Addiction and Depression: part 1


Self-Medication and Its Consequences With Depression

It is not unusual for people with addictions to alcohol and drugs to discover in recovery that they had been trying to medicate themselves for depression. Putting it another way, one of the most prevalent motives for getting high is to banish a deep depression. And since alcohol and drugs have proven to be effective mood changers, they do provide some temporary relief for someone suffering from a depressive disorder.

Chemically induced relief, however, comes with its own complications. It makes the user dependent upon the drug, not to mention all the negative consequences that result from addiction, such as financial, legal, social, and spiritual problems. Many, if not most, people who enter treatment for chemical dependency will need to find an appropriate and sober way to cope with depression.

The temptation, of course, is to revert to the “quick fix,” that is, a chemical solution. After all, depression is deeply rooted and hard to confront. Fortunately, there are effective methods that do not employ drugs. The only drawback is that they take time to have a significant effect.

Here we will present a few of these methods that can be applied by people in recovery. If we want to sustain our sobriety, we need to address the mood disorders that may underlie our addictions. For this we need both insight and tools. And when we have learned how to cope with depression, then we will be able to resume our growth toward happiness.

What Is Depression?

In general, depression is a state of persistent sadness. It is often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness, which makes it so difficult to resolve. It is not easy to confront depression alone. For this reason, the support of a good therapist will provide a big help in implementing effective coping skills.

Some other symptoms or indicators of depression are a low self-esteem, hopelessness, apathy or low energy level, excessive guilt, anxiety, insomnia, and weak appetite.

Types of Depression


This kind of depression occurs after a traumatic event, such as being the victim of bullying or spousal abuse, or a major loss, such as the death of a parent or the loss of a job. It is a natural reaction, a phase in the process of accepting what has happened. Usually it dissipates by itself as the impact of the event or the loss is absorbed. If it doesn’t become resolved, then therapy may be helpful and worthwhile.


Some depressions are attributed to a chemical imbalance in the brain, especially when there is no external situation that may have caused them. The most common treatment is medicinal, that is, the use of anti-depressants such as Paxil, which are designed to alleviate depression by adjusting the level of neurotransmitters in the brain. For many people these medicines are quite effective. Supervision by a psychiatrist is required to make adjustments in the medication and its dosage.


People who take drugs, such as alcohol or benzodiazapines (e.g., Valium, Xanax, and Librium), may find themselves feeling depressed either because these types of drugs are downers, that is, they decrease anxiety, or because they can’t break their dependency upon them. They may feel defeated and hopeless. They may require detoxification. After they have abstained from their drug of choice for a while, then they may learn how to reprogram their way of thinking to overcome their depression. In other words, they can benefit from some cognitive behavioral therapy.


Some people suffer from extreme mood-swings, that is, they alternate between deep depression and ecstatic euphoria. This condition resembles the highs and lows of drug addictions, but it is not the same thing, since it can occur even when drugs are not ingested. Due to this similarity, however, people with drug addictions may be diagnosed as bi-polar. For this reason it would be better to wait a while for the drug dependent person to attain significant sobriety so that any underlying mental disorder becomes obvious and apparent. The depression associated with bi-polar disorder is usually treated with mood-stabilizing medications. Cognitive therapy may be helpful as well.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 next week!

Richard G. Hartnett, MA, MS, LCADC is a former Jesuit priest who now lives with his wife, Kathy, in Northwestern New Jersey. He has served as the chaplain at Hazelden New York, pastoral counselor at the Chemical Dependency Department of the International Center for the Disabled in NYC, and continuing care counselor at the outpatient Chemical Dependency Program of High Focus Centers in New Jersey. Currently he maintains a private practice in New Jersey. He is the author of The Presence at the Center, Renewing Your Fourth Step, The Three Inner Voices: Uncovering the Spiritual Roots of Addiction and Recovery, and Sobriety and Inspiration: Entrusting Ourselves to the Source of Our Healing and Creativity.


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