Being diagnosed with a terminal illness is the beginning of a long, complicated roller coaster of emotions. For recovering addicts, coping with the initial diagnosis can be an especially tumultuous time; being faced with such intense news can cause even those with years of sobriety under their belt to feel tempted to use.
If you are in recovery and were recently diagnosed with cancer or another terminal disease, this guide is meant to help you navigate your way through your feelings without resorting to old habits. It will go over the many different reactions you may have now or in the future, the ways in which your addiction may play a role in coping to your new way of life, and healthy ways to move forward. Whether you’re a sobriety veteran or have only recently entered recovery, there are ways for you to stay on track — but knowing what lies ahead can help you prepare.
It’s crucial to keep in mind that — short of not falling back into addictive habits — there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to feel about your diagnosis. You’ll likely feel many different emotions, especially as time goes on. You might feel angry in the morning but hopeful in the afternoon, or be so overwhelmed that it takes you several days to even comprehend what your doctor told you. Take the time that you need, and let others know how they can support you during this time. You may decide you need some time to yourself, and that’s OK too.
Common reactions to this kind of diagnosis include:
We’ll explore those emotions that tie most directly to recovering addicts and discuss the impact each may have on your journey.
For some people, words like “cancer” have an especially tough time registering. They may deny the implications of their diagnosis or even that they have a condition at all. Although denial is typically seen as a negative reaction, it can actually be an important tool to help a person cope with news of this magnitude.
Denial gives a person the one thing we all need when we’re overwhelmed: time. By taking a few extra days, the mind is able to unconsciously absorb the information without overloading. There are dozens of pieces to process — the disease itself, symptoms, treatment, insurance coverage, and the impact on your family are just a few — and for some people, it helps to take a step back until you’re ready to confront them. This can be especially important when it comes to a diagnosis that may be tied to your addiction or past substance abuse. In addition to everything else, recovering addicts might have to confront consequences of their substance abuse finally catching up with them, leaving behind a family in financial distress, or the painful treatment ahead for which they can’t receive prescription painkillers.
Some in recovery may even fall into patterns of denial because they feel frustrated. After months or years of hard work to remain sober and get their lives back on track, they may feel “cheated” out of a healthy life and thus refuse to accept the reality of their diagnosis. Even if their diagnosis has nothing to do with their past, some recovering addicts may simply refuse to believe the card they’ve been dealt.
Give yourself about a week if you’re having trouble accepting your diagnosis. Let others know that you’ll bring it up if you want to talk about it, but that otherwise you need time to sit with it. Take some time to reflect as you feel ready, but don’t spend every waking hour dwelling on it. Find opportunities to do things you enjoy — like reading a good book or going on a hike — and let your mind relax. Often after the unconscious mind grapples with the idea, a person will have a firmer grasp of the situation.
Most people end up finding a way past their denial with time, but don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you’re still struggling. Similarly, if your loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and denial is holding them back, enlist the guidance of a trained counselor. The doctor who gave the diagnosis should be able to refer a specialist who may even continue to see you or your loved one throughout the treatment process.
It’s completely natural to feel afraid in the face of a life-threatening disease, especially in the beginning stages as you’re still learning about your specific case. For some it’s the fear of what they know is coming, like uncomfortable symptoms or physically-demanding treatment. For others it’s fear of the unknown: how long they’ll be able to fight against their illness, what effects it could have on their well-being, or how their family will make ends meet with major medical bills to pay.
Again, recovering addicts may have additional fears on their mind. Terminal illness often means lost opportunities: perhaps you’re afraid that you won’t have time to make up for past mistakes, or that your child won’t have the chance to really get to know you as a sober parent. You might even be afraid that your diagnosis is some kind of penance for your substance abuse and fear it will ultimately get the better of you.
One of the best tools to fight fear is knowledge — so study up! Find out all there is to know about your disease, from treatment to prognosis, and ask your doctor for any clarifications. Are there any holistic steps you can take in the meantime? Exercises that would be beneficial? You can even check out online communities to see what others in your position have experienced. Educating yourself on exactly what kinds of things to expect doesn’t just clear up the unknown, it can help put the things you already knew in perspective. For instance, in your research you might discover that instead of the treatment you read about several years ago, new advances in technology have now made that process obsolete.
For a recovering addict, there are seemingly endless reasons to be angry about a terminal illness diagnosis. A person who overcame a decade of substance abuse may become angry they won’t get to make up for lost time with family and friends. A recovering alcoholic may feel bitter that the physical consequences of their past are catching up to them. Some recovering addicts may even decide their diagnosis is some kind of punishment for their substance abuse, even if the two are unrelated.
There’s also a special kind of anger that recovering addicts may stumble upon unexpectedly when faced with a terminal diagnosis: extreme resentment over the inability to use. Just because a person has been sober for many years doesn’t mean the cravings ever completely go away, and it’s even further amplified under stressful conditions. Someone who has just recently entered recovery may be especially angry at not being able to use; perhaps the most stressful situation of their life has occurred and the outlet they normally use to feel better is off-limits.
In this kind of extreme situation, it isn’t uncommon for a person to misplace their anger. Some people may blame their doctor or physician, even accusing them of misdiagnosing. Partners, parents, siblings, and other healthy loved ones may feel resentment, as well. For those who are especially torn, they may even feel angry with their higher power.
It’s OK to feel your feelings, but do try to channel your anger in healthy ways. If you need an outlet, reach out to a trusted loved one and ask them to be an ear to listen. You might find it helpful to write in a journal or express yourself through a creative art. Still feeling pumped? Work it off with some exercise like running, swimming, or jogging — you can even take some of your aggression out on a pillow if you think it’ll help!
Your anger can even be a tool if you know how to channel it. Don’t let your frustration get you downtrodden, but instead let it drive you. Use that anger to give you strength for your next doctor’s appointment and to help you power through your first round of treatment. Looking back at all that you’ve already overcome, you just might realize that this diagnosis is nothing you can’t handle.
If you do end up taking your anger out on the wrong person, first, forgive yourself. Keep in mind that your loved one is probably aware of the intense pressure you’re facing and knows that it wasn’t personal. However, do make sure you take the time to reach out and mend fences. If possible, give them some insight into what made you upset in the first place. Unfortunately, many people aren’t sure how to handle this kind of situation and end up saying the wrong thing with the best intentions. If you can help your loved ones understand how you’re feeling and what they can do to help, you can all find the strength to lean on each other throughout the process.
Even if your condition is treatable, you’re likely still facing a major loss to the kind of life you’ve been living to this point. Some recovering addicts may even feel like they’ve lost out twice: first with the disease of addiction and now with their new diagnosis. They might feel regret over the life they’re losing in the future, or the life they could have had in the past.
Because this is such a special kind of heartbreak, it’s incredibly difficult to find people who truly understand. Friends and family may try to reach out and be there for you, but if they’ve never faced this kind of medical crisis then there’s only so much they can say or do. Ask your doctor about local support groups where you’ll be able to meet other patients who will not only grasp your situation, but can offer you valuable insight into what comes next. You might even want to consider starting a group specifically for addicts facing terminal illness if there isn’t one already.
Keep in close touch with your sponsor following your diagnosis and make sure they stay in the loop. Although they might not understand what you’re going through with your condition, they’ll still be able to keep you grounded with your sobriety. Now, more than ever, it is vital that you stay on-track with your recovery; you may even want to increase the number of meetings you attend weekly.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you must be kind to yourself. Kicking yourself over the past won’t change your present diagnosis, and in many instances one has nothing to do with the other. And even if your doctor can draw a direct line from your substance abuse to your condition, there are many addicts who won’t face the same challenge. Terminal illnesses can afflict people from any walk of life — saints and sinners, alike.
Perhaps the best step you can take for yourself is to look at your diagnosis with hope and ferocity. Hope can come from a quick peek over your shoulder: look at all that you’ve overcome already. How many times did you think you couldn’t make it through a challenge, only to prevail in the end? You’ve conquered one life-threatening disease; now, perhaps, it’s time to tackle the next.
The ferocity to overcome a terminal illness may be most easily drawn from your future. Consider all the people, places, and things you’ll be giving up if you don’t fight back. Maybe you have big dreams for your future, or maybe you just want a simple life with your family now that you’ve found lasting sobriety. Whatever the case, don’t forget what you’re fighting for.
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