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What I Know About Living With Both Depression and Addiction

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It’s still dark outside when I bundle up, hop on my my bike and pedal to work. The sun won’t come up for another hour or so. It’s fall now, so it will be months before I see the light of day on my morning commute again.

I’m OK with that. There’s something comforting about the feeling you’re the only person awake at an ungodly hour. It’s not until you hit the streets and see the commuter traffic that you realize you’re not alone at all. Everyone is trying to get somewhere.

This is how I’d describe depression. You wrap yourself in it like a warm blanket, but you’re not really alone. Others are out there, moving along, trying to shield themselves from the pain that creeps in, doing what they can to stay afloat.

I try not to think about depression as this incurable, chronic thing that can swallow me whole at any given moment. It’s tough, though. I’ve tried everything to escape it, but have yet to find the “answer” I’ve been looking for. I’m sure others can relate.

I can say for sure that masking depression symptoms with alcohol, drugs, food, sex etc. is just a coping mechanism and not a real, permanent solution.

Here’s what I’ve tried in an effort to simply stop being depressed:

  • Antidepressants of every variety
  • Counseling with a variety of professionals
  • Competing in ultra-marathons, half-Ironmans and other endurance events
  • “Hippy dippy” retreats with organic food and shamans
  • Years worth of yoga classes and meditation along the way
  • Volunteering and raising money for various causes
  • A 30-day alcohol and drug rehab facility in an attempt to cut the drinking to find out what was really going on inside of me

Most of these things have added some depth to my life and given me insight into the person I know myself to be today. The point is you can’t “simply stop” being depressed. There’s no clear, correct path to recovery as far as I’m concerned. But people prone to depression with addictive personalities have the potential to create a dangerous combination.

Here’s what I do know about the link between depression and addiction:

  • You can deny it all you want, but alcohol (or drugs) certainly makes things worse.
  • You aren’t weak, flawed, or born with a crappy personality. You can’t snap out of it or will yourself to be a happy rainbow and unicorn person.
  • There will always be people who see addiction not as a disease, but as the conscious choice to habitually abuse drugs and alcohol.
  • I subscribe to the disease model of addiction, which means addiction starts out as a decision to get high and escape, but develops through the continued use of alcohol and drugs. The changes in your brain that result in continued substance abuse are what cause many of the behavioral trademarks of addiction — hopelessness, despair, volatility, obsessiveness, depression etc.
  • Rehab facilities need to do a better job of addressing the root causes of a patient’s depression instead of simply saying one’s problems will go away if they stop abusing alcohol and drugs.
  • Co-occurring disorders like depression and alcoholism need to be treated at the same time in order to achieve a shot at lost-lasting recovery.

It’s like the chicken-and-egg scenario. Did my depression cause substance abuse when I chose to self-medicate? Or did abusing alcohol cause depression by altering my brain chemistry? It doesn’t really matter because they are intertwined.

The genetic and neurological factors that cause depression can also predispose people to addiction. In addition, the effects of being intoxicated can resemble the signs of a depressive disorder. Alcohol is a depressant.

Some days, I feel like I have “high-functioning depression” mixed with “alcoholic tendencies” and other days it feels like “high-functioning alcoholism” with “depressive leanings.” Hell, I don’t know. On other days I want to throw in the towel. But I don’t throw in the towel.

I just get on my bicycle and keep pedaling. For balance, if nothing else.

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Originally published: November 4, 2016
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