The Big Stigma of Being Depressed and Sober
Robin Williams’s death has instigated numerous conversations around sobriety, but the biggest issue for me is the idea that we still don’t know how to talk about crippling depression. I’m specifically talking about the depression that arises after one gets sober – though it was likely lurking below the surface long before that demon arose.
I am also sober, and additionally, I have been diagnosed with clinical depression. Those of us who suffer from this double whammy sometimes refer to ourselves as “double winners.” Struggling with depression in any situation is awful; fighting it after getting clean provides a unique set of challenges.
We “double winners” often need a little extra help (therapy, antidepressants, or some combination of the two) if we are to face life instead of hiding under the covers. While my alcoholism and depression are inextricably linked, I need different treatments for each one. I go to a support group comprised of other recovering alcoholics, have been in therapy, and take antidepressants. While I tell myself that I am not ashamed of either my alcoholism or my depression, my heart clenches as I think about attaching my name to a story about needing doctors and medication just to attempt to function like a normal human being.
The fact remains: it’s cooler or at least more socially acceptable to be a recovering alcoholic than a depressed person. Recovering alcoholics go to meetings. They have a group. There are dozens of celebrities who admit to being in recovery. Depressed people, on the other hand, don’t have anything remotely glamorous or exciting to work with.
Most of the people in my life know and are comfortable with the fact that I am a recovering alcoholic. It’s not exactly something I put on my résumé, but if it comes up, no one references One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Depression is a different story. When this gets published, my friends and coworkers will be surprised that I have struggled with it (though it’s tempting to say, “Right, I was just hiding in the closet with a bottle of vodka because I was so happy”). The fact remains: it’s cooler or at least more socially acceptable to be a recovering alcoholic than a depressed person. Recovering alcoholics go to meetings. They have a group. There are dozens of celebrities who admit to being in recovery. Our society glamorizes alcohol, and I have seen recovering alcoholics spin that to their benefit. “Nah, I don’t that anymore, man. Too much partying back in the day.” If you aren’t glamorous now, you can at least pretend like you were at one point. Too glamorous, maybe.
Depressed people, on the other hand, don’t have anything remotely glamorous or exciting to work with. They are often seen as big, whiny babies wallowing in a pool of self-pity. Their stories are far less interesting than those of recovering alcoholics. “You wanna hear about those three months I hid in bed and hated myself?” If someone has gotten over their depression, you don’t want to hear about what it was like. You just want them to be happy and move on.
Depression in sobriety comes as a shock to many because we were promised that our life would get better when we got sober. And in many cases, it does. You stop causing gargantuan piles of wreckage everywhere you go, for example – which is, on the whole, a good thing. But you also begin to believe that all your problems were just caused by drinking, and now things are going to be, if not a walk in the park, a walk down a pleasantly landscaped street. When that landscape turns into a series of crappy unmowed lawns and stubborn weeds, you realize that you have the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old (or whatever age it was you began to use drugs or alcohol) to cope with life.
When I got sober, the little voice in my brain telling me I was worthless didn’t go away. He just stopped slurring his words so I could understand him better.
Sobriety also took away the numbing agent that I, as not just an addict but also a depressive, so desperately relied on. Whether alcoholism leads to depression or the other way around is a moot point. When you end up in the loony bin, it doesn’t really matter whether you took the highway or the scenic route to get there. What I do know is that for a long time, alcohol was my solution to feeling so much despair. Even when it didn’t work as an antidepressant (largely because it is, in fact, a depressant), it was a satisfactory anesthesia for my dark, wallowing mind.
When I got sober, the little voice in my brain telling me I was worthless didn’t go away. He just stopped slurring his words so I could understand him better. Once I could hear him loud and clear, I knew I needed to deal with him. I definitely didn’t get clean so I could listen to that asshole yap at me all day long. Both my support group and outside help have allowed me to turn down the volume of that voice. Both are necessary to my recovery, which is to say that both are necessary to my life.
Every person is different, and whatever helps someone get and stay sober is fabulous. If you get clean without the help of a support group, more power to you. If you kick the coke habit by taking up Irish dancing, get down with your Lord of the Dance-ing self. As a clinically depressed person, I have virtually no hope of staying sober if I am not on antidepressants and absolutely no chance of staying clean if I’m not getting some kind of outside help. Don’t blame me, guys. It’s just my brain.
Often, people who don’t understand depression will look at someone who suffers from it and roll their eyes. From that vantage point, people who are depressed are weaker and more self-indulgent than the rest of us. No person wants those labels. So we pretend not to exist. We pretend everything is fine.
There’s a stigma around depression, though, even in my support group, where people think that taking antidepressants is somehow altering my mind (and therefore my sobriety). But it’s certainly not limited to that community. Often, people who don’t understand depression will look at someone who suffers from it and roll their eyes. “Everyone has problems – hell, my problems are worse than that guy’s. How come he can’t muster the energy to get out of bed when I haven’t missed a day of work since my cat died?” From that vantage point, people who are depressed are weaker and more self-indulgent than the rest of us. No person wants those labels, and no depressed person wants confirmation of some of the worst things they think about themselves. So we pretend not to exist. We pretend everything is fine.
But we depressed people do exist. We exist when we are in the throes of our illness and when we are outside of it. It may not be cool or socially acceptable, but we need to know that we are not alone. So here I am, in all my recovering alcoholicness, all my recovering depressed-person glory.
It’s time to talk about depression. It’s time to stop blushing with embarrassment when we say we’re on antidepressants, like we’re apologizing for something. It’s time to talk about sobriety as real life with real pleasures and real challenges and not a fantasy world that keeps us safe from ourselves. I don’t know of any quick and easy solutions to get rid of the stigmas around depression. But I know it’s an illness that manifests itself as a chronic sense of loneliness and mental isolation. The only thing I can think to do is say, “I know how it feels. I’ve been there too. Let’s talk about it.”