Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I was recently asked to provide a source for a comment I made about how intense grief can be eerily similar to heroin withdrawal symptoms. As it turns out, I wrote about this back in November in a post titled A Bad Trip. I figured it wouldn't be too hard to find another good reference in Google, and sure enough, I found another neat resource in the form of one Susan Anderson, author of The Journey from Abandonment to Healing: Turn the End of a Relationship into the Beginning of a New Life.

She has a website called, and she explains a bit more about this physiological phenomenon:

WITHDRAWL - painful Withdrawal from your lost love.
The more time goes on, the more all of the needs your partner was meeting begin to impinge into your every Waking moment. You are in Writhing pain from being torn apart. You yearn, ache, and Wait for them to return. Love-withdrawal is just like Heroin withdrawal — each involves the body's opiate system and the same physical symptoms of intense craving. During Withdrawal, you are feeling the Wrenching pain of love-loss and separation — the Wasting, Weight loss, Wakefulness, Wishful thinking, and Waiting for them to return. You crave a love-fix to put you out of the WITHDRAWAL symptoms.

She also wrote a very good paper on Suffering the Death of a Loved One, and I'd like to quote a few more sections that help to explain these withdrawal symptoms a bit better.

As the Novocain wore off, the acute pain of loss began to break through, and we went into withdrawal. We were in painful withdrawal from our partner, just as if we were in withdrawal from Heroin (and it involves the body’s own opiates). We began craving and yearning for a love-fix we could not possibly get.

Week by week, our emotional needs – the ones that had been met by our partners – began to mount. We grew to miss them more and more. We missed having someone in the background, someone who cared, someone to care about, someone to come home to, someone to bring us that cup of coffee, someone who would know if we fell in the shower, someone to serve as a focus for our lives. As these deprivations reached critical mass, the intense grieving could become nearly unbearable.


We found ourselves weeping – a kind of crying specific to early bereavement, characterized by sighing and flowing tears, different from our usual crying . Our emotional brains were automatically scanning our memory banks (searching for the lost object) – an involuntary function of the brain which is part and parcel of our stress response to crisis – flooding us with scenes from all the way to the beginning of the relationship. Our coupled histories passing before our eyes in a blur of tears. We remembered them as they we (and as we were) when we first met them, the initial romance. These memories (along with the intense yearning and pining) caused us to fall in love with our partners all over again and want them more than ever before. We became walking memorials to them...

As my group mates and I cycled through the tugging, craving, helpless feelings of withdrawal, we helped each other realize that we weren’t alone feeling this pain. We served as reality checks for one another – maybe we weren’t going crazy after all – our emotional excesses were an ordinary part of grief. We could see each other surviving through the worst of it and felt reassured that we too would make it through.

We cycled through withdrawal during all different timeframes. For some, this phase of active grieving was delayed for a long time. Several members remained in the numbing fog indefinitely. "I know I need to cry, but I feel detached and remote, like I’m not really here. Other people’s tears don’t seem real to me, but I know they mean something."

Waves of grief:

Grief proved to have a mind of its own – its own rhythm. It came in waves which washed over us and sometimes swallowed us whole, leaving us beached and dazed, sending us back into the numbing fog to start the cycle over again.

Any sudden realization of the loss – as if realizing it on a new level – could send us right back into shock, and then the acute pain of missing the person would break through the Novocain, and we would resume a new wave of active grieving. We might wake up in the middle of the night startled anew by the reality that our loved one was gone, and cycle from shock to withdrawal in a matter of minutes. In fact this is another cornerstone of grief: the sudden re-realization of the reality of the death...

Wakeful and worn out:

The physiological symptoms of withdrawal included continual wakefulness, anxious wrenching in our guts (even while some of our appetites (unfortunately) began to return ). We felt overwhelmed, on edge, and entirely exhausted. Beneath the surface, the emotional brain continued working overtime “searching for it's 'other half' and learning to recognize the loss. Our cortical brains were also busy on the conscious level trying to come to grips with this reality.

On the positive side, the acute grief of withdrawal motivated us to dig deeper, reach all the way down to our untapped resources. We panned for our grittiest reserves and came up with survival skills and hidden strengths that amazed us.

The entire paper is well worth reading if you have the time.

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