I believe depression led to my substance use disorder. It was only when I sought help for symptoms of addiction that I realized I had been self-medicating my mental illness for years. When I got sober, I was able to fully understand the interconnected nature of mental illness and addiction. Once I did, I formulated a strategy to fully recover.
Substance Use Disorder Vs. Mental Illness
The parallels between mental illness and addiction are striking. In any given year, nearly one in five (19 percent) U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness, one in 24 (4.1 percent) has a serious mental illness, and one in 12 (8.5 percent) has a substance use disorder. Anyone can suffer from mental illness, and it can occur at any time during a person’s life; symptoms can manifest in childhood, adolescence, adulthood and older age.
At 32, I regularly contemplated my existence, and I was so depressed that I wanted to die. But it wasn’t until I sought help that I realized these signs were masking a long-standing mental illness. And I wasn’t alone; it’s quite common for those who suffer from substance use disorder to self-medicate symptoms of mental illness with drugs and alcohol.
While in the past, mental illness and addiction were treated separately, they are heavily interconnected. For example, continuing to use drugs and alcohol can worsen mental illnesses. Even though I was sober, I became acutely aware of my mental illnesses. As my peers were feeling better, I continued to feel terrible. It was then I knew there were other illnesses at play.
It’s important to note that no program of recovery can treat mental illness. I had to seek outside help. Contrary to some misconceptions, medical illness cannot be treated with a spiritual solution. It’s paramount that people who suffer from mental illness seek treatment from a trained medical professional at the same time as seeking help for their substance use disorder.
Tools for Managing Depression
I have a strategy in order for me to be in mental health. Ironically, that strategy happens to manage my substance use disorder, too! Here are my top tools:
- Exercise: I exercise every day by going to the gym, lifting heavy weights, running, cycling or walking. This helps to release the stress hormone (cortisol), release “feel good” hormones (endorphins) and increase energy.
- Stress-relievers: My stress-relieving outlets include exercise, yoga, breathing exercise and meditation.
- Yoga: I regularly practice restorative yoga, which calms my nervous system.
- Thought Processing: I process my thoughts and feelings by journaling, talking therapy and talking to friends. The benefit of processing my thoughts and feelings, especially with a therapist, is that I become more conscious of my mental state. For example, I am able to note if my mood has dropped, and I can monitor it.
- Support Groups: I found a community of like-minded people by attending a support group (Refuge Recovery). I find that the group provides collective empathy — letting me know I am not the only one feeling this way — and that somehow lightens the load.
- Doctor Visits: I regularly check in with my doctor. Just as I would get a physical examination to look after my physical health, I need to get a mental check-up to keep in mental health.
Having a dual-diagnosis can feel challenging, but with care, it’s entirely manageable.