Monday, December 7, 2020

In Grief: Mixing Drugs with Alcohol

[Reviewed and updated April 29, 2024]

Heavy use of drugs or alcohol can intensify the experience of grief and depression and impair the bereavement process.  ~ J. William Worden

A reader writes: I wonder if I might turn out to become one of those complicated grief people. I have all the risk factors. I'm not usually a drinker or a drug taker -- I've been regularly using alcohol and Serax (oxazepam) since my husband died. The same thing happened after we got his diagnosis a year ago, but when we received some positive news that they might be able to beat the cancer or at least control it - I was able to cut out the oxazepam and reduce drinking to a glass of wine a day. Then he suddenly died - and we were completely unprepared. Even the doctors were surprised.

Now I've been taking up to 25 mg oxazepam a day, plus drinking from the afternoon until nearly bedtime. Yesterday I drank at 10 in the morning, which I have never done before. I feel it's definitely out of control, but if my pain is this bad WITH drugs and alcohol, imagine how it will be without anything to dull the pain. It will be torture.

Right now I feel like I'm drowning and am not sure I'll be able to cope. I have a grief counselor and a psychologist I can call, but otherwise little support. I'm on Lexapro - an antidepressant - which hasn't done a thing for me despite being on it for a year now. I'm terrified I'm not going to be able to take care of my 19-year old, let alone myself. I even forget to feed the dog. Luckily my son remembers. 

For me - it's the guilt at not appreciating my husband more when he was alive. I was burned out from all the stress during his illness - caregiving and working full time. Now I can't work or give care to myself. 

I'm so hurt too at the lack of compassion from my mother and siblings. It's when you face your worst crisis ever that you see how people really are. My sons are troopers but are of course hurting too - and I try to be strong and supportive for them when talking to them, but can't do the same for myself. 

Sorry for rambling here, but I'm just not sure I can manage. I feel like other widows probably were so wonderful with their spouses - sitting at their bedside day and night if they were ill, or being 100% loving spouses up until they were suddenly killed. It wasn't like that for us, and I have severe guilt that just won't go away. It really does feel like drowning.

My response: You say that you're taking two anti-anxiety agents, "drinking from the early afternoon until bedtime," and "feel that it's definitely out of control." That's about as honest as you can be, and I respect and admire you for being so honest with yourself and with me. 

My question is this: Is your grief counselor aware of the extent to which you are mixing these powerful substances? What about the physician who is prescribing them for you? I must tell you that given what you're sharing with me, it is imperative that you let your therapist and your physician know exactly what's going on with you, exactly what you're taking and how often, and how ineffective all of it has been in helping you cope. Clearly this combination is not working for you, and your health care providers need to know it! 

The drugs you are taking can be habit-forming. They can lose their effectiveness over time, as your body develops a tolerance for them. They may intensify the effects of alcohol, and should not be combined with drinking. They both have side effects that aggravate and add to the normal physical reactions we all experience in grief, negatively affecting your appetite and sleep patterns, among other things. It is no wonder to me that you are feeling as awful as you do! So much of it is due to the combination of chemicals you are taking into your system on a daily basis! 

You say you're hurt at the lack of compassion from your mother and siblings, and I'm very sorry that they're not coming through for you ~ but there is nothing you can do about that right now. What matters now ~ what you CAN do something about ~ is the extent to which you show compassion for yourself. Right now the most important person in your universe is YOU, and it is imperative that you begin taking better care of yourself. No one can do this for you, dear one, including me, who DOES feel deep concern and compassion for you. All I can do is urge you toward making better and healthier choices for yourself.

I hear you shouting to me that you are drowning, my friend. I am tossing a life-saver innertube to you, and I am hoping and praying with all my heart that you will grab onto it and save yourself. 

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