Is Depression an Addiction?


photomedic.netOne of the chapters of my memoir, Beyond Blue, is called “The Least Harmful Addiction.” I explain that will power 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 geting 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 disagree.

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 does 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 flair up, 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.

Published originally on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.




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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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12 Responses
  1. Kelly

    “I know that lots of people disagree with me on this point, ” — not that Buddha! So you’re in good company!

  2. Yes. The one aspect of depression that could be considered addictive is the patterns of thought and behavior that we become so accustomed to they almost feel like an addiction. I know I have to watch this myself. God bless and I hope you have a good day.

  3. Ammah

    Is it an addiction? I don’t know. All I can tell it’s a wicked illness. A person with a cold will acknowledge it & get treated. Our daughter who suffering from depression & mental illness hates every one. Parents are first to go on the chopping block. We know her better than any therapists. Yet we are the first one cut out prolong her treatment & filling gravy bowls. All she does is hate, hate, hate … She nurtures her depression instead of addressing it, sending out long emails & leaving long voice mail will not end or solve her depression. Is she addicted to the Voices in her head & won’t get help. Unfortunately it’s easy to find hate supports groups & people hearing your sobbing stories. A good therapists will be able to help. But how does one find one?

    1. Todd

      Ammah, there is a book called the Power of Now. The author, Eckhart Tolle, says we are all addicted to thought, or the voice in our head. Just look at the news, or gossip or judgement in general. The natural state of thought seems to be negative. The challenge with severe depression is these thoughts, or voices, can now be very dangerous and be feeding us lies that seem very real. Not acting on these thoughts is a huge challenge, but as Therese says, at times it is the best we can do. I am sorry for your daughters pain and your families. It can be hell, for everyone. I wish you the best.

  4. Viki

    I agree w/you so much when you said that sometimes when depression has a hold on you, there’s not much we can do to loosen it’s hold. I take all kinds of pills, & have for quite a while, & still suffer from depressive episodes. I don’t know why they come on, they just do. I’m 41 & ironically take 41 pills a day. (I have other health issues too) I would love to be healthy mentally & physically, but I don’t think that will happen regardless of the meditation, rest, etc I might get. I think part of having depression is just learning to deal w/it sometimes & have a “safety plan” ready for when One of Those Day hits. As always, thanks for your honest writing, Therese!!

  5. Todd

    Thank You for writing this. My experience is the same. Hopefully one day there will be a better understanding of this.

  6. Margaret

    We have a mental ILLNESS that can not be cured, but can be managed. Our quirky, nasty, unable to function properly brain chemistry doesn’t work as it should. I always liken it to diabetes. Insulin isn’t made or absorbed and used in the normal way. This can be managed with meds, and healthy eating,etc. But it isn’t curable. Our mood swings, anxiety, etc., are things we have to live with. I’d like to think we get smarter as we go along, and find the things that work to get us through the day. It’s horrible to think we’ll feel this way the rest of our lives, but I’m so happy I’ve made it this far, and haven’t killed myself over it.

  7. Maria

    I am a diabetic and everyday i look after my diabetes .I cant wish it to go away because all the wishing in the world wont magically make it disappear .I have come to a place now with my depression that when i am in a good place I live my life as normal as possible ,BUT when my little friend (depression ) pops around for a visit I now have learned to look after my friend as I do my diabetes .
    I have learned to not fight with my friend and allow myself the time I need to make peace with it .
    I dont fight with it because it wont leave my side until we are both ready to surface again .
    These are purely my feelings and how I go about it .