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When Depression and Addiction Intertwine

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I started smoking when I was 15 years old. It was an impressionable time, as I’m sure most of us can remember. It was a time when we were leaving behind the innocence and naivety of childhood and attempting to forge for ourselves a semblance of adulthood (or at least what adulthood appeared to be from the point of view of a teenager).

In my peer group, there was a rush, a distinct barreling, all of us competing with each other to be the most “grown up” or “mature.” Most of us can look back at this time of our lives and laugh. Yet, to completely dismiss it as just some wayward phase is simplistic because the habits we formed in these impressionable years tend to stay with us through our adult lives. That is until we make a conscious decision to change them.

I ended up becoming a smoker. It happened in a blur of alcohol and nervous teenage laughter. Before I knew it, my “habit” had crept up to almost a pack a day by the time I was 18. At 16, I was diagnosed with depression. It was around this time that I made the transition from being a social smoker, only having a couple at parties, to being a smoker in my own right.

At the time, it felt like the cigarettes helped. To this day, I’m not sure whether they actually did, or whether it was entirely a placebo, but that didn’t really matter. All I knew was if I felt upset, then I could just smoke and feel a little better. As time went on, my cigarettes became my “little friend,” a constant companion through the heartaches and the joys of emerging adulthood.

As the last few months of my sixteenth year went by, I went through one of the hardest periods of my life and developed a new addiction. The pain I felt seemed too strong for cigarettes to help with, and I began cutting. It was my last resort, but I was desperate to feeling something other than sadness. I had no regard for my future or for how people would perceive me as an adult with scars running down both forearms. The pain was simply too great for me to slow down.

These two addictions soon came to be intertwined. I eventually managed to overcome my cutting and stopped just before I turned 18, but the smoking continued. In fact, the scars my cutting had left me made it seem almost necessary. When seen alone, I thought I must look a “freak,” a perfectly normal teenager except for the signs on my arms, seemingly screaming to everyone around me, “I’m different!”

When I was smoking, the feeling was still there, but it changed. I felt I was the epitome of the “rebellious teenager,” dark and brooding, misunderstood. I believed smoking gave me a sense of character. When people saw my scars, they wouldn’t see me as a “freak” but rather as someone who was just “different” or “unique.” Instead of helping me deal with my pain, my smoking transformed into a way for me to deal with the consequences of the pain.

The problem is none of this was real. As anyone who has gone through addiction will tell you, whether it be cigarettes or something else, our addiction tricks us into thinking we need it. At first it was for the pain, and later, I “needed” it to deal with the scars. Yet, part of growing up is facing the world as it is, not as you construct it in your head. It took a long time and much reflection to realize this is the way I had built my own prison of addiction. It took even longer to break free.

I was worried that doing so would leave me distraught, unable to deal with the real world. In reality, the opposite is true. Now that I am no longer hiding behind my addictions, I can face the world in a healthier way. I’ve come to terms with my scars and what they mean, and I’ve stopped caring so much about what people think. At times, I even see it as an opportunity to educate others about something that isn’t often discussed due to the stigma surrounding it.

My hope is someone reading this will use my story as motivation for their own journey. Quitting an addiction, no matter what it is, is scary and difficult, especially if the addiction has manifested itself as a faux-necessity in your life. Addictions are complicated things, interacting with so many different parts of life. Some people reading this may not even want to quit and that’s OK!

Yet, despite how hard it can be and despite the feeling that I could never do it, here I am. 1743 days cut free and 85 days smoke free.  And you can do it too.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Originally published: October 13, 2016
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