Antidepressants in recovery from Alcoholism or Addiction

Antidepressants in recovery from Alcoholism or Addiction

 

I thought I would write a bit about antidepressants, from my point of view. I am certainly no doctor and feel that depression is something that can be best treated by the medical professionals and certainly not left to lay people, in recovery groups with no training, who often have old-fashioned ideas, and who can cause problems for people who are depressed. I was actually put off using antidepressants and later felt guilt about using them, thanks to the unhelpful attitude of some people in AA, who were ignorant, and saw the use of antidepressants as something that meant you were not sober. One of these people was my old sponsor who sponsored many people from newcomers groups and has probably given out poor advice to a lot of AA members, who could have been helped by taking appropriate medication. He told me to pray and read the out of date “Big Book”. Because of this unqualified person who at the time I looked up to, I questioned my doctor’s advice and started to view antidepressants as a problem. Thankfully I got some proper help and was able to move on from the old-fashioned 12 step world. I am sure that quite a few people relapse, because they are not coping with life and could have been given some appropriate help that would have prevented them going back to blotting out life with drink. this is very sad.

AntidepressentsMany people drank to cover up, or blot out problems. They sometimes call this self medication, which is a term I certainly do not like. I am no doctor or psychologist, and these views are my own, but I doubt that any doctor would go around prescribing vodka as a solution to problems, instead of antidepressants. I feel giving alcohol abuse, the status of self medication, is something it does not deserve. It was the cause of many of my problems and not the solution. It displaces a problem by blotting it out for the period of time you are drunk, but certainly does not help you solve any problems.

There is a tendency for some addicts or alcoholics, to view antidepressants as just another drug, that is similar to the stuff they have bought on the street. They may view them as happy pills (my old, out of touch, AA sponsor had this type of view), and feel that they are not sober because they are taking a form of medication that helps them to deal with life. They may also have a strong desire to be completely medication free, and see using medication as a bit of a failing in recovery from addiction. I was a bit like this for a while but have changed my views. I am now glad I had access to antidepressants and was grateful for something to help me function while I began to deal with my problems.

 

The situation is not helped by some old timers in 12 step groups, who view any form of medication that helps change the way you feel, as not real sobriety. Although AA literature is not anti medication, many in AA groups are, especially by those who are firm believers in faith-based methods such as prayer and the intervention of higher powers. Sadly, this can end up with members of 12 step groups that are desperate to impress their peers, suffering when they could have been helped through a difficult time, by talking to a doctor and getting some suitable medication. Similar issues can happen in other recovery communities, especially with people who are desperate to stay totally alcohol free and who have made great changes to their life. They feel that, they should be able to cope with anything after a few months and that they should not need antidepressants. They seem to feel that taking an antidepressant is removing control from them, or some kind of emotional crutch that they should not need. These are often not helpful ideas, for somebody with underlying emotional issues, or somebody that has brought depression on by having an active addiction. If you think that everything will be plain sailing in recovery, after putting the bottle down, doing a few steps, or reading some self-help books, then you may be in for a bad shock at some point. Many people will have to deal with some form of depression in the first few years of recovery, despite making many positive changes to their lifestyle. I did feel a bit angry, or cheated when this happened to me, but I realised that it was not uncommon and did something about it.

 

The bottom line is that depression kills people through suicide, or ruins lives every day, far more often that it should, because it is treatable in most cases. Antidepressants are not the whole answer to dealing with depression in an alcoholic. You need to learn how to live an alcohol free lifestyle, for a while at least, and change things in your life. Some people will need therapy as well. Antidepressants will not give you the instant change of feeling that you would have experienced, from something such as ecstasy. They hopefully work over a period of time and enable us to function and hopefully get well. They do not cure us like an antibiotic. With depression you have to be patient and give the solutions you are using time.

 

People have a tendency to stop taking antidepressants before they have had time to work properly, which is usually a few weeks, or after they believe they are well again, when in fact this is not the case and the antidepressants have been doing their job. It can be very dangerous to stop them in an uncontrolled way, without consulting a doctor, and I heard about several people in AA having bad experiences as a result of doing this. Sometimes  stopping quickly can send somebody back to deep depression. Some can make you feel a bit lethargic which is something to talk to a doctor about, but they are nothing like the old-fashioned “knockout” pills such as Valium which can be addictive. A lot of the ideas that medication is bad, comes from the old-fashioned solutions that were used in the past, which did involve using drugs that stopped you from functioning and were addictive.

 

I had to try a few different types and be patient, when I was having problems. My prescription was changed over time, in my first couple of years of stopping drinking. I had a period where I stopped taking them when things were ok, but then a few problems, such as my anonymity being broken by AA gossips and a few other issues meant that I needed a bit more help. After giving them some time to work and other means of support, I have not needed to use them again, as they did their job and gave me some stability. The same is not the same for my partner who has been alcohol free for eleven years which is a bit longer than me. She still takes them, and finds them helpful. Her prescription has also been varied over time and she keeps in regular contact with her doctor so everything is monitored properly. They still help her, and she has other difficulties these days that are not alcohol related, that have understandably caused her emotional problems.

 

Quite a few people do need to take them long-term, especially if they have suffered badly in the past. I certainly do not view this as a negative thing at all. If they help somebody, then they are doing their job. That is much better than being the type of person who is permanently depressed, because they are too proud to ask for help, or view an antidepressant as a breach of sobriety.

 

The greatest danger from antidepressants is not taking them when you need them, and not bothering to tell your doctor when they are not really working, so that the situation can be properly addressed. They do not cloud our judgement, it is depression that does that. Being depressed in recovery is really bad because it stops you seeing any progress that you are making. It is hard to see the point of recovery when you feel down. I am not sure I would have got through the bad times without some help if I had just tried to do things my way. Taking control in recovery, is not always about doing everything by ourselves, but learning that we sometimes need to ask for help, to keep us going.

 

There is of course a downside to taking them, which I should mention in the interests of being balanced. There can be side effects that are not welcome, but these should be discussed with a doctor that you trust and not just ignored. They can affect the ability to feel and express emotion. However these problems can be overcome if you are honest with your doctor and are not as bad as facing depression head on. Anyone who has been part of any recovery group will have seen people who have relapsed and caused themselves real damage because they have become overwhelmed by depression and not done anything about it. You have to weigh up the side effects against the potential risks at times. Antidepressants are not going to take you to another place like heroin, they are there to help you cope and rebuild your life. Although the side effects can be frustrating, the risks to people who have a background of addiction along side depression, can be even worse without them.

 

I can understand that people who have tried hard to change things and done things like going to meetings, are pretty annoyed when they do not feel great. That happened to me! I had a good period at the start of my recovery, when the fact that I was finally doing something made a big difference, but then I had to deal with the mess I had made and also my feelings and things went downhill for a while. Working step 4 and 5 did not help and added to my depression, but after getting some proper help, some medication and moving from AA, which was not something that was suitable for me long term, I made good progress. My doctor had suggested things like exercise and yoga many times to me, but I had not tried them, as I did not feel that it would help when I was depressed. When I did eventually start these activities and meditation they made a huge difference to me. It was a struggle to motivate myself to do these activities at first, but they are all things that have become regular parts of my life now, that I would really miss if I could not do them. Regular running has become really important to me now, which surprises people who have known me a long time, including my Father!

 

Recovery or recovering, is about striking a balance and changing approach, as time goes by, when circumstances change. In my case, time has been a great healer and I have got used to living an alcohol free lifestyle. Things are going well at the moment, but I cannot predict my future. I have had to deal with some pretty serious situations and have got through them. Everyone has to deal with stress in life and sometimes it can be overwhelming. The fact that I have managed to prove to myself that it is possible to recover from depression in the past, makes me feel positive about the future. I will not see it as a weakness, if I do become depressed in the future, because I will do my best to beat it and I know the quicker I ask for help, the quicker I will get better. If I need antidepressants again at some point I will use them. I do not view antidepressants as a problem, in the way that some do. I do view the evangelical approach, of anti medication, 12 step “Big Book” thumpers and the new age self-help cure everything brigade as a problem at times, especially to those who are vulnerable and who are not going to be helped by faith-based “solutions”, and that may actually go downhill as a result. The sad truth is that some people never beat depression, and some people will commit suicide if their situation is unmanaged and they do not have a suitable support method. However, modern solutions do make life more bearable for many who continue to suffer, and that is a great thing.

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  1. Binki (sobernoodles) August 9, 2014 at 5:00 pm · · Reply

    Hi LL52, thanks for this post, I identify with much of what you say. I have blogged recently about coming off antidepressants, having taken them (this time) for a year. They helped me enormously and in particular in dealing with the effects of stopping drinking. I have taken them for periods throughout my life where ‘things’ got too much and I have learned to spot the signs in myself of depression/anxiety gathering speed – when I spot the signs, I know it is time to go to the doctor. Thankfully at the moment I am well, but know that if I spot the signs at some future point, the ads are there to use. Depression and anxiety affect us in different ways. By talking about this issue and encouraging others to do so, you and others who write about it online are doing a sterling job to make mental wellbeing less of a taboo issue.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments. You have inspired many with your openness and bravery by writing your book and being so supportive on the soberistas site as well as blogging.

    I wrote this after bumping into somebody I knew from AA, who is a very loud member of one of the large rather cultish groups that are in my area, that are not liked by more rational AA members. I was going for a run and he was off to a meeting. It brought a lot of bad feeling back for me, as somebody I knew from that group was sectioned into a mental hospital after coming off medication on the advice of sponsor at this particular meeting. Thankfully he is better now, but others are not so lucky. Whilst I accept that a number of people who try recovery are not going to do well, I think many more could be helped if they had some appropriate treatment, and there is help out there if you look for it. However there are a lot of ideas about addiction and depression that are so out of date. You are a great example of somebody who is willing to try different methods and modify your approach when needed.

    Depression can hit anyone, and it often leads to substance abuse problems, especially in todays economic climate. I can see the strain on people who expect to loose their job when I am working and I am sure a few are really suffering. Unfortunately they probably won’t ask for help. I did not do this for a long time and paid a high price. It takes a lot of courage to sit down with a doctor and talk about it.

  3. My brother, a devoted AA member, has voiced his concern about me taking antidepressants. He has never taken them, yet he thinks they give you a high and believes they can totally change your character. I know what high feels like and it’s not the same and they have greatly improved my struggles with depression. I had the same issue with pain pills during the short period I was in AA. During that period I had two surgeries and both times I took the hydrocodone the doctors gave me. Alcohol is the only drug I’ve ever abused and even though some were convinced I would now get hooked on hydrocodone, they were wrong. I took it as prescribed and only as long as I needed it. I was in a women’s AA meeting one day and I made the terrible mistake of mentioning I was doing better because of the pain med I was given. One fanatic went off on me in front of everyone, told me I needed to go home and throw the pills down the toilet, and then re-establish. When I told her no way because I needed them, she pointed out that she had her wisdom teeth pulled with no pain meds and if she could go through that I should be able to do the same with the surgeries I had. At that point I reminded her that I was not her and to back off. I found this not only very judgmental and pushy of this lady, but also dangerous advice. I have actually been told by doctors that I have a high pain tolerance level and am an easy patient to work with as a result. My doctors don’t give me pain meds unless they know I will need them. What she doesn’t know is I have high blood pressure and whenever I am sick or hurting the medicine I take to control my pressure sometimes is not enough to do the trick and my blood pressure has been known to go pretty high when I’m in either situation. My doctors also know how important it is to control my blood pressure because I am at high risk of a heart attack because of various factors. I won’t deny that the hydrocodone gives me somewhat of high, but I know not to abuse it and only take as intended and for as long as needed. Some members in AA need to stop trying to take on the role of doctor, if they only knew the harm they may be causing. Sometimes believing addiction to be a disease and that you are powerless cannot not only hurt you, but others as well if they take your advice.

  4. I feel that the whole way medication is dealt with by some people in recovery is really dangerous. you make many points which I witnessed myself. Today i heard the really sad news about the passing of Robin Williams. it looks like depression played a key part in his death and that is so sad, but is a reminder that it is such a serious condition that really needs to be dealt with by people who know what they are doing and not laypeople.

  5. I just lost a couple of comments when I restored the site – this one was from a lady called Lily.

    My own experience with antidepressants has been problematic. I’ve been sober for 28 years, was on Prozac for 12 years. I finally tapered off 12 months ago with a difficult withdrawal. The antidepressants numbed me to my emotions and left me dull and flat. Practicing mindfulness for three years helped me slowly taper off and return to myself. Emotional recovery is primary for me now. My childhood was abusive and I used alcohol, drugs, food and eating-disordered behavior to disassociate from the pain buried underneath. I’m clearer, calmer and more present now and able to process the pain and grief I carried for so long.

    AA and other 12 step groups didn’t help me, so I left. As I’ve journaled and processed my emotions, my addictive behaviors normalized. I now do not use substances or behaviors to escape my painful reality. And now I have experiences of joy, clarity and some inner peace. Not 24/7, just a human experience of the ups and downs of life.

    I encourage others now to trust themselves and pay attention to what they need to recover. Stanton Peele’s book, Recover, is one of the best I’ve found. I’m not nor never have been any label: alcoholic, bulimic, or depressive.

    Mindfulness and self-compassion practices have saved my life, and I’m coming to terms with how much time I lost spinning my wheels in 12 step or psychiatric models of recovery.

  6. Brian Jones March 10, 2015 at 5:44 am · · Reply

    You’re right! Dealing with depression is very hard and somehow horrible. But I never thought that recovery can cause depression. I can’t imagine how you deal with depression in your recovery. It is true that feeling down may affect your recovery and push you to just give up. Nevertheless, I can feel that you have a strong personality and a positive attitude that lead you to attain success in recovery and live the normal life that you once had. There are times that even if an alcoholic already attended alcohol addiction recovery place still they were not able to overcome the depression because of having a hard time in living an alcohol free life. Looking forward for your progress as an alcohol free person!

    • I think a lot of people have ups and downs in recovery, and the severity varies from person to person and can certainly cause people to relapse. I would always recommend people seek some proper medical help if they suffer from depression and get it sorted as fast as possible, rather than sitting around waiting for it to go. Alcoholics have a high rate of suicide especially if they drink to avoid dealing with issues in life and these problems can continue after putting the bottle down. Some people in recovery seem to be against any form of medication once they get “sober” and this is not just the view of culty AA groups but also some of the new age type of recovery people.

      • I agree, People must seek a medical support that can help them to maintain their sobriety. There are many alcohol abuse treatment center that utilize aftercare services or support groups that will assist addicts to obtain their recovery goals. If you want to have a successful recovery you must help yourself also to overcome addiction do not rely on other people but, instead act more and make your best effort. Successful recovery requires a lot of hard work and perseverance to be able to achieve it.

  7. I’ve been on antidepressants for years….after trying desperately for years before that to figure out why I was so miserable, and fixing it myself. It wasn’t until I went on antidepressants that I had any sense of calm or normalcy. That said, I did begin to use alcohol in an abusive way. Eventually, I went to AA, and dove in, embracing it wholeheartedly. It helped for awhile. Then the tide of clinical depression began to roll over me. I prayed, went to meetings, took my antidepressants, but began to sink deeper and deeper, until I felt that drinking again would be my only relief. I brought it up at a meeting, and the response I got was, to me, a big slap in the face. “Everybody’s depressed. Just get over it. It’s an outside issue anyway”…..from an old timer….and no one else offered anything but agreement to his words. At that point, I was in no condition to argue, and I felt that such attitudes were more destructive than helpful. If you are in AA, and wish to continue, make sure to surround yourself with people who are enlightened about the benefit of antidepressants, and supportive of your efforts to remain sober, even as you teeter on the abyss of a major depressive episode.

    • Thanks for your reply, I do think that antidepressants can really help with depression that is so common in recovering alcoholics. Some in AA do play doctor and have complete faith in things such as higher powers and this is crazy. It is not helping people to tell them not to take anti depressants. Always trust a trained doctor over some lay person in an AA meeting. This type of attitude can also be found in other groups as well, including those that are stressing a healthy lifestyle using New Age methods. They can also seem to think that taking an antidepressant is wrong. People are often self medicating to avoid issues when they abuse alcohol, so it is not a surprise that depression kicks in hard after a while. Good luck in the future and your advice about keeping away from the idiots in AA who are not enlightened about antidepressants is good!

  8. Hello Michael,
    Thanks so much for your honest and informative article.
    My mum is struggling with alcholism at the moment and like you, has a huge fear of antidepressants as she just views them under the fearful label as ‘drugs’ and doesn’t want to replace one addiction with another. I just read through your article with her and it has alleviated some of her old fashioned views on them. I;m going to accompany her to a doctors appointment to discuss this as an option and get all the information on the side effects and risks involved.

    Thanks again. This article has really helped my mum see this in a more postive way of moving forward.

    • Hi Mary, I’m glad the piece was helpful. It is important to tell our stories and help break down the stigmatism of depression. Earlier today I watched a programme on Bob willis the former England cricketer and he was open about his own issues and using medication and I am sure this will help others. I have recently been under a lot of stress myself, which is part of life and felt the early stages of depression. I went straight to the doctor and got some help as the quicker you start to deal with it the better. It is much harder when things go down hill. Things have got much better as a result. CBT and mindfulness have also helped once the antidepressants have started to work. They often take a few weeks to really help, but then things get better. A lot of us who drank heavily, did so to try and avoid depression but it just makes things worst. I hope your mum gets better soon. Best wishes Mike.

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