Updated: Jul 17
People like Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway have struggled with it (not always successfully) since the beginning of time. Winston Churchill, a man who drank copious amounts of alcohol in his time, referred to it as “the black dog.”
Depression (also referred to as “melancholy” or “the blues”) has been part of the human experience throughout recorded history. Medical and scientific research over the last hundred years has shown us how prevalent it is amongst people from all walks of life.
Depression is something that many of us have had to deal with. Depression is also one of the most common reasons many people reach for something outside of themselves to alleviate and regulate how they feel. Alcohol is one of the most abused substances used in self-medicating for depression and is a major factor in the development of alcoholism for millions of people around the world.
Depression is a complicated topic and a difficult problem to manage or eradicate. Quite often, professional help is what is most needed, especially for those who are dealing with chronic levels of depression over many years. I would advise anyone who is struggling with severe depression, especially when it leads to thoughts of suicide, to seek professional assistance Immediately.
Depression and Alcohol Abuse
As it pertains to alcohol abuse, it's important to recognize that we often try to regulate depression by drinking to numb ourselves. We might not even know we’re depressed. All we know is that we don't feel the way we want to feel so we try to adjust it by any means necessary. Picking up the next drink is often the fastest, easiest way to achieve the goal of not feeling. Feel bad. Drink. Feel nothing. Mission accomplished.
The long-term effect of this approach often leads to numerous problems in various areas of our lives including our health, our relationships, our self-esteem, and our financial stability. Equally important, excessive drinking invariably leads to more depression, not less. The more we drink, the worse we feel about ourselves which only leads to deeper shame, guilt, and ultimately, depression. It’s a vicious circle we get stuck in, an endless loop of depression-drinking-depression with no clear goal or end game.
I was around 14 years old when I was first bitten by the black dog. I never saw it coming and it sank its teeth into me suddenly and deeply.
It first appeared during Christmas. Christmas is often cited as a time when people struggle with melancholy. The materialistic expectations of the Christmas season can make people feel empty and inadequate. This is exactly what happened to me. I remember feeling such an overwhelming sense of anxiety about buying presents for people yet having no money to spend. Coupled with the forced mirth and merriment perpetuated by the media and society, I began to wonder what all of it meant and why I felt unhappy and sad during a time when others around me professed to be filled with joy.
I was flooded by existential angst that made me feel inadequate and even more isolated and alone than normal. I became despondent and deeply sad to realize that I was missing out on an experience that others seemed so capable of enjoying. The sadness and loneliness I felt was awful. I had to pretend that I enjoyed what was going on around me, when in fact I was miserable. Even opening presents that were given to me by my parents and siblings made me feel embarrassed and low.
At the time I didn't identify what I was experiencing as depression. I only knew that I felt bad and associated these negative feelings with Christmas. However, this negative association with Christmas triggered something within me that left me feeling hollow for years to come.
I struggled with deep anxiety and depression over the next 30 years. Depression became one more excuse for me to drink. I frequently used alcohol to lift me out of the deep melancholy that would spring up unexpectedly. Christmas became just one of many things that triggered my recurring depression.
Unfortunately, I never reached out for help. I'm certain that I could have benefited from medical or psychological treatment. Instead, I chose to say nothing to anybody and self-medicated with alcohol (and drugs) in a hopeless attempt to repress the blues.
Depression is far too common amongst people who abuse alcohol. While it’s certainly not the only reason, it’s near the top of the list and is something you need to be aware of if you want to manage how much you drink or want to stop drinking entirely.
Everyone experiences depression differently and for different reasons. What triggers my depression may seem harmless and petty to you while your triggers may seem silly to me. It really doesn't matter what sets off our depression. What is important is being able to recognize it, identify it, and learn how to cope with it in a healthy manner.
As stated, alcohol abuse only makes the problem worse, often much worse.
Alcohol is a depressant that causes sedation in the brain. It lowers our energy and our ability to think rationally. The only benefit is the temporary numbing effect when we get drunk. But the results are always going to turn negative. Anyone who has experienced a few bad hangovers mixed with a good dose of guilt and shame can attest to the negative outcome when we try to manage depression with alcohol. Invariably, drinking makes everything worse, not better.
If you happen to be one of the millions of people around the world who struggle with depression, it's important to consider the options at your disposal when the black dog bites. Medical and/or psychological treatment can be highly effective in improving mood swings and depression. Alcohol, on the other hand, will only serve to prolong and exacerbate the problem.