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The Link Between Alcohol and Depression

Which comes first? Does depression lead to addiction or is it the other way around?

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By A.J. Dugger III

09/03/14

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In the history of drug and alcohol abuse and depression, one can't help but ask the age-old question: Which comes first? Is it generally the depression that leads to addiction, or does the addiction lead to the depression?

According to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, depression usually precedes substance abuse. The study revealed that depression is often rooted in childhood. Frequently, traumatic childhood situations such as divorcing or abusive parents, molestation, or similar events trigger depression, and when the child reaches adolescence or adulthood, he can easily find an escape from his feelings by using drugs or alcohol. Children who were not depressed during childhood are less likely to start abusing alcohol or drugs, although this is not always the case. Actor and Comedian Jim Carrey used different medications to cope with a traumatic childhood. As an adult his depression worsened due to failed marriages and relationships and it continues to threaten his peace of mind, according to a source on tribune.com. "Jim has suffered from severe depression in the past, and you have to worry those fearful days are coming back again,” revealed the source. “When you talk to him, he’s not as animated as he used to be. He seems [to be] at a low point — like a ship without a rudder.”

Even as adults, depression can lead to alcoholism or addiction. Paul Williams, an original member of the legendary Motown group The Temptations, committed suicide in August 1973. Things began to go downhill for him when The Temptations began to have creative and financial problems with the Motown label during the late 1960s. According to founding member Otis Williams (no relation), the stress and frustration of the situation weighed heavily on Paul, who went from drinking milk every day to drowning his sorrows in booze. In just a few short years, Williams went from being the most wholesome member of the Temptations to one of the most addicted. When the alcohol hurt Williams' ability to perform on stage, he was removed from the group, and that's when he began to rely on the bottle even more. When Williams committed suicide he was $80,000 in dept.

There are other famous examples of depression leading to alcoholism. Former professional wrestler and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson went into detail about how depression and alcohol affected his father, legendary wrestler Rocky Johnson. In Johnson's autobiography, The Rock Says.., Johnson explained how his father turned to the bottle as his wrestling career began to fade. “For a long time I never knew that he struggled with the demons of a strange world in which he lived, just like all professional wrestlers. It's a world in which aching joints are anesthetized by the roar of a crowd, and the loneliness of life on the road is soothed by the sweetness of alcohol and drugs and the touch of strange flesh.” Johnson further explained that his father had always been a casual drinker, but post-retirement was not a good period for him. “By the summer of 1991, it was clear that he was losing his battle with the bottle. Dad was basically out of the business by then, and he was having a terrible time coping with the tremendous void in his life. His pride was battered. His way of coping was to drink. For a long time, like most alcoholics, my father denied that he had a problem. But as the drinking escalated and he spent more time in bed recovering from hangovers... as the half-empty bottles piled up around the house..it became increasingly obvious that he needed help. Or he would die.”

Depression may have led to Rocky Johnson's addiction, but for other people it was the other way around. The late Whitney Houston had it all before using drugs and hitting rock bottom. However, the rumor of her ex-husband Bobby Brown introducing her to drugs is far from the truth. It was actually her older brother Michael who introduced her to drugs, something he regrets to this very day. "Every day...every day. That's something I've got to live with for the rest of my life," a guilty Michael Houston said in an L.A. Times article last year. “But you gotta understand, at the time, the '80s, it was acceptable.... In the entertainment industry it was just like, available. It wasn't like a bad word like it is now. You know what I'm saying? We didn't know. We just didn't know." Michael noted that when he and his sister first tried drugs, the singer was in her late 20s, already famous, selling hit records, and was still years away from marrying the controversial Brown. According to many who knew her, Houston was in denial about her addiction during her last decade of life. However, the more depressed she got about her sagging career, the more drugs she took. When Houston was found dead, Benadryl, Xanax, marijuana and Flexeril were found in her system.

According to several studies, alcohol abuse increases the risk for depression because of the neurotoxic effects of alcohol exposure to one's brain. According to some researchers, heavy alcohol consumption may lead to prolonged periods of depression.

Depression was once considered a “woman's disease.” But men can suffer from depression too, though they may exhibit different symptoms. While women are expected to cry or show their despair, men can be hesitant to do so and instead withdraw into themselves or become aggressive. Also, some men won't even realize they're depressed because they're unaware of the symptoms. According to a study in the Psychology of Men and Masculinity journal, men who are not afraid to show their emotions have higher self-esteem than those who do not openly express themselves. The journal cited the case of football players unafraid to cry after losing a game as an example of self-esteem being correlated with emotional self-expression. "They felt secure enough to shed tears in front of their teammates and seemed less concerned about peer pressure," wrote Derek Whitney of psychcentral.com. Of course, many men will sublimate depression and unpleasant feelings by turning to drugs and alcohol.

According to a post on webmd.com, men may deny problems because they're expected to be strong. “American culture suggests that expressing emotion is largely a feminine trait. As a result, men who are depressed are more likely to talk about the physical symptoms of their depression - such as feeling tired - rather than symptoms related to emotions." Furthermore, "The CDC reports that men in the U.S. are about four times more likely than women to commit suicide. A staggering 75% to 80% of all people who commit suicide in the U.S. are men. Though more women attempt suicide, more men complete the act of actually ending their lives. This may be due to the fact that men tend to use more lethal and violent methods of committing suicide, for example using a gun rather than taking an overdose of pills.”

John and Roberta Powell are a married couple living in Millington, Tennessee, a town outside of Memphis. After the sudden loss of their first child, the depressed couple fell into the trap of drugs and alcohol, which threatened to destroy their marriage. “Our baby Lena died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome seven years ago,” said Roberta. “She was six months. John was always a casual drinker but just couldn't cope with it. He felt so helpless and became an alcoholic. It was his only way (to cope). I started getting high all the time using lortabs and marijuana. We were both a mess but the addictions were the only way to escape from the nightmare. Lena was our first child...our baby. And she was suddenly gone without warning. I'll never forget finding her dead in her crib.” Powell's husband says that it was the absolute worst period of their lives but with counseling and rehab they made it through. “The depression is absolutely what led to the addictions. Roberta and I are not addictive people but we were on the verge of insanity. Just seeing Roberta cry and cry...I didn't know what the hell to do. But things are much better now. We'll never forget our angel Lena, but we do have three beautiful children now.”

Sometimes a person may be depressed and use drugs and alcohol to escape their troubles, which was the case with the Powells. Other times, a person can become addicted and then lose grasp of everything and fall into a deep depression. The link between depression and addiction will always be strong. Treatment for either condition should always take into account the likelihood of co-occurring disorders.

A. J. Dugger lll is a journalist based in Clarksville, Tennessee. He recently published his first book, The Dealers: Then and Now. Recent stories were on the prescription drug epidemic in his home state and the meth lab next door to you.

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