Grief is something we talk about when someone dies. The grieving process, where it’s expected—and even accepted—to feel sadness and anger, to be irritable, to have disruptions in sleeping and eating habits, to miss work. But the death of a loved one isn’t the only thing that can bring about grief—any major life disruption that leaves you or a loved one in a different state of being can create a pit of emptiness for the way things were. And maybe grieving the way things were is a healthy way to learn to live with the way things are.
When I was 25 years old, I reached a peak—or a valley I suppose—in my unhealthy life full of alcoholism, self-destruction, disordered eating, emotional deadness, and just plain old despair. I was finally thrust into the throes of professional help, and I had to admit for the first time, to myself, how I ended up in such a dark place. I acknowledged that being sexually abused by a father-figure and emotionally abandoned by my mother left me uncomfortable in my own skin and unsure of my own worth, that having a sexual orientation other than straight confused and scared me, that being raped later in life left me with shame and guilt and PTSD—and the only way I learned how to make sense of any of it was to turn it all inward on myself in a dangerous way. But I couldn’t live like that anymore. It was time to get healthy. Leaving all that darkness behind seemed like it would be a positive step forward—and eventually, it was—but at first, ithurt.
It was like somebody died, and all I could do was think about the role that person played in my life and wonder what I’m supposed to do with myself now that they’re gone—except it was me, I felt that way about myself. What am I supposed to do now that the person who I thought I was is gone? Before The Change (can I refer to my quarter-life crisis like it was menopause?), I’d created this identity of being the life of the party, carefree, do-anything, try-anything, go-anywhere. I was straight. I had a perfect childhood. No problems whatsoever. Other people liked that person, and I guess I did too—except it wasn’t me. I had to let that person go in order to get healthy.
In between letting this illusion-of-a-person go and finding my true authentic self, there was a void like I’d never felt before. I had no identity. One of the hardest parts of this process for me was to acknowledge that I was grieving. Especially when the people around me didn’t understand my anger or sadness.Shouldn’t you be feeling better now that you’re sober and in therapy? What was I supposed to tell people? “I can’t come into work today because I’m grieving the person who I thought I was.” “I can’t come to your wedding because I’m grieving the role alcohol used to play in my life.” There really isn’t a culturally accepted model for the kind of physical and emotional responses that come with a major life or identity change—the kinds of changes many addicts experience in sobriety, many LGBT people experience when coming out, and many people experience after a divorce.
When I really started to heal was when I really started to grieve. For the first time, I grieved the loss of my innocence and idealized childhood, the loss of my sense of safety and control over my body, the loss of the “ideal” person I thought I was, the loss of being able to make all my pain go away with drugs or alcohol, and once I started to form a healthy life and identity, I grieved what I missed out on all those years prior.I went through the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—as most people do at the loss of a loved one, and thinking about my emotional states in terms of this culturally accepted model made me realize it was okay to feel the way I did. I could stop feeling guilty about taking a nap in the middle of the day. I could stop feeling confused about outbursts of anger. I was grieving, and I didn’t have to justify it to anybody else. But it sure would have been nice if someone had understood. So maybe one small thing we can do to support someone going through a major life change is to know that, even though it may be a positive change, grief can come along with it and we all just need to let ourselves feel how we feel sometimes.
Apryl Pooley is a scientist by training, a writer by practice, and an artist by nature who strives to make sense of the world around her and help others do the same. She is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University where she researches the effects of traumatic stress on the brain and is author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir. Apryl lives in Michigan with her beautiful wife and two rambunctious dogs, Lady and Bean. Read more about her at http://www.aprylpooley.com. You can also find Apryl on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.