Depression is addictive. When I was a teenager, I fell into deep depression. I became suicidal and spent a lot of time wallowing in despair.
“Wallowing in despair” sounds figurative, but for me it was a very literal activity. I would sit in my room with the door closed, either stewing or crying. Angry music resonated with the deep unfairness I sensed in the world. And sorrowful music was cathartic in the midst of the deep pain I felt.
I spent hours with my headphones in. Sometimes I wrote down how I felt. Sometimes I would lie on my bed and punch my pillow over and over. Tears mixed with bated breath as I tried to process everything around me.
This “wallowing in despair” sounds unhealthy. Many adults would likely have recommended alternative ways of dealing with my emotions. But for me, it was actually cathartic and healthy.
I needed time to process all the hurt and pain in my life. I needed time to process the exhausting expectations placed on me. I needed time to process the hurt, the anger, and the deep ache.
It turns out that listening to sad music makes us feel better. Sad music makes us feel understood. If no one else understands how we’re feeling, at least our favorite artist does. And there is something cleansing about being able to engage our anger through music.
So if you’re “wallowing in despair”, it might be more normal than you think. It turns out, that period in my life was instrumental in helping me overcome my depression and anger.
This catharsis was healthy for a while. But then it took a dark turn.
1. Depression becomes your identity
The first reason depression can become addictive is when it becomes your identity. When you begin to define yourself by your depression, it begins to envelope, engulf, and define you.
As I “wallowed in despair”, I began to discover other people who did the same thing. The internet was a source of connection for me. It allowed me to talk to other people who were feeling depressed. I learned that others, too, waded in soul-sucking sadness and a jaded outlook.
Here’s where things went wrong. As this group became my “family”, I began to connect to my depression in a strange, deep way. It became my identity and my source of value.
As human beings, we are always grasping for some sense of identity. Depression is so often concurrent with a loss of identity. When I have least known “who I am”, I’ve been most depressed. So I begin grasping at straws, desperate to find myself again.
Depressed people are often creative, deep people. I gravitate toward “deep” things. I love delving into emotion, reading haunting stories, watching beautiful works of art. And I have begun to associate this “deepness” with my identity.
Remember the opossum brothers, Crash and Eddie, from the (not-so-deep) Ice Age movies? They make a valuable point about happiness. In Ice Age 4, a character asks the brothers, “how are you both so happy?”
Eddie looks at Crash and says, “Can I tell him our secret? We’re very, very stupid.”
As someone who considers himself artistic, creative, and intelligent… I don’t want to be stupid. I don’t want to be shallow. I don’t want to talk about the weather or sports. I want to be real. I want to be deep.
Unfortunately, obsession with being “deep” led to greater and greater depression. I began to identify with the deep sadness. It was part of me. Part of my identity. Part of who I was.
2. Depression becomes a struggle that gives your life a sense of meaning
This sounds paradoxical. But we all want our lives to mean something. We want to be the center of an important story. And our fight against depression can become that story.
We human beings are strange. Modern advertisements and messages sell us happiness. It’s easy to believe that if we are doing everything “right”, we will be happy. As a result, we believe that our bodies and brains are trying to optimize our life for happiness.
The reality is very different. Our bodies and brains optimize for survival. We’re looking for survival and meaning, not happiness. Happiness is only a byproduct of meaning and contentment.
As I fell further into depression, I found that it actually gave an addictive sort of meaning to my life. We all want to be the center of our own stories. And my depression centered around the things that were unjust in my life. The way my parents treated me wasn’t fair. Being a kid who wasn’t taken seriously by adults wasn’t fair. Being rejected by a girl I loved wasn’t fair.
And as I became more and more unhappy, I became more of a victim. And as I became a victim, I painted myself into a story. It was a story where I was the center. I was the one down on his luck. I was the one forgotten.
Not everyone who faces depression is “playing victim”. No; there’s far more going on. Depression is a real illness with effects we often can’t help. But it can become addictive when it begins to become the focus of your story. It’s far harder to let go of your depression when it is the very thing that gives your life the most meaning.
3. Depression becomes your default state
I’ve woken up with the depression sometimes. It is a hollow feeling to wake up to. A deep, sorrowful ache that you can’t quite pinpoint.
Over time, as I became more and more depressed, I discovered that I expected to feel depressed. I would walk into situations anticipating that they would make me more miserable.
I remember reading a Charlie Brown comic in my teens. Charlie Brown says, “I think I’m afraid to be happy because whenever I get too happy, something bad always happens.”
Depression is a visitor you never want to expect. I would liken it to when someone is about to come over, but you don’t know quite when they will arrive. You try to live your life, doing homework, watching a show, or reading a book. But the anticipation is too significant. It’s impossible to do much more than pace, check your phone, and glance at the door over and over.
When depression hit me in wave after wave, I began to feel like this. Even when depression wasn’t there with me, I still anticipated it. It was around the corner, ready to strike. And the anticipation drove me mad.
When depression sinks in, it becomes your default state. And it becomes addictive by being the default. Change is hard, and it’s especially hard when you’re depressed.
Escaping the addiction
Depression isn’t only an addiction. Actually, it’s a well-documented illness. It is not the fault of its sufferers. It wasn’t my fault that I struggled with depression. It’s not my fault that I continue to struggle with it. It’s not your fault if you struggle with it. But while depression is an illness, it also has addictive properties.
My fight against depression was like physical illness. I needed professional help to get better. But there were many things I could do along the way to help out. You may need a doctor and pills to get well if you’re sick. But changing your diet and lifestyle and boosting your immune system can make massive change. Similarly, I’ve learned that treating my depression not only with counseling and medication but with changes in my mindset can cause dramatic change.
Recognizing these three areas where depression sank into my life began to unravel the mystery of why I was so stuck. I began to claw my way back out.
Learn to identify yourself outside of your depression. Learn to find a meaning to your life that isn’t in the pain. And learn to change your default state. It’s worth it.
It’s easier said than done. But it’s the most important thing you will ever do.