Lost in Liquid - The Relationship Between Grief and Addiction
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
The cell was cold. It was summer in the Chihuahuan Desert, and yet this tiny cinderblock room in the middle of the Doña Ana County Detention Center was freezing. I kept asking myself “How can anywhere in the desert be this fucking cold?” and the deeper questions I was afraid to ask “What did I do that got me here?” and “What don’t I remember?”
It was the summer of 2002. I had been spiraling out of control for three years. I was caught in a struggle with depression that was only alleviated when I found the energy to be full of rage. That was how it went, depression/rage, rage/depression. I spun out steadily without taking notice of it, looking only to numb what I felt with beer, vodka, tequila, whatever.
That night I had lost control of my car, slammed through a city fence, and come to a stop just short of a power generator. I had been drinking with a friend. I had no business driving, but in my state of mind I didn’t care. I assumed I was only hurting myself. Well, as I walked in circles in that tiny freezing room I kept seeing images of a little boy in my head. I couldn’t place him. I had no idea where he fit into the night. Suddenly, the thought sprung into my mind, “What if I don’t remember the entire night? What if I’m blacking some of it out?” Worse of all “What if I hit that little kid?”
My head and heart spun with the idea that I could have hurt someone so young and innocent. The weight of that thought hit me like an avalanche and I collapsed onto that cold concrete floor and cried.
Writer, shaman, and spiritual activist Martín Prechtel says that when someone is suffering from alcoholism they are “lost in liquid.” According to his Tzutujil Maya tradition, alcoholism happens when a person cannot grieve properly, when they are dying under the weight of their own grief. So they reach for the bottle to drown the grief they are living with. Lost in liquid.
Generations of men in my family were lost in liquid. Like so many others, they were raised in a culture where grieving is not what you do. Instead, tears are masked by anger or stoic silence. The general belief as men is that we have no business grieving because it is considered a sign of weakness. Our tears and our sorrow are chastised from an early age, so we learn to keep it all in. We learn not to be witnessed.
However, grief does not sit still. It does not simply go away because we refuse to acknowledge it. Instead it builds up. Like steam in a kettle it grows and grows and grows. What happens to a kettle if it doesn’t have a safety release valve? It explodes. In attempting to keep our grief hidden we allow it to build to the point where it can destroy us. We need a safety release valve, but society has taught us that a direct expression of grief and sorrow is not allowed. Under the weight of this tension we reach for anything that will allow the emotional release. In this case, many people turn to alcohol. But it’s not just alcohol. Insert the addiction of choice here _______________________.
So the grief pulls us under, and the addiction alleviates the grief for a moment. But it also brings with it more suffering, more sorrow, more grief. As it grows it gets passed onto the next generation. Our inability to grieve makes a monster of it, and our children inherit that monster in one form or another. As it crawls down from generation to generation the grief compounds, with interest. So our children now have to live with our unresolved grief, as well as their own. Their children have to live with three generations of it and so on.
Somewhere along the line, young people are born and raised feeling the weight of all of that compounded grief without knowing where it came from or how it got there. They suffer all types of addictions, anxieties, depression, self-destructiveness and even suicidal ideation without knowing why. We all know people like this. On the outside they seem to have everything, but inside they are falling apart. Constantly caught in the throes of depression or addiction, in and out of institutions, mental and otherwise, their lives are torn apart by some unseen tormentor. These are the bearers of generation upon generation of unresolved grief, of unexpressed sorrow, and the rage that it becomes when it isn’t acknowledged.
Something changed in me in the cell that night. When I left the Doña Ana County Detention Center I was determined to figure out why I had been living my life that way. I was convinced that I needed to break the cycle of rage and depression that I had been living in, and I needed to get to the heart of my alcohol abuse. I started the long road of grieving.
“Grief is not something that happens to you. Grief is something that you do.” So says spiritual activist and grief worker Stephen Jenkinson. Over the last thirteen years this has been my experience. Grief takes work. It takes the intention and courage to go into the places in ourselves that scare us the most, the places that need to be washed clean with our tears. It starts by owning who we are and how we have come to be that way. By looking honestly at ourselves we can heal the broken and wounded parts of us that feed the rage, desperation, and broken-heartedness we carry.
This is not easy. It takes time. It takes the support of someone that understands the process and a community that can be a vessel for the healing that needs to happen. At some point the sorrow starts to shift. I started by learning to approach the broken relationships with all of the men in my family with the intention of healing. Eventually I started seeing the grief that they carried as clearly as I saw their faces. I saw their inability to deal with the sorrows that life gave them. I understood that all of the raging violence and deception in them came from a broken part of them deep inside.
There was no little boy the night of the accident. Still, every now and then I catch a glimpse of him when I am working with someone through the layers of grief that they carry, helping them find their way back from being lost in liquid.
What to do if you are lost in liquid:
Acknowledge Your Wounds - It is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do, but we have to own the fact that our desire for intoxication comes from feeling wounded, incomplete and afraid. The part of the self that becomes addicted is seeking something to hold onto to forestall the pain that the soul carries. Pretending that pain isn't there won't make it go away. So the first step is to stop and face it. Like turning around to clearly see that shadow you've been running from but can't escape.
Find a Supporting Community - Being witnessed and witnessing others is a gift. It is also one of the highest forms of service to humanity. When someone witnesses your grieving the healing that happens is compounded, it includes you and everyone that witnesses you. We are conduits for the healing of others when we allow them to witness our grieving and when we bear witness to theirs. This has to be done in safe and supportive spaces. Treat your grief like a sacred gift, because it is the transformed essence of what you have loved and lost: in yourself, in others, even in the opportunities that have gone and ways that you lived.
Be Patient and Tread Lightly - Grief is a natural process. If you want to know the pace of grieving go find a place in nature, find a boulder or large rock and sit with it. Grief happens on geological, not chronological time. What this means is that there are no quick fixes, no magic pills that will instantly make it go away (the ones that claim to only prolong and amplify the grief when they've worn off). Realize that grieving is the transformation of relationship. It is how you honor who and what you have loved and lived beyond. Which is not to say that all life is sorrow, or depression. Depression is the absence of grieving (more on that later...).
Seek Wise Council - Find the support you need in someone that understands the language of grief. There was a time when people were supported by their communities as professional grievers. These people knew the road of grieving and led the way for those that did not. In our world there are still some that know how this is done, though fewer and farther between. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need help with this.
Realize that Your Are Not Alone - We are all going through this, to some degree. Those that experience grief and addiction more acutely are the ones with the ability to transform ancestral grief the most. In shamanic societies, the vast majority of those we have incarcerated or institutionalized would have been recognized as healers and initiated into the healing ways of the people. They would be the mediators between this world and the world of the ancestors. They would be the alchemists of grief. If you are called by this work realize that it is time to transform yourself and your life for the good of everyone around you. It is sacred work.
*Originally published as Inlak'ech Transpersonal Coaching