Everything Looks Like a Nail

I’ve dealt with depression, among other mental health issues, for most of my life. Having been in counseling since the age of seven, I’m fairly sure that my alcoholism and drug use weren’t the root cause of this, though they certainly contributed later in life, and they certainly made things worse.

It seems that a lot of addicts and alcoholics exhibit a predisposition toward mental illness. It isn’t rare to hear a member of the fellowship relating their own experience with depression or anxiety in a meeting, and it certainly isn’t a shocking revelation to many of us that we’ve been abusing substances as a way to escape issues in our own lives we’d prefer not to face, albeit for a short time.

Yet there are many addicts and alcoholics who don’t suffer from these conditions. They don’t claim to be depressed, they seem to handle stress well, and they feel no need to seek medical attention for their darker thoughts and urges. It’s possible they’re just hiding from something they don’t want to know, I suppose, but if you’re already working this program, there isn’t much room for secrets, is there?

They used, compulsively, but not in an attempt to mend or silence some deeper pain. It was a habit, to be sure, and one that caused much destruction in their lives — but less from a sense of unease and more from an inability to regulate intake. I don’t understand them, and I’m not entirely sure we’re of the same species, but they exist all the same.

Their inspiration toward self-destruction may be different than mine, but the treatment isn’t. We work the same steps and we’re given the same daily reprieve as a result. I don’t need to understand this, and I don’t dwell on it. There are people in the world who can use and drink without being addicted, too. The brain’s a strange thing.

But what of we depressed? Perhaps it’s just that the more impulsive among us turn to substance abuse as a solution? Maybe I wasn’t working hard enough to solve my problems, and when the opportunity arose, I opted for the easy way out? Did I launch my escape pod too soon?

Drugs and alcohol didn’t solve my depression issues, but if all else failed, it was nice having a release valve. If they still existed in the morning, well, I’d just keep using more to feel less. Eventually, I’d stop, and the depression would be worse than before. Back to square one, rinse and repeat.

Would I have, in time, learned to control my addictions before they ruined me? I don’t think so.

Though I have it in spades, I don’t think impulsivity was my motivation to lose myself in my addictions, even if the combination of mental illness and substance abuse did inspire some of my more embarrassing episodes (there are much more technical, and more alarming, terms for these, but I’ll leave it at that). I was, and do remain, quite capable of acting a little bit unstable on my own.

It seems — and you’ll notice I often come to the conclusions that have already been well-documented in the literature — that while I am both an alcoholic and addict, and while I’ve certainly got some wires crossed, the two aren’t absolutely and necessarily mutual. Absent the mental illness, I’d probably still have addiction issues. And that’s enough on its own to make me an avid fan and member of the fellowships we host here.

For me, the best (as of yet) solution has been to leave the mental health issues to the mental health specialists and the alcoholism and addiction issues to their corresponding solutions. I’ve learned, over the decades, not to listen too closely to the medical establishment’s opinion of 12 step programs. In kind, I’ve learned that these fellowships aren’t a very good substitute for professionals.

I have to work both of these methods, attack the problem from both sides, if I want to have any success in either.

I work on my mental health with my doctors. I’m now honest with them, and I listen to them. I didn’t always: it’s easy enough to blame those problems on drugs and alcohol, and some doctors will happily accept that, in lieu of having to diagnose and treat you on their own.

Conversely, I work on my alcoholism and addiction in these rooms: I put effort into my programs, I’m an active participant in meetings, I do service work, I take daily inventory, and I work the steps. And while my mental health does influence my recovery to a great extent, I know that AA and NA are no substitute for the proper medical care.

There may be some overlap, of course: there are some medical and psychiatric solutions to addiction, but they aren’t comprehensive in my experience. I can’t expect medical professionals with no personal addiction experience to understand and empathize with my substance abuse. Likewise, I can’t expect the fellowships to solve all of my problems for me, as much as I wish their solutions were so simple.

Some percentage of these issues I have aren’t my fault, but they’re all certainly my responsibility. My depression isn’t cured. It probably won’t ever be cured. Nor will my addictions. But if I put in the effort, do the work, and above all listen to the appropriate experts’ suggestions, I have a daily reprieve, and it’s a sustainable effort. I’m okay with that.

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