This blog is not FDA approved
I’ve been clinically depressed for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory is of being four years old and looking around Disney World, the supposed “Happiest Place On Earth” and wondering why the hell everyone else seemed to be having so much more fun than me. I distinctly remember looking around and thinking that there had to be more to life than this, because this kind of sucked. I think I knew that this wasn’t the way that most people thought, because I spent a great deal of time trying to make sure that no one ever knew how unhappy I was or how different than other people I felt. I know now that lots of alcoholics and addicts have the same kind of feeling– a feeling of being different than everyone else and of not feeling quite right in their skin. Today I call that “irritability and discontentedness.” But then I didn’t have a word for it– I just knew it wasn’t “right.”
I tried a lot of things to make sure that everything looked okay. I paid attention to what made other people happy and I started to act happy when those things happened to me, even though I never really felt happy. In fact, I didn’t even know what “happy” felt like until much later in my life; I only knew what it looked like (a smile and a forced laugh). I made up lies about myself so that other people would like me more because I didn’t think that I was good enough the way I was. I got really good grades and took all Honors and AP classes. I was on the cheerleading team. I accepted an academic scholarship to a very good college. And everything looked wonderful from the outside. But on the inside I felt hollow, empty, and out of place.
It was around this time that I found alcohol. Alcohol gave me everything that I thought that I was missing in my life. I was finally able to feel (what I thought was) true joy. I could talk to people without feeling awkward. I felt funny and I felt pretty and I felt like the person I’d always wanted to be. You see, I was already sick before I ever picked up alcohol, I just didn’t know it. So alcohol, for me, was medicinal. When I had that first sip, it cured what ailed me. The problem was, of course, that I couldn’t stay drunk all the time. When the party was over, I was left with myself again and I discovered that my real problem was sobriety, not drinking.
When I look up the criteria for diagnosing depression in the DSM, I see a picture of what sobriety looked like for me.
Depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities for more than two weeks.
• Mood represents a change from the person’s baseline.
• Impaired function: social, occupational, educational.
• Specific symptoms, at least 5 of these 9, present nearly every day:
1. Depressed mood or irritable most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report
(e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful).
2. Decreased interest or pleasure in most activities, most of each day
3. Significant weight change (5%) or change in appetite
4. Change in sleep: Insomnia or hypersomnia
5. Change in activity: Psychomotor agitation or retardation
6. Fatigue or loss of energy
7. Guilt/worthlessness: Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
8. Concentration: diminished ability to think or concentrate, or more indecisiveness
9. Suicidality: Thoughts of death or suicide, or has suicide plan
When I was left alone with just myself, this is how I felt. I was depressed and sad. I cried a lot. I was super irritable– I hated you (you were stupid and useless and the reason that my life was so fucking hard), I hated me, and I hated the world. I didn’t really like doing anything, unless it involved drinking or sleeping. I slept 20 hours per day and had a very difficult time getting out of bed. I was chronically fatigued. I felt super guilty about everything I’d done while drinking the night before so I would try to put it out of my mind. I wasn’t actively suicidal but I wanted to die and would think about how wonderful it would be if I could go to sleep for a few years and wake up when everything would magically be better. This was my life, day in and day out, for years and years and years. It was exhausting.
I didn’t think that alcohol was the problem, though. I thought alcohol was the only thing holding me together. And so I began to see doctors and psychiatrists in order to see what was wrong with me. The problem with this solution, however, was that I was lying to everyone about how much I was drinking and what kinds of drugs I was using. Blood tests were conducted and I was put on medication for hypothyroidism in order to fix my fatigue. And when I told the psychiatrist what my symptoms were, they thought that antidepressants would be helpful. So I took them. I started taking Lexapro but it gave me really bad headaches and made the fatigue worse, so I was switched to Wellbutrin.
Psychopharmaceuticals did not help my depression, though. Even though I had all of the symptoms of depression, I wasn’t actually depressed. Untreated alcoholism often mimics depression and that’s what was really wrong with me. I wasn’t depressed– I was (and am) an alcoholic. I wasn’t suffering from a mental illness that could be treated with psych meds or even therapy. I was suffering from a spiritual malady characterized by immense psychic pain and extreme self-centeredness. The only thing that made me feel even remotely okay was alcohol and drugs and the misery of sobriety always brought me right back to picking up again. I couldn’t stay sober because sobriety, for me, was characterized by the desire to die. All the pills, doctors, and therapists in the world were not going to be able to help me. I’d tried all kinds of human power to end my suffering– alcohol, drugs, medication, relationships, cross-country moves, therapists, joining book clubs, fucking people to find fulfillment– you name it, I tried it. Nothing worked, at least not for any sustained period of time. My only hope was to find a power greater than human power to fix me.
I was in so much pain by the time I was done trying all of the things I thought might be able to help me that this atheist became willing to believe that there was some sort of spiritual solution that might be able to take away my pain and my powerlessness over alcohol and drugs. I decided that I would give it a shot. And what I learned about myself was that my problem was not alcohol or drugs or chronic depression. My problem was selfishness and self-centeredness. My depression was the result of extreme self-centeredness, of self-will run riot. My depression existed because I couldn’t get out of my own way. I became consumed with my own pain. I let self-pity take over. And the solution, for me (with the help of a higher power), has been to become other-centered.
When I live my life from the perspective that I should be trying to make other people’s day better and be doing things for other people, I forget about my own suffering for a little bit. My own problems don’t seem so bad. They don’t consume me. I don’t ruminate over them or worry about making decisions. I don’t feel sorry for myself. When I focus on being a better person and trying to help others, my own problems tend to work themselves out. When I focus on acceptance of things as they are and see them as part of a larger plan for the universe, I don’t get so caught up on how things ought to be. I had to see some ugly truths about myself to get to the place where I became willing to let go of living my life on my own terms. A lot of that truth involved looking at the fact that I selfishly wanted to the world to live up to arbitrary standards I had set for it. I wanted the world to bend to my views and my wants and my needs. And I ended up bitter, irritable, miserable, self-pitying, and unhappy.
I’m not saying that the solution to everyone’s depression or anxiety is a spiritual one. I know that is not the case. But I know that for me, I don’t want to die today and I don’t want to drink today and I never thought those two things could exist within me at the same time. I no longer take any medications, after being on antidepressants for years. I see a therapist, but it’s for a very specific issue and therapy was not what helped me to come out of my depression. I can feel genuine joy today and I know what happiness feels like. I am comfortable in my own skin. I still have bad days and I still get sad, but I never fall into a pit of despair. I used to say that my soul felt like it was dying. That is no longer the case for me. The solution I’ve found may not work for everyone, but if you’re someone that’s tried lots of medication and therapy and none of them seem to help, maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’re treating the wrong problem– maybe the problem is that you, too, have a spiritual malady and the only thing that will fix it is a spiritual solution.
I was one of those people that found the solution in the one place that I didn’t think I needed to look. And I promised myself that I would give it a shot so that I could prove that spirituality was bullshit. I came to scoff but I’ve remained to pray and to tell you that it’s changed my life. You can always go back to the medications and the doctors and the therapists– they’ll always be there. But who knows, giving this a shot just might change your life. I know it has changed mine. A spiritual solution was the last house on the left for me– the only thing I hadn’t tried. And it turned out to be the only thing I needed.
Britni is an intersectional feminist, activist, queer femme, former pessimist, dopeless hope fiend, and super rad chick. She is a social worker by day and a spiritual gangster by night, as well as Site Director and co-founder of Hollaback! Boston somewhere in between. Her goal every day is to make just one person’s day a little bit better. She believes in second chances, sleeping in, and lots of sequins. You can find her blogging at Fiending for Hope or tweeting her face off at @hopefiending.