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Treating Depression While in Addiction Recovery

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Recovery from addiction is said to be simple, but not easy. I have no doubt that for many people this holds true. But for some, like myself, there is more than one illness of the mind to fight. Going through recovery with a dual diagnosis adds an extra layer to addiction recovery and can make the simple things much more complicated. A dual diagnosis (also known as co-occurring disorders) is given to someone who has both substance use and mental health disorders. I was first diagnosed with depression when I was 14 years old. That was a year after I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. At 16, I was checked into a hospital, which would be the start of my treatment and recovery journey. For years, I was stuck in the revolving door many people who struggle with a dual diagnosis find themselves in. It wasn’t until I took an approach that was tailored to me and my specific struggles that I began to find success.

The 12 Steps: Great for Recovery

For some working the 12 Steps of AA and related programs is enough to live clean and sober. Others go on spiritual retreats or see a therapist and find that works for them. For myself, I had to approach recovery in a very thorough and holistic way. Working with a therapist, the 12 Steps, and finding medication that was suited for me has been a turning point for me in finding lasting sobriety.

The 12 Steps are one of the best ways to go about managing a drug or alcohol problem. It’s a program that has been around for many years and has had success in helping millions of people find long-term sobriety. I had my first experience with AA when I was 16. Even at that early age, I was exhibiting most of the classic warning signs of alcohol addiction. But as a teenager with an ego strong enough to match my addiction, I was not yet ready to listen to the message. Over the course of the next several years, I found myself in numerous detox centers, rehabs, and sober living houses. Whenever I encountered people in AA I noticed they seemed happy. Though I wanted to be happy too, I was stubborn and refused to fully accept I had a problem. I thought I was too young to be a drug addict or an alcoholic and that I was just depressed. Far from seeing them as the problem, drinking and using seemed to be the only solution to alleviating my depression.

I convinced myself that once I could improve my mental health, I would be able to use drugs without negative consequences. A few years went by before I finally gave the 12 Steps an honest chance. I admitted I was powerless over my addiction and needed help from a power greater than myself to overcome it. Though I found some initial success I was only able to piece together a few months of sobriety at a time before I would relapse. There was another component I needed to address in order to stay sober that people in AA didn’t seem to have a specific plan for. Suffering from clinical depression made the daily reprieve from drugs and alcohol harder. I lacked motivation to get out of bed. I lost faith in my higher power. There were days when life felt completely unbearable for no apparent reason. It came to my attention that I would need to look outside AA for help.

Going Beyond the Steps to Treat My Depression

When I was first diagnosed with depression I felt different from my peers. I was a very social teen and put a lot of stock into what people thought of me. If a therapist would have told me I struggled with anxiety I wouldn’t have believed it. I seemed to thrive in social environments at that time and my understanding of anxiety was limited to the social aspect. I had many sleepless nights because I couldn’t shut off my mind and was in constant fear of being alone. I didn’t realize that was anxiety. I was prescribed Lexapro and the very thought of taking it ramped up my depression because it made me feel different from my friends. I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was prescribed medication because of the stigma surrounding mental health disorders. That belief stuck with me through my years of treatment. Some people would tell me I could do the 12 Steps or cognitive behavioral therapy and I wouldn’t need medication. It seemed everyone had an opinion on how I should manage my recovery. Working with a therapist and psychiatrist one-on-one I have been able to identify a treatment plan that works for me. Through trial and error with numerous antidepressants and antianxiety medications such as Lexapro, Prozac, Wellbutrin, I found the proper medications and dosage to help me manage my mental illness. Taking my medication every day as prescribed is one of the most important factors in my recovery.

Committing To Therapy

The stigma around therapy was another thing I wrestled with when I was younger. At the same time I was getting diagnosed with depression and anxiety I began working with a number of therapists. I didn’t like the thought of needing therapy and was resistant to someone telling me that I was different from my peers. It was an internal struggle similar to feeling different for taking antidepressants. Though I felt a bit insecure about it, the help I’ve received from working one-on-one with a therapist has been incredible.

A holistic approach to therapy that incorporates things from cognitive behavioral therapy to mediation has been absolutely vital to my recovery. Meditation was and still is very difficult for me. I’m sure anyone with anxiety knows the feeling of trying to sit with a still mind and body. It seems impossible to be able to sit in complete silence. Thankfully I had it explained to me that the goal of meditation is not to be able to have zero thoughts. The goal of meditation is to acknowledge your thoughts and let them come and go. An interesting way of thinking about it that a sponsor of mine shared with me is to imagine your thoughts are balloons. Something you can hold onto or choose to let go of and watch them float away. That kind of visual practice helped me a lot in my journey with meditation. Many of the treatment centers I went to have their clients spend time in group therapy sessions. Group therapy can be very helpful for someone like me whose mind can trick him into feeling he is all alone in his struggles. Being able to speak on topics like early recovery, codependency, triggers and coping skills with other people that were going through the same things as I was reassured me that I was not alone.

Mental illness and addiction made me feel alone and hopeless. My way out has proven to be a combination of continued participation in 12 Step groups, one-on-one work with my therapist and regular visits with my psychiatrist for medication management.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Author Bio: Jack Agatston lives in Atlanta, GA. He has a passion for recovery and is dedicated to sharing his message of hope with others through his writing.

Photo by Jeremy Cooper on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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