Caleb had a dual diagnosis.He had struggled with depression for nearly as long as he had struggled with alcohol. It was unclear which had been the egg and which the chicken, but at this point it didn’t really matter. Both were playing a huge role in feeding the other. The more depressed he was the more he drank, but the more he drank the more depressed he became. Depression is a common experience for addicts.
The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry notes that one in three adults who struggle with an addiction also struggle with depression; it is the most common element in cases of dual diagnosis. We can understand why when we consider the basic symptoms of depression. Depression is more than just feeling sad, it’s a prolonged experience of negative emotions that interfere with a person’s lifestyle (work, relationships, daily functioning, etc.); it includes:
Feelings of hopelessness
Loss of appetite
Loss of energy
Too much or too little sleep
Loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
Difficulty concentrating on tasks
And possibly suicidal thoughts
This can be a heavy emotional burden to carry. For some it will be a cause to turn to substance abuse.
Substance abuse is often an avenue people take in order to escape from pain, and negative emotions are a very strong experience of pain. Drugs and alcohol become an outlet for people to suppress unwanted negative emotions. Substance abuse serves, in such cases, as a form of self-medicating, a way to “treat” depression. It serves to give a person a temporary sensation of joy or relief. Of course the use of drugs and alcohol doesn’t help alleviate any of the actual issues, and serves instead only to compound a person’s experience of depression.
Alcohol, and many drugs along with it, is a depressant, which serves to “depress” or reduce neurotransmission levels in the brain. A person using depressants, or “downers,” will experience less arousal and stimulation. In many cases a short-term side-effect of depressants is depression. Those who drink, smoke pot, or use various kinds of benzos, tranquilizers, antipsychotics, or barbiturates will find that depression is a common result from their use. If a person experienced depression prior to using then abuse will only further compound their problems. For those who did not experience depression prior to use, they can develop a substance-induced mood disorder.
There are other ways in which drugs and alcohol can cultivate feelings of depression in an addict. For starters, becoming an addict requires immense of amounts of time and energy. The toll on your body becomes particularly exhausting, not to mention the amount of energy it takes to lie and deceive those you love. Addiction is a drain on a person’s life. Secondly, becoming addicted also has major consequences for our lives. Addictions take time away from pleasurable and important tasks, leaving many individuals feeling empty, disappointed, and discouraged. The negative consequences of addiction also impact our relationships, work, home, and more. Dealing with all the wrongs we commit, all the damage we’ve done, all the losses we’ve suffered becomes another means of cultivation depression in the life of an addict. Sometimes, even working towards recovery apart from good care can increase depression. Addicts who attempt to get sober on their own and begin the process of detox and recovery will find their depression gets worse. That’s why it is important to seek quality help and support in the process of fighting an addiction.
The good news, however, is that there is hope for those who struggle with addiction and depression. The goal is not necessarily to figure out which was the cause and which the result. Whether your addiction caused your depression or is a specific response to it, is not the most important issue at hand. The most important issue is to recognize how Jesus is the solution to both.
Biblically speaking, causes of depression arise from two categories: (1) suffering and (2) sin. We experience depression because of the brokenness of our world which causes us pain and sorrow – this category would include things like grief, loss, physiological issues (like hypothyroidism), and sins committed against us. We also experience depression, however, because of choices we make and the desires of our heart. When we make anything other than God most important we commit idolatry and this will inevitably make us depressed. But, whether your depression is caused by suffering or by sin the good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to deal with both.
There are many things that go into fighting both addiction and depression, but that journey must begin with a proper relationship with God. Understand God as our savior, as the redeemer is the most significant step a person can take in their journey to help and hope. It’s important because it orients us towards the true means of help and hope. Romans 8, for example, tells us that God is changing this world. He is one day going to make all that is wrong right. The groaning of creation (v. 19-22), the death in our bodies (v. 10-11), all will be redeemed in Jesus. Likewise, the sin in our hearts will be removed too. God redeems us, restores us, and takes away that which would condemn us (v. 1-3). We have hope of true transformation in Jesus. Suffering and sin are dealt with in Jesus.
Whether substance abuse is the cause of or response to depression it never really helps. In fact, it only makes experiences of depression worse. Jesus is the hope, help, and healing we need. There are many things that go into achieving recovery and battling depression but it begins with recognizing Jesus as our savior. He is the one who redeems us both from the brokenness of our world and sin in our hearts. Depression and addiction are common bed fellows, but Jesus is the hope and help for both.