The disease of addiction can strike anyone. Unfortunately, depression and drug or alcohol addiction often coexist. Sometimes it’s drug or alcohol use that leads to depression, either due to chemical effects or stresses and circumstances created by the drug or alcohol use. Sometimes it’s the opposite – depression leads one to abuse drugs or alcohol in order to relieve and escape the mental pain and torment of depression. For me it was the latter.
The depressive episode that hit me in the fall of 2016 was far more severe than any other periods of depression in my life. It progressively worsened, without easing for even just a day. After just a few weeks, I became desperate for relief; I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I couldn’t take it any longer. I had not yet contemplated suicide – that decision was to come later; I was just looking for any amount of relief, no matter how brief.
I came up with a solution. I remembered that I had a leftover bottle of oxycodone (a prescription opioid for pain that is at the center of the current opioid epidemic, along with other prescription variants and heroin), and my wife had a leftover bottle as well. So I went to the bathroom and took a pill. I went back to my home office and began weeping, even before I felt the effect of the drug. I wept because I knew what I had just done – I had just hopped on the fast train to addiction. I knew that I would not be able to resist taking another the next day, that this was going to be ongoing with no end in sight. Sure enough, that began a daily habit.
At the time my wife didn’t even know about the depression, but I had confided in a few close friends about my depression, my drug use, and my developing thoughts of suicide. They begged me to stop the pills. I vividly remember looking them in the eyes and saying, “I can’t.” I couldn’t bear to live without having the pills to give me relief and keep me going.
My tolerance to medications is fairly low. In the beginning half a pill was enough to give me the high I needed. Of course over the next several weeks I built up a tolerance to where it took about two pills to get the same high. But what this meant was that my generous supply was going to last me a very long time. I told myself (and my friends) that I would just quit when I ran out. They told me that was foolish and I would find more. They were right; I would have found more. Luckily, it didn’t come to that.
By this point I had hit rock bottom. I was dangerously suicidal, and I was scared that I would not be able to control my suicidal impulses. I knew I had to get help, whatever that meant. So I told my wife – who had no idea I was even depressed – that I needed help. That put the wheels in motion for me to get professional treatment. During my first appointment with a psychiatrist I told him about my opioid use (which was still a daily habit). He explained to me what was going to happen: In about two weeks I would have full-blown chemical dependence that might require inpatient detox and treatment. If I didn’t seek treatment, I would have turned to heroin since it’s far easier and cheaper to get. Then I would be dead. Dead. And you know what? I believed him. Right there in his office I decided to quit, and I stuck to it. I didn’t even taper off (as he suggested); my withdrawal symptoms ended up being minor.
I didn’t consider the drug use an addiction, and consequentially I didn’t consider myself an addict. My drug abuse only lasted about thirty days. Recently I was asked if I consider myself an addict; I had shied away from that label because I thought it would minimize others’ more severe struggles. It was as though I didn’t deserve to consider myself an addict while there are people who used for much longer with much greater consequences. But I started considering all the aspects of my drug abuse – the habitual daily use, the lack of desire to stop, and the feelings since I quit, which have included vivid dreams of getting high and periods of strong desires to use any drug, no matter how dangerous, in order to relieve my depression. I was powerlessness to control my drug use. This doesn’t surprise me, as I had always thought of myself as having an addictive personality.
All that begs the question: Do I consider myself to be an addict? To have had a drug addiction? Yes and no. Technically, I didn’t meet the criteria for addiction. I definitely abused the drug and had symptoms of dependence. But it did not rise to the level of having a serious impact on my life, did not yet produce significant consequences, and the habit was relatively easy to kick. In general I don’t consider myself to be an addict and my drug abuse was not an addiction. However, in certain contexts I do consider myself to be an addict. Why? Because I know that I am still just one pill, one hit, one shot away from a daily habit. I might not be so lucky next time. I need to take every precaution every recovering addict needs to take to ensure it doesn’t happen again. This discovery helps me understand what needs to be addressed and how I should seek treatment and support.
Whether you consider yourself an addict, or whether your drug abuse is an addiction, is something you have to discover on your own. Someone could take the same drug I took for the same amount of time and have a very different outcome. It’s not just about how long you use or how much you use. Those are factors to consider, along with others such as whether you are powerless to control your use, whether you develop a chemical tolerance, and the impact on your life the drug use causes. Determining whether you are an addict has nothing to do with the label or how others should perceive you. It’s about accepting your drug use in the proper context so you can find the right path in recovery.