One of the chapters of my memoir, Beyond Blue, is called “The Least Harmful Addiction.” I explain that willpower is, regrettably, a finite thing. We have a limited amount, so we must preserve it for the most harmful addictions we have (i.e., when desperate, we should inhale chocolate truffles over getting wasted on vodka). In that chapter, I list all my vices in order of most threatening to least threatening: depression, alcoholism, toxic relationships, workaholism, nicotine, sugar, and caffeine.
Someone in Group Beyond Blue, the online support group I moderate, was reading my book and was confused why I would list depression among my addictions. “Is depression really an addiction?” she asked. Her query inspired an interesting conversation in the group.
There were those who believe that people can become addicted to depression much like a kid becomes reliant on his blankie. The negative thought patterns, if left unchallenged, create a kind of trap or a false sense of security. Some believed that a person can get too comfortable with the apathy and emptiness of depression. Then they don’t want to change.
I shouldn’t have included depression as a vice or addiction because I think recovery from it is very different from that of addiction.
One of the reasons I rarely go to 12-step support groups anymore is the clash of getting-well philosophies. When I am experiencing painful symptoms of depression — can’t get rid of the “I wish I were dead” thoughts — the worst thing I can do for myself is judge myself, or shame myself for the thoughts and symptoms.
“If you weren’t such a lazy bum, and were disciplined enough to harness your thoughts in a positive direction, you wouldn’t be in this state,” I think. If I connect with that judgment, I build a virtual cage around myself and invite the next accusation.
It was very much that, “Do something about it now!” or “Gratitude!!!!!” mentality I found in the groups that do work for alcoholism, but can be dangerous for depression. Recovery from booze is all in the action and being accountable for your thoughts. I get it. I have been sober for 25 years. But when I voiced my suicidal thoughts to friends in 12-step groups that don’t understand depression, all I heard was: “Poor me, poor me, pour me a drink.”
In other words, you’re thinking wrong. Or else you wouldn’t want to kill yourself.
Of course I am accountable for some actions in my recovery from depression. I need to exercise. I should eat well. I should lessen stress in any way possible, and try to get adequate sleep. I should watch my thoughts, and, if possible, identify and tease out the distortions. But I could be doing all that and still feeling bad.
I know that lots of people disagree with me on this point, but here it is anyway: At times (not all times!), I don’t think you can do a bloody thing to make your depression go away. I think, like an allergy flareup, you have to call it what it is and be gentle with yourself. During certain depressive episodes, the more I try to force it to go away — with positive thinking, cognitive behavioral therapy, even meditation — the tighter its hold on me. Like the kid who tenses up for his immunization shot, I end up with more pain, a bigger bruise, fighting the big needle.
In that way, depression is not an addiction.
It is an illness.