Alcoholism & depression – partners in crime

BH Depression & Alcohol June 17 2015I’m cooking a Sunday roast and listening to the sound of my girls shrieking with laughter as they’re playing with the dog. There’s play-growling and thumping and belly laughs. I love it and I am grateful that today, it doesn’t tear my nerves to shreds and make me scream at them to shut up because I just can’t stand it.

Irritability is a big part of the depression which has dominated my recovery from alcoholism. Just recently I feel like I am also in recovery from depression, as well. Are they the same thing?

Depression and alcoholism. What came first? The chicken or the egg? How long is a piece of string? For me they are so intertwined, such intimate bed pals and partners in crime, that I’ve often thought it’s not worth analysing where one starts and the other begins. They are both me and I am them. But they still have to be dealt with or they lead me around like a dog on a short leash, controlling every aspect of my life.

I remember anxiety and depression knocking on my door at an early age, probably about three. My brother passed away from cot death aged 10 weeks, and it rocked the family. Of course, my parents were distraught and as a little girl, I had a feeling it might have been my fault. Guilt – another aspect of anxiety and depression – stuck around from that point and never left. Instead of feeling grateful or even just taking for granted the basic right of being cared for, I would feel intensely unworthy. I didn’t understand it at the time, it’s only retrospectively I can identify the discomfort as guilt.

Undisguised depression made its bold entrance when I was about nine, heading into puberty. It manifested in tears that wouldn’t stop over pretty normal stuff, like conflicts with family and friends and problems at school. I was swamped by my feelings – instead of feeling sadness for a little while, I felt devastated for a long time. I soon learnt that I had to start hiding the pain because others got sick of it. I earned the label of the problem child, which I wore as I grew into adulthood.

Fast forward into the middle of the drink. A hungover day would begin full of remorse for whatever happened the night before with the accompanying self-loathing. (Despite all my best intentions, I did it again. I still thought I had some control over drinking at the time, that I had merely made a choice and it was entirely my fault.) The day rolled on and I made the requisite efforts to be responsible, do the school run, exercise and begin my work day. But I knew I was kidding myself as the cloak of fatigue, aches, pains and nausea wrapped itself around me. I nearly always gave in to duvet therapy, which gave me the escape I craved from the hell of my broken mind and body. I would come to hours later, feeling marginally better and full of resolve to not drink again. Every alcoholic knows how that works out.

Another incarnation of my depression was the variety where I couldn’t get out of bed for a few days. Doing life was impossible. I slept a lot, which was a blessing because when I was awake I was in emotional hell. There was no comfort to be found in anything apart from momentarily in binge-eating junk food, and the oblivion of slumber.

Depression also showed its face in my anger, defensiveness and a general inability to handle mine and other people’s emotions. I was so sensitive and moody I reacted all over the place. My head was crazy, full of dangerous, dark alleys leading to trouble. As I’ve heard often in AA meetings, I have a head that wants to kill me.

For people who are familiar with alcoholism, they might recognise these descriptions of depression as the hallmarks of their disease. It’s fairly hard to tell what is what, especially when alcohol itself is a depressant. I am crazy because I’m an alcoholic or do I just drink because I’m depressed? (The latter question often led me to entertaining the possibility that I might not actually be an alcoholic –  if I treat the depression, I can still drink? Ha. That little experiment failed many times.)

When I put down the sauce for the last time I wondered if the depression would emerge to bask in the glory of having centre stage, without its fellow cast member alcohol. It didn’t let me down. Ever reliable and more virulent than ever, it put on a great performance. I am told this is par for the course and commonly a symptom of PAWS (post-acute withdrawal syndrome), which can last from a couple of months to a couple of years. I was going to have to wait it out until the dust settled, though it seemed like raw deal when I felt worse than when I was drinking.

Off to the shrink I went, who delivered me some home truths after I implored him for answers to the riddle of whether I was left with a big fat case of organic depression after stopping drinking, and preferably, some more pills to make me feel better.

First, he said, whatever label you want to slap on it, you have “emotional disregulation”, which is probably why you started drinking. Alcohol makes it worse, or maybe the mood disorder caused it in the first place. But whatever – it exists. Second, the treatment for emotional disregulation, depression and alcoholism is pretty much the same, with medication playing only a small role, and increasingly for many people, none at all. Getting well comes from cognitive behavioural therapy – “12-step programmes pretty much have that nailed” – good sleep, excellent nutrition, plenty of vigorous exercise and a simple life that is low in stress.

Right, so bloody hard work then. And waiting it out. Just over four months down the track, taking every bit of the shrink’s advice and resisting the urge to put a chemical blanket over the madness, the daily slog has begun to pay off.

My energy levels have returned, my nerves don’t feel like they’re stretched to the moon and back, my head has slowed down from a frenzy to a fast-paced chatter and I am finding I am starting to do life, for the first time in a long time. I still have days where I want to go to bed and where tears are never far away. I still find I am confused about how to handle relationships and emotions. I still feel like a baby learning how to walk. But, even though I know it’s early days, and I know that life will still be life and throw me curve balls and not go my way at times, I actually feel like I can do this thing.

Is it because I put down the sauce? Is it because I am treating my depression? I don’t care because today, whatever I do or don’t have, I know a possess a semblance of peace of mind. I think I might try the same thing tomorrow.


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