Struggling with Anxiety & Depression in Early Recovery? You Aren’t Alone.
Fact Checked and Peer Reviewed
January 10, 2019
When I was early in addiction treatment, anxiety and depression dominated my life.
I was the most excited about recovery when I was high. I remember lying in bed with my partner, both of us talking about our lofty goals and dreams; all the things we would do as soon as we got sober. Which was, of course, going to be tomorrow. I know I’m not alone. This scene is such a cliche, having one is basically a mandate for any addiction movie. It was always such a disappointment that not only was getting sober way, way harder than it seemed while high—even when I managed to do it, I couldn’t get anything else accomplished. A huge part of that was because of the anxiety and depression that followed getting off non-prescribed drugs.
I am diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a trauma-based anxiety disorder, and minor depression. Buprenorphine may actually help manage some symptoms of PTSD, but it’s far from a cure. And it’s far worse at masking the accompanying anxiety and depression than heroin, my drug of choice. I still struggle with depression and anxiety on a daily basis, though the intrusiveness of these symptoms fluctuates, sometimes becoming barely noticeable. When I was early in treatment, however, anxiety and depression dominated my life. If that’s happening to you too, know that it’s normal. Even with the help of methadone or buprenorphine, your brain and body still need time to adjust and heal from the ricocheting highs and lows that accompany misuse of short-acting opioids. But you don’t have to let these symptoms eat you alive.
Seek Support…and Don’t Give Up
Everyone responds differently to the various therapeutic approaches available. Because my recovery began during pregnancy, my life post-heroin has been pretty stressful. So for me, trauma-informed talk therapy provides an essential outlet for dealing with the day-to-day dramas while slowly working through my traumatic past. For others, something like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy might be the key, while others will fare better with a mindfulness approach. Those are just three examples, but there are many more. The point is: reach out and find support. Professional support will give you someone knowledgeable to rely upon, but if you don’t have access to it, at least find a trusted friend or family member in whom you can confide—or some kind of group to go to. It doesn’t even have to be a recovery or therapy group; you could join a book club or a soccer team. Whatever works for you and helps you get out of your head. If the first thing you try doesn’t work (and let’s be real, it probably won’t), try again. That applies to therapists too: if you don’t click with your first therapist, you are absolutely allowed to seek another one. Whatever you do, don’t give up.
Boredom is relapse’s wing-man. Boredom breeds anxiety and depression. It leads you to fester in those nagging thoughts and feelings until they swirl and grow and eventually become so huge and overpowering that taking drugs feels like the only way to slay them. But you can stop that from happening. Part of the formula is staying busy. Setting fun appointments throughout the week will give you something to look forward to and help you stay occupied. That can be outings with friends, shopping trips, or even a date with your favorite Netflix series. I am a huge champion of health(ier) escapism. If binge-watching How To Get Away With Murder keeps you going, then do it. If you need to stay in and re-read the Twilight series, this is one situation when that’s acceptable. But do try to make at least one of these activities something that is physically active. Exercise will help activate your endogenous opioid system, which gets pretty out-of-whack during active addiction. Getting your brain back on track chemically will also help manage your anxiety and depression.
Be Kind to Yourself
It’s really easy to think there’s something wrong with you when you don’t feel awesome as soon as you stop taking drugs. Or, for some people—you do feel awesome as soon as you stop taking drugs, but when the excitement of your accomplishment wears off, you start to feel crummy. And then you really think something is wrong with you. But there isn’t. Your mind and body is healing from a really chaotic, stressful experience. One which may have gone on for years, depending on the extent of your drug use. That takes time. If you have a co-occurring mental illness, you’re also going to have to learn to cope with it without the aid of illegal drugs. Which will, again, take time and work. So give yourself that time. You probably wouldn’t call your friend a loser if she stayed in bed for a whole day when she’s newly in recovery, right? Or demand that she start a group home for at-risk youth and save the world three months into buprenorphine treatment? Because that is way too much pressure, and totally unrealistic…right? Treat yourself like you treat your friend. Don’t expect too much. Forgive yourself when you fail. Most of all, treat yourself gently. You need it—and above all else, you deserve it.
Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer with an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. Her blog, Betty’s Battleground, was recently ranked by Feedspot as one of the top 75 PTSD blogs. She is also a regular contributing writer for HealthyPlace’s trauma blog. Her work has appeared on Vice, Vox, Stat News, The Fix, and others. When she isn’t working, she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction.