5 Key Elements of Recovery from Depression and Substance Abuse

For 20 years, I battled with a cycle of depression that went from manageable low moods to periods of isolation and despair. Yet it wasn’t until I had a complete breakdown that I started to challenge my mental health status. When I did, it turned out to be the first step to overcoming depression and the foundation to learning how to keep emotionally well. As a young child I was abandoned by my mother and left to be raised by an abusive father. So from an early age I displayed some characteristics that others would define as unsociable. I was quiet, withdrawn and isolated. As I progressed through adolescence I became increasingly introverted and started to experience feelings of worthlessness.

The Depression Label

I accepted all this negativity as a permanent reflection of who I was, largely because no one seemed to be caring enough to find out why I presented as I did. I was diagnosed with depression as a teenager and for the following 20 years was prescribed antidepressants. I found doctors to be sympathetic but once the label of depression had been applied, it simply stuck. No one challenged it, least of all me. Sixteen years ago though, that changed. Due to self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs, I had become addicted. Despite many failed attempts to control my drinking I came to realize that I had a new label: alcoholic. For me, depression and alcoholism were not only shameful but accepted as inevitable. Not surprising then that I reached a point that I simply didn’t want to live anymore. After an alcohol-induced suicide attempt, I was voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric ward where I remained for several months before beginning drug rehab. For the first time ever I was introduced to the idea of physical and psychological recovery.

Challenging the Past

Before I could begin to move on, I had to look at the way I had internalized the words of others in the past. From infancy I had been described negatively; for example, my father used to call me a whore and my teachers would say I was like a “fish out of water.” Not only did I accept these statements and more as the truth, but I degraded and demoralized myself through self-criticism and unrealistic expectations. Under the guidance of counselors it was wonderful to realize that much of what I believed about myself was a lie and that I could choose to label myself differently. Instead of thinking I was unworthy, inadequate or hopeless, I could define myself as loving and good enough. Embracing a new identity didn’t come naturally, but over time I began to feel the benefits of practicing self-compassion and gentleness.

Depression Is Not a Life Sentence

The greatest revelation, however, was that my depression was a condition that could be managed. The process of challenging the past and redefining how I had been labeled allowed me to stop blaming others and to take responsibility for my well-being. During the initial stages of my recovery, medication continued to be important in stabilizing my emotional health but slowly this declined as I discovered how to keep well. Today there are five key elements that form my wellness plan and have enabled me to be free from the misery that I used to suffer: Taking each day at a time – I have learned that my past no longer has to define my present. What has gone before has no place in my life today. For me the most important time is now, so I am free to enjoy each day as it comes. Living by faith – Faith for me isn’t simply about being part of a religion, it’s about recognizing the importance of keeping myself spiritually healthy. Living by a faith that promotes love, forgiveness and gratitude promotes inner peace and contentment. And when I am spiritually fulfilled, my body and mind benefit. Being kind to myself – To be able to love my life, I have to love myself. That means making self-care a priority, accepting my imperfections and nurturing a sense of self-worth. Asking for help – I have come to realize that it is by sharing my weaknesses that I am able to stay mentally strong. That includes being honest with myself and asking for help when I need it. My vulnerability isn’t a liability anymore – it’s a strength. Loving my authentic self – Getting well and staying there has largely been a result of discovering my authentic self. Instead of holding onto what I used to be, I have learned to love who I have become. And even more exciting is the prospect of who I can become in the future with all the possibilities that holds. You may have been depressed yesterday and are suffering still today but be encouraged by the fact that with the right help and support it is possible to move from a place of despair to a place of hope.

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