Jama, a 34-year old fashion consultant in San Francisco with thick blonde hair and an easy smile, had been clean for 10 years when sobriety stopped feeling like it was enough. Plagued by severe suicidal thinking, she found herself caught between recovery as her solution and the fact that it didn’t seem to be working anymore. “The upsetting part of feeling like that is that you can’t tell the truth from the false,” she confesses. “I was showing up for my job, I had between five and eight sponsees, and I was going to two meetings a day. In retrospect, everything I was doing was keeping me on the path to recovery because I didn’t commit suicide, or relapse, but nothing I did made me feel better.”
For Jama, depression had taken over and all the steps in the world didn’t seem like they could help. “Up until that point, I had been able to manage and control my feelings through the program,” she says. “And suddenly I had to surrender in a much deeper way. I couldn’t go to myself for a fix even when the fix was the steps. It was really about having faith that I was being taken care even when I couldn’t feel a connection to that reality.”
For many in sobriety, hitting a wall can be terrifying. Whether through depression, external factors, boredom, or a combination of all three, many have experienced the moment when they have to ask: does sobriety still work for me if I feel like I want to die?
Sobriety is about abstinence but it’s also supposed to set you up in life to achieve other things.
Dr. George Fein, a Honolulu-based psychiatrist who was part of a research team that did a comprehensive study on the topic, shares, “Depression is a very serious disease which can be as or more serious than alcoholism. Those who are suffering from suicidal ideations need to get help immediately. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Whether you call a therapist, a friend, or your sponsor, if you are suffering from depression, the most important thing you can do is face it. According to addiction psychologist and counselor Dr. Adi Jaffe, one of the biggest challenges of staying sober in a group program is realizing that everyone is not actually alike. “I think it’s time we stop trying to define what addicts are and start realizing that they fall into a number of separate categories,” he says. “There are addicts that have co-morbid disorders [such as manic-depression, bi-polar, and other mental health diagnoses] and were medicating to overcome the other disorder. When they resolve the addiction, they might still have to deal with the mental health issues.”
As Dr. Fein explains, “We’ve studied people with multi-year abstinence, 90% of whom are in 12-step recovery, and we’ve studied people with six-to-15 weeks of abstinence to see the rate of co-morbid psychiatric problems. And what we find is that for people who go through treatment, some type of psychiatric problems are the norm. Thirty-three percent of addicts suffer from a current mood disorder, and 50% of them have suffered from an occurrence at one point in their life, no matter how long they have been sober.”
Jama isn’t surprised. “It’s hard because when you come in and there’s so much wreckage, you start to clean it up, and have direct results in how you feel,” she says. “That simple solution of working the steps works. And it always will…if all you’re looking to do is stay sober. But for some of us, there is other work that you need to do that can dovetail with sobriety.”
While not every addict has to hit a wall, “a lot of us do,” Jama says. “It was hard to have time and not feel like I was in the place I thought I was supposed to be,” she admits. “Though some of it was paranoia, I also knew that some people were judging me. Thankfully, a few people came forward and said they went through the same thing around the same time, and it made me realize that I am not tragically unique.”
Dr. Jaffe believes that the self-recrimination about hopelessness in sobriety can be the worst part of the issue. “For a lot of people, that self-judgment is one of the things that led to their addictive behavior,” he says. “There’s a double edged sword of being proud of how much time you have sober and the stigma and judgment and stereotypes about what your life should look like. That can get really dangerous because they’re unchecked judgments.”
For some, however, the wall doesn’t come from within but from being without. At eight years of sobriety, Jacob found himself living at home, single with no career, and not much money in his pocket. A 27-year-old former tweaker with tall and lanky good looks, his once hopeful career in construction had been put on hold by the economy.
“It was hard to see other people with less time get their lives back more quickly,” he confesses. “But I’ve had other issues that have prevented me from being financially independent. I came in with a belief system about money that it was bad. When I worked through that, I had trouble picking a trade that fit me. Also, I have ADHD. The 12 steps worked on my drinking but I discovered that there was still something much deeper that was stopping me from working.”
According to Dr. Jaffe, seeing your struggles in a realistic way can be quite useful because it can prevent self-judgment. “Chances are, positive and negative things are happening all the time,” he says. “The biggest risk is that negative self-talk where you start buying into your own perceptions of things. People in recovery need to use their support structure and try to find solutions in consultation with others—either professionals or other people they trust.”
Jacob’s salvation came through the medication Strattera [used to treat ADHD] and another friend in the program, who started teaching him how to cut hair. “I couldn’t use the steps on how to find what I loved in life, but I could use my friends in recovery,” he says now.
To Jaffe, this is all part of growing into the sort of maturity that active addiction kept at bay. “The idea is once you get to a point where sobriety is comfortable and not a challenge, you need to figure out what you want to do when you grow up,” he says. “Most of the people in the world don’t derive their life’s satisfaction from the things they don’t do. Sobriety is about abstinence but it’s also supposed to set you up in life to achieve other things.”
Romance is another area that can exacerbate depression in sobriety. Gina, a 46-year-old part-time nurse, lives in Philadelphia, where she just celebrated 10 years sober and seven years single. The mother of an 11-year old, Gina’s loose curls and hippie garb echo back to another time. But being a sober single mother has taken its toll on her. “I don’t go out as much as I used to,” she says. “I don’t meet people. I don’t go hear music, which I love. I don’t go to the lake with my kid or go hiking. I can say I’m lazy, but I think the bigger thing is I’m afraid. Because any time I meet a guy and he shows a little interest, I think there must be something wrong with him because underneath it all, I think there’s something wrong with me.”
But, according to experts, all of this is part of the sometimes painful process of growth. “Once people get comfortable in recovery, they’re still left with life,” says Dr. Jaffe. “Whatever they were masking, whatever environmental or childhood issues they have ignored, they are now coming to the surface. Inevitably the goal of recovery is to get to the point where people can live their lives—with all its challenges and difficulties and rewards that come with being an adult.”
Gina, who has begun to work on those issues that she was able to hide under the carpet while raising her child, agrees. “I am doing better now—just taking each day as it comes,” she says. “And I am feeling better about myself. The funny thing is when you feel better about yourself, people notice you, and you notice them noticing you. Patience, tolerance—all these principles that I thought we were supposed to be applying to other people, I am finally learning to apply to myself. And because of that, recovery is becoming powerful again. I get to have a whole new experience in it.”