Addiction researchers say the physical pain of withdrawal is relatively moderate and manageable (for more, click on Detox: Physical). But they usually discuss detox on average, while addicts feel it individually. It’s easy to categorize pain as relatively moderate — when it isn’t yours. When it is, it’s indescribably unbearable. Comparing your agony to another’s, though done constantly in rehab, is only useful in passing the time.
Most importantly, the physical pain of withdrawal is only part of the story and the easier part at that. As a serial self-detoxer and the survivor of an 11-day hospital withdrawal from hell, I can attest that the bodily discomfort, even when severe, pales beside the psychological panic an addict confronts while detoxing. When you’re convinced your drug of choice, your medicine, is more important than eating and sleeping and bathing, jobs and friends, and even your closest loved ones, contemplating giving it up forever is beyond disorienting, it’s unfathomable. The trepidation stems from the depth of the identity crisis impending sobriety provokes. Those who have built entire lives around obtaining and using drugs haven’t a clue what life will be like without them and it’s hard to overestimate the terror of that prospect. It isn’t easily quantifiable scientifically, but it’s so daunting, most addicts will do almost anything to avoid it.
This identity crisis causes panic, often taking the form, “How am I gonna live without (fill in drug of choice)?” To detoxing addicts who have failed over and over at quitting, that’s as baffling as anything gets.
Quitting forever feels like the death of your personality. It means undergoing a psychological transformation from believing that alcohol and drugs are the solution to accepting they’re the problem. Believe me, this takes some serious getting used to.
The best analogy I’ve heard for the combination of physical pain and emotional upheaval of detox is this: Imagine being dumped by your one-and-only true love while suffering from a flu that makes you feel so bad you want to die. Take your worst broken heart, add physical pain in every part of your body, and stir in an unhealthy dose of existential panic, and you can begin to comprehend the depth and breadth of the torment, anguish, dislocation, and bewilderment of detox.