t be silenced.
Generally, people seem to prefer when we grievers stay quiet about our pain. Those struggling with substance use disorder are often treated this way, too. We’re expected to “get over” both afflictions on our own, in isolation so as not to disturb anyone else (at least that’s how it can feel). It’s hard to blame friends and family for their awkward missteps, though, because it is exceedingly difficult to witness the pain of others, to feel helpless, and to be reminded of how close we all are to those dark caves. Despite this, we need to start speaking about these things more openly as they’re both about as garden variety as a goddamn tulip. There’s no shame in either struggle and reaching out for support is one of the best things you can do.
3. There are no stages or steps.
Neither grief nor recovery follows a predictable, linear path like many people believe they do. In recovery, it’s the “12 steps”, and in grief, it’s the “5 stages.” Both have long been questioned, and are generally thought of in the scientific world to be rather passé. Although I respectfully acknowledge that the 12 steps have helped many people recover, modern evidence-based approaches to recovery have become much more sought after for treating substance use disorder (SUD) long-term. The “5 stages of grief” were never meant for the bereaved, but for those facing their own death, yet they’ve been pushed on grieving people for decades. Both sets of steps/stages are likely as popular as they are because they promise a quick solution to the obviously unsolvable. Don’t get caught up in these. You grieve/recover in any way you see fit, for any length of time you need.
4. Your body will feel the pain.
I’ve never been sicker than when I quit opiates in 2017. Never. And when Rich died, my body started to shut down in all sorts of ways, too. My period was out of whack, I developed an abscess on my back that required medical attention, I gained weight, my thyroid became under-active, I injured myself easily while attempting to work out, and I suffered headaches, body aches, stomach pains, extreme panic attacks. I couldn’t eat for a while, then all I could do was eat. Even when my mind was somehow “handling the situation,” my body was struggling to catch up. I had to take sleeping pills (still do). Sometimes, medication is necessary. I went on Suboxone for four months to get off opiates, and now I’ll probably take Seroquel to sleep every night for a year or more. There’s no shame in medication to manage physical symptoms. Do whatever you need to do. (Editor’s Note: Medication is at the discretion of the writer and should not be taken as medical advice.)
5. You’ll wonder who the hell you are now.
For a while, you won’t know who you are, what you need, or where you’re going. I finally feel like myself again since I quit drugs, but I’ve struggled a lot with my identity now that Rich is gone and it’s just me here. My whole life was in shambles when he died. I had to move, I couldn’t work, and my everyday life was completely gone. It was incredibly difficult. I don’t know how I managed. I’ve been working on building a new reality for myself, but seven months in, I still have no clue what that will look like. It’s hard to see a clear future for myself when most of my plans had involved Rich. I feel lost and alone most days.
6. You will never be “healed”.
“Time heals all” is the platitude to end all platitudes. But it’s half true. I will never be healed from either my SUD or my grief, but it will get easier. I just passed the three-year recovery mark, and seven months since my love died, and although I’m in no way healed from either — I’ll carry the weight of both with me for life — time has helped me immensely. It has softened the pain. Somehow, it just does.
7. You need to do YOU (no matter what).
Nothing is more personal than both grief and recovery. You do it the way you need to. My recovery doesn’t include abstinence (and yours doesn’t have to either). My grief includes sharing my feelings publicly (and yours can too). Or not. Do whatever you want. Fuck everyone else. Seriously. There is NO ONE WAY TO DO EITHER OF THESE INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT AND PAINFUL THINGS. So, you do you — no matter what.
I miss Rich terribly. He was a good man: kind, gentle, funny, with a huge heart. He was my best friend, my whole life. Despite having no real belief in the afterlife, I know he’ll always be with me, cheering me on, and supporting me through these awful challenges.
Grief, like recovery, is mysterious in a lot of ways; it’s hard to know how you’re getting through it, but somehow you just do — as they say in recovery circles, one day at a time.