Recovery for me is the space between what happens in life and the breathing space to deal with it.
It’s that place of reflection. It’s the difference between response and reaction. It’s the ahhh feeling we were looking for in drugs and alcohol. The thing is, life is tough. We deal with things beyond our control. One of those things is mental illness. But we can take steps to reduce the occurrence of these conditions, and how we cope with them. My recovery strategy has a focus on keeping stress at bay, but also a strategy of acceptance and self-care when either stress or depression hit.
In my experience, there is just as much stigma attached to mental illness as addiction. In many ways, they are intertwined. Addiction is considered a mental illness (amongst other diagnoses). Depression is a mental illness. I just don’t see enough articles about people in recovery dealing with depression.
My recovery is most successful when based upon a connection of empathy: I need to know how you are feeling, I need to know what is going on for you, and most importantly, I need to know that it is not just me. There is such a soothing feeling in hearing those words me too. I believe that the connection experienced in collective empathy is a higher power in itself. It the foundation with which my recovery is built upon.
My Experience of Depression, Stress & Addiction
Depression, stress, and addiction, are topics that I am more than familiar with. I have suffered with a long-standing depression for as long as I can remember. I think that depression precipitated my using and, when I stopped using, it is what I was left with. A terribly chemically unbalanced brain, not to mention a plethora of behavioral issues to address. Stress and depression have plagued me in recovery. They come in bouts, sometimes like a shot of lightening that paralyzes me. Sometimes the stress provokes an episode of depression.
I recall being dreadfully melancholy as a child. Little motivated me to get out of myself. I would spend most of my time in my room and I had little or no lust for life. My teenage years were much the same. In many ways, I think that is why I used drugs. They made me feel better, albeit temporarily. I felt alive when I took them: my confidence soared, my brain became flooded with feel-good chemicals. They gave me that lust for life. They gave me the motivation to leave my room, to seek, to connect, to experience.
I spent my life chasing that rush.
My twenties were punctuated by a desire to chase an ever ascending high. I had an insatiable thirst for more. Naturally, that led to much deeper lows. Crippling depression. I self-medicated with drugs: alcohol, cocaine, sleeping tablets, codeine – anything and everything I could get my hands on.
I once had an episode of clinical depression for which I had professional help. I promised myself that I would do absolutely everything within my power to prevent going through that again. But, addiction takes any plans or desire that you have and laughs at them.
Addiction put me in my place.
The Parallels Between Addiction, Depression and Cancer
Addiction ravages through your life like a cancer. It destroys any semblance of life, part-by-part. Friendships, relationships, work, and financial commitments. It takes your morals and values and compromises them in a way you can’t even comprehend. And just when you have nothing, it metastasizes: it becomes your being; and takes you to the well-known outcomes-either jail, institutions, or death.
Many parallels can be drawn between depression and addiction. Depression numbs your body, mind and soul. It removes any lust for life. It affects your ability to sleep and eat. It affects your relationships. It can lead to death and institutions, unless, similarly to addiction, its arrested.
I am learning that to arrest it, to recover, I need to reach a point of surrender. I have reached that with my addiction, and I am over four years in recovery. Depression, however, is a different beast.
With depression it’s not like a cause and effect. Well, not quite. Sometimes stress precipitates depression. Sometimes stress hits me like a punch in the gut. I feel overwhelmed, pressured and unable to cope.
Coping with Stress & Depression in Recovery
The experience of stress and depression in recovery is tough. On the one hand, you’ve developed coping mechanisms; but this is juxtaposed with either no desire to use them or feeling so overwhelmed that you can’t marshal your thoughts. That’s the thing with stress: it feels like everything comes all at once and it’s too much. It feels way bigger than it really is. To cope with stress, your body has a built-in system: it spots feelings of stress and floods your body with fight or flight hormones. That was great in the days when we were being chased by tigers, or defending our territory, but not so much in the modern age. If experienced for prolonged periods, these hormones can affect your well-being.
Unless I deal with stress, it can lead to depression. And depression can pitch up at my doorstep all of its own accord, with a packed suitcase, ready to move in. The distinction I make between stress and depression is how many of the factors below are affected.
How to Spot Stress & Depression
These are the common symptoms that I experience stress and depression. Ask yourself following questions:
- Sleep: Is your sleep interrupted? Are you having difficulty getting to sleep?
When stressed, I struggle to fall asleep, I wake up several times and wake early, unable to get back to sleep. I feel tired.
- Appetite: Has your appetite changed? Are you craving only certain foods? Or have you lost your appetite? When depressed, I crave bread. When stressed, I want ALL the cake.
- Mood: Are you feeling low? My mood drops when I am overstressed, for short periods. It drops significantly, for a long period when I am depressed.
- Anxiety: How are your anxiety levels? Are you feeling a pounding in your chest? Are your bowels affected? Are you sweaty and agitated? I experience all of these symptoms when stressed.
- Thoughts: Are your thoughts racing? When depressed or stressed, I feel that my thoughts are overwhelming and I struggle to marshal them. I become confused very quickly.
- Motivation: Do you have any get-up and go? Or do you want to lie on the sofa with a duvet? During a depression, I have zero get-up and go. When stressed, I kind of don’t know what to do, when or how. I am overwhelmed and confused. I often find myself standing somewhere and not knowing how I got there or where I am going.
- Energy: How is your level of energy? I feel very tired when stressed, especially when my sleep is interrupted. I have no energy whatsoever when depressed.
Fortunately, stress and depression pass. Through hard-won experience, I’ve found the following techniques effective:
Self-care: Take a bath, put on your PJs, read your favorite book, rest, eat well. Above all, put yourself first. I love to snuggle up on the sofa with a blanket, a book and a cup of hot tea.
Time out: I have to take time away from stressful situations. I need to be in a calm environment.
Doctor: Visit your doctor and check in with them. My doctor helps me come up with a plan and coping strategy.
Exercise: Walk, cycle, run, or take a class. I force myself to work out three times a week to boost my mood.
Yoga: Helps to soothe the nervous system, which is exacerbated by stress. I love kundalini and yin. Both are restorative.
Good nutrition: This is key: you have to look after your body. Certain foods can lift your mood. I eat a plant-based diet, full of a colorful mix of fruits and veg and slow releasing carbohydrates like oats, brown rice and sweet potatoes. I eat a lot of protein (chicken and fish) and eat healthy fats (nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocado).
Rest: Take naps, sleep in, go to bed really early. I love going to bed at 9pm, and turning the light out.
Meditation: I put on a meditation podcast when I get into bed. I find it unwinds me and releases any tension, perfect for sleep.
Recognize your triggers. For me, I have to manage stressful situations and do what I can to put coping strategies in place. You may need to talk to your employer, your sponsor or your family or partner.
Avoid stimulants: I avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and I gave up smoking. They made me agitated and jumpy.
I hope that in writing this, I let you know that stress and depression are commonly experienced in recovery. Too often we feel that if it hurts we’re doing it wrong. Life just isn’t like that, unfortunately. You’ve got to roll with it, but at least these strategies might cushion the blow.