It was during the fifth day of my third inpatient treatment, fresh off a four day detox, when my newly appointed counselor looked up from her assessment notes, and asked, “Have you ever been diagnosed with depression?”
We had been sitting in her office for what seemed like days. She asked me questions about everything from my friends and family to my drug of choice to thoughts and feelings. I didn’t really give much thought to the answers until she asked the one about depression. Up until then I had never been screened or diagnosed with anything. I was in a treatment facility for alcohol and drug addiction after all, and not for depression. I had no idea at that time that depression was real and that addiction and depression could be related.
The only time I’d ever seen a psychologist or psychiatrist up until that time was after I wound up in my first detox stay and weekend hold, and that was only to assess whether or not I was a danger to myself. The night I ended up in that detox, I had been out with some friends one evening and, as was the norm, I drank too much. What wasn’t the norm -at least at that time- was that during a blackout I threatened people’s lives (including my own), and I was apparently unhinged enough that my Dad had to hold me face down in the yard, after one of the times I fell, until the policeman in town and the ambulance arrived. I still remember, many years later, Mom crying and Dad apologizing to me as he held me down to protect me from myself. It turns out that a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit agreed neither with my mind nor my body, and it didn’t do much for the people around me, either.
Back to my counselor and the assessment. In hindsight, that question, and her insight and willingness to ask after it had been missed in previous interventions, probably did a lot to save my life. She connected me with a doctor in the area who had a lot of experience with patients with co-occurring disorders, patients with two different issues going on at the same time. In my case they were addiction (substance use disorder) and a suspected depression. The result of our meeting was that I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I learned as we continued to meet that it is something that I had lived with as far back into my childhood as I could remember.
When I was diagnosed with depression, I felt two completely different emotions at once, or within seconds. When the doctor described the diagnosis and some of the symptoms and how they may explain some of the deep, dark things I was going through at that time, I felt an enormous amount of relief. There was a name for it. It was something I didn’t have to (if I so chose) hide anymore. There was help. There was treatment. There was hope. Then, an instant later, a feeling of dread washed in like a wave on a beach, ruining the neat little sand castle of hope that my mind had built on the shore during that few seconds of relief. Dread, of course, due to the realization that now not only would I have to fight a drug and alcohol addiction that was raising hell in every facet of my life, while I seemed almost eager to aid in the destruction any way I could, there was another enemy to fight in depression. However, what I learned over time was that the dread was unnecessary. It wasn’t really a new opponent. It was a new label. I used to describe it with words like “empty” or “dark.” From that point on, it just had a new name.
All this happened many years ago now, around the time of the big antidepressant boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and over the years I was prescribed everything under the sun which was thought to ease depression, rewire the brain or to help balance brain chemicals, with varying success. Back then, antidepressant medications were everywhere and were thought to be real life savers for people with mental health issues, issues that up until that time were often not spoken about, even between family members, close friends or spouses. Depression, anxiety and the like were often seen as weaknesses, and they could be fixed much like addiction, with new routines, added diligence and more will power. There was a long-standing stigma to mental health issues, and sadly, some of that still exists.
That day in treatment was many years ago now, and although it marked a turning point for me in my battle with addiction and depression, I wasn’t able to achieve long-term recovery from alcohol and drugs for some time after this. At that time, I counted it a failure, my not staying clean after that treatment experience. But I’ve learned in the almost 18 years of recovery since that it wasn’t a failure, and I didn’t lose the war. I lost a battle. There is a huge difference.
There is a question often posed in treatment and recovery circles, and for people with co-occurring disorders, about which disorder came first, a chicken or egg thing, I guess. Some people claim their depressive disorder or anxiety disorders are brought on by addiction. Some say trauma makes one or both likely, in either order. In my case it is clear cut. I’ve never wondered about it. Depression, the “empty,” was a tenant in my head long before addiction was, but they seemed to feed off each other once I found alcohol and then drugs. I look back at some of the people who were unfortunate enough to be in my life at that time, and I wonder, among other things, how some of them didn’t lose their sense of reality in what must have been a heavy storm for them, or lash out at me in fear or frustration, which they did not. In the end people in my life at that time had two choices: they could stay and eventually become pulled into the ongoing chaos, or they could save themselves and leave. Sometimes I left because even early on, the alcohol and drug use had become a full time job, which didn’t leave much room for anything else. I was continually trying to kill the depression and fill the empty with chemicals, and I did it until I couldn’t do it anymore, but that’s another story for another time.
“The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.” -Andrew Solomon
Today, I still battle depression and it is all a part of daily recovery. It hasn’t gone away, and I don’t kid myself thinking that it ever will. There are days when I am pretty sure I can take on the world and come out of it okay, while there are still days that are quite the opposite. There are days when I cope well and there are days when I act like a pissed off four year old in the midst of a sugar crash. I’ve seen people tougher than me die from addiction and depression, and I’ve seen people overcome odds that seem impossible.
I have been fortunate enough to have been able to adopt and adapt my mindset as my journey continues, and I learn from a lot of inspiring, motivating people who battle their opponents daily. Even words, terms and my perspectives on things have changed along the way. Words have meaning, and I don’t share the following to upset anyone else on their journey with addiction recovery or mental health recovery. I share it because it is important to me, and it has been important in my recovery from both. Earlier I said I battle depression, and that is what I mean. I used to struggle with addiction. I used to suffer from depression. Today, I battle it, and that simple change in terms and perspective has been invaluable in the way I approach recovery. I don’t suffer from it. I don’t struggle with it. I don’t bow down to it. I don’t use it as a crutch. I battle it, and I prepare, not as a victim or prisoner, but as a warrior.
When I was growing up, my classmates and I had the privilege of playing different sports at a small school for three coaches who would later end up in their respective coaching halls of fame. Each of the three had vastly different coaching styles, huge knowledge bases and experience, and unique ways of communicating their knowledge and developing skill. There was also the belief that we were never out of a game, no matter the score, if there was still time left on the clock. I recall arriving at film studies and chalk talks and being met at the door with scouting reports that were so thorough and film that was so dissected that we knew more about the teams we were going to play than they knew about themselves. Although I have borrowed a lot from their teachings and applied them to my life over the years, the one thing that stands out above all else was their preparation and attention to detail, and they were masters at both.
Perspective and preparation have gone hand in hand in my battle with depression and journey through recovery. As someone who suffered or struggled, I spent a lot of time reacting, playing defense, and waiting for my opponent’s next attack. I was always tired, and it seemed I could never really plan or enjoy anything because I could never really be sure when the next wave would hit, and I didn’t do a good job preparing for it either way. That isn’t to say that thinking about an obstacle differently somehow changes the obstacle. In my experience, it doesn’t. It changes me.
Today I have a scouting report on my opponent and I use it. Today I better understand my skills and abilities as they pertain to battling depression and continuing the journey of recovery. I have family and friends, I have hope and the gift of today. I can share my experience in hopes of helping others, when for years I kept it all hidden. Adopting a kind of warrior mentality and having the mindset that my opponent is beatable has truly made all the difference.