But I’m Depressed, Not Addicted

By Emma Faesi Hudelson 07/02/19
I needed help for my depression. I couldn't say I got smashed almost every night, whiskey whistling through my veins, thinning my blood and seeping into my brain.
Woman in sugar skull makeup, concept of deception, hidden truth, depression.
Someone needed to see beyond my deception. Photo by Tony Hernandez on Unsplash

“Why are you here today, Emma?”

Hungover and filled with self-loathing, I’d just revved my car onto a usually-busy street, hoping to get hit by a truck, but nothing happened. Not even a Smartcar in sight. Shakily, I’d walked back into my apartment and asked my boyfriend for a ride to the St. Vincent’s Stress Center. After I’d sat for an hour in a sunny lobby with green chairs and green carpet, a man in glasses and khakis called me into a lamp-lit room. 

“I’m in crisis.”

“Are you going to harm yourself?”

“No. I mean, I don’t think so.” I couldn’t bring myself to mention the high-speed reverse onto one of northside Indianapolis’ main thoroughfares. This guy would have to work to get the truth. “I have a history of suicide attempts, though. And depression. I just can’t do it anymore. I’m so overwhelmed with school and work and my dogs and my boyfriend and my house and my…”

He cut me off and flipped to a new page on his clipboard. “Would you say you’re having suicidal ideation? Do you wish you could just ‘go away?’” Air quotes. Meaningful pause. 

“Yeah. Sort of. I want things to get better, but I don’t know what that looks like. I’ve been through stuff like this before. Depression, I mean. If I have to be hospitalized, it’s okay.” I didn’t want to be responsible for myself anymore. Being in the hospital would mean I could blank out for a while and let someone else take care of me. 

The intake assessor tilted his head at me. “We won’t hospitalize you unless we have to. Let’s talk about your day-to-day. What does that look like?”

I ticked off my work schedule, school schedule, social schedule; listing my life as if from a résumé. One boyfriend. One job. Two dogs. Fifteen credit hours. Good grades. Dad nearby, but we weren’t that tight. Close with my mom, but she lived far away. No clubs. No sports. 

“Do you drink alcohol or use drugs?”

I looked up from my lap. “I drink. I mean, I’m a college student.” If there had been a window in the room, I would have glanced out of it. I needed something else to look at. 

“How much?”

I couldn’t tell the truth. “It depends. Between one and six beers a night.”

He blinked and frowned for a millisecond. Oops. That was an underestimate. Is between one and six too much?

He didn’t say. Just returned to his neutral expression and kept moving down his clipboard. “How often do you drink between one and six beers a night?”

“Oh, maybe three times a week? I guess it depends.” Again, I couldn’t tell the truth. I couldn’t say I got smashed almost every night, whiskey whistling through my veins, thinning my blood and seeping into my brain. 

He blinked again, made a note on his board, and kept questioning, reducing my depression to a list of symptoms. Suicidal ideation. Feelings of worthlessness. Guilt. Sleep disturbance. Headache. Was I missing work? Missing school? Maintaining good hygiene?

I just ran my car blindly into traffic, I thought, and this asshole wants to know if I brushed my teeth. Medicalizing depression sure was depressing. 

In the end, Mr. Blinky decided that I didn’t need immediate hospitalization. Instead, I’d be admitted to IOP: intensive outpatient treatment. Three hours at the Stress Center, three days a week. “With all your commitments, this will be perfect for you,” he assured me. 

Although I downplayed all my problems, part of me must have known I needed help—serious help. But I couldn’t admit it, not even to a person whose job description included “assessing mental health condition and recommending appropriate care.” I wanted the help forced on me, wanted to be figured out, fixed. Someone needed to see beyond my deception. That would take the burden of recovery off of me and place it on them. Secretly, I wanted to spend a few days in the psych ward, locked away from work, papers, dogs, and dishes. I couldn’t confess that, I thought. I’d sound crazy. I didn’t see the irony of worrying about sounding crazy when I sat in a mental health intake office. 

Instead of screaming, I nodded. Blinky placed me in a “dual-diagnosis program,” a familiar phrase from my teen years that meant I’d qualified as both mentally ill and addicted. 

“Most folks graduate in four-to-six weeks,” he said, handing me a pamphlet. “Good luck.”


On my first night of IOP, I entered the Stress Center’s lobby to find a sweater-vested receptionist behind the tall desk. “Walk straight down the hall to the first office on the right. I’ll tell Dave you’re here.”

Dave, a soft-spoken therapist with glasses, a mustache, and a lisp, met me at the door of his office. Instead of sitting behind his desk, he pulled his chair around to sit across from me. 

“Bring this with you every night,” he instructed, passing me a maroon folder with the St. Vincent’s triple-dove logo stickered on the front. “It’s like your Bible for this group. It’s pretty empty now, but by the time you graduate, it’ll be full of handouts, worksheets, and journals.” He lowered his chin and raised his eyebrows. “Many of our patients hang on to these for years after they leave us because they find stuff they can use and reuse for the rest of their lives.” He closed his eyes, re-opened them. “That’s what we’re here to do. Help you get the skills you need to live.”

I nodded, arranging my expression into eager, pliant, and friendly, my eyes sparkling, my smile full. Already, I was trying to charm my way out, as I had in my psych ward trips years before. Had I forgotten that putting up a front back then had led me to this place, this office, with its commercial-grade chairs, fluorescent lights, and a non-ironic “Hang in There” kitten poster? 

For the next 15 minutes, Dave explained what I could expect from my 12 weekly hours of IOP. Then he looked at me over his glasses. “You’ll also need to go to three meetings a week. Here’s a schedule of all the recovery groups in the area.”

I took the pamphlet, thick as a chapbook, and showed off my nod-and-smile routine again. Skepticism crept in. Couldn’t this guy see that my problem was depression, not drinking? 

“We’re all set then. Let’s get you to your first group session. Don’t worry, we won’t expect you to speak up on your first night. Feel free to just sit and listen.” 

Dave led me to another fluorescent-lit room at the end of the hall. In it, a circle of identical chairs with padded green vinyl seats and backrests. I took an empty seat and surveyed the six nametagged patients around me. Robin, a thickset, bowl-cutted, auburn-haired, lip-ringed woman. Jack, a soft middle-aged guy who looked like Dave, but with a weaker mustache, aviator glasses, and adult acne. Madison, a thin girl who couldn’t have been more than 18. Ryan, a young guy with sagging, wide-legged jeans and a backwards baseball cap. Jane, a twitchy blonde with scars skimming her forearms. And Gladys, an older black woman who looked like an elementary-school principal. 

Dave walked in the room, smiling softly. “Everyone, meet Emma. This is her first night.”

They replied in unison. “Hi, Emma.” 

Inside, I squirmed, but outwardly, I exuded alpha-dog confidence. Smile, lips closed. I told myself. Chin up. Relax in your chair, elbows hooked over the back. Cross your legs. Look at their foreheads when they talk. It’ll look like you’re making eye contact.

The first group session consisted mostly of Ryan, the baseball-cap boy, talking about his “Moral Inventory.” To me, it looked like a scribbled list, but Ryan blushed with pride when he held it up. The other patients clapped as though he’d found a cure for lymphoma. 

“I finally did it,” he said. “I kept relapsing every time I got to this point, but now, I did it. I have my inventory.”

Dave beamed. “Ryan, we’re proud of you. We all knew you could do it. Now, what did you learn?”

Ryan’s gaze dropped to the floor. “It’s mostly fear. Fear is like this big demon, ready to eat me alive. It’s why I dropped out of school. Why I let my girl leave. Why I get in fights.” 

Dave turned to the group. “What are our two responses to fear, folks?” His lisp swallowed the “s” sounds. Rethponthes. Folkth. 

Robin raised her hand. “Fuck Everything And Run.” Dave looked at her over his glasses. “Sorry, Dave. ‘F’ Everything And Run.”

“Or Face Everything And Rise.” Gladys, the school principal, finished the saying.

It all sounded like cheerleading to me. Acronyms. Group responses. And a moral inventory? How could that not make me want to kill myself? If Dave hadn’t released us for a break, I might have asked to slit my wrists then and there. 

When we returned, I listened to the group members talk about hitting bottom. Four words bounced around my skull. I do not belong. Ryan had slugged his ex-girlfriend and blamed it on his dad, who had used him as a punching bag. Jack’s wife had left him after he got his third DUI and lost his license forever. He’d never been able to stand up to her, probably because he was raised by an overbearing mother. I do not belong. Jane smoked meth in the bathroom between double shifts at Burger King, her first job since she’d stopped prostituting. When she was eight, her dad had molested her. Gladys had gotten fired and had to move back in with her alcoholic mother. Church used to help her, but she couldn’t get herself out of bed before noon anymore. I. Do. Not. Belong. I was in college. I had a job. My driver’s license was intact, unsuspended. My parents loved me. I’d never been molested. I’d never stood on 38th Street in a miniskirt, hoping to snag a john. How could I be an addict? 

The next Monday, Dave invited me to his office after group. He wanted to “check in.” Air quotes. Meaningful look. He must have gone to the same training as the intake coordinator who’d interviewed me when I first walked in. 

“Have you found any meetings you like yet?”

I hadn’t gone to a single one. “Adding on three hours’ worth of meetings on top of the 12 hours a week I’m here, on top of my 15-credit hour school load, on top of my 20-hour work week—it’s too much. I came here because I felt stressed and overwhelmed. How can I add more to my schedule when the main source of stress is my schedule?” My voice had risen in volume. I looked away, toward the door, and hunched my shoulders. 

Dave sighed. “If you want to get better, your sobriety should be a priority.”

“But I’m depressed, not addicted. Maybe I could cut back a bit on the drinking, but addiction isn’t ruining my life. I don’t belong here. I’m not a meth-head. I haven’t lost my job. I haven’t lost my kids — I don’t even have kids. I’ve never gotten a DUI. I don’t do heroin.”

Dave nodded and motioned for me to continue. He wasn’t going to let me off the hook.

I didn’t know what else to say. I looked at my feet. “I’ll try, okay?” 

That night on my way out I threw my folder in the trash can, hoping the other patients would see it. I didn’t return. Instead of climbing the steps to IOP the following Wednesday, I slithered into a bar booth and ordered the usual, beer and a bourbon. Then a pitcher to split with my boyfriend. Fuck it, another shot. And another. Then—oblivion.

That summer, while walking my dogs in the evening, I stared at the lives inside the yellow squares of windows I passed. I defined these lives, these people, as “good.” Young couples unloading groceries. Families sitting around oaky tables, eating dinner. A girl my age doing yoga in her living room. Husbands and wives suiting up for an evening run. It looked like love, warmth, virtue, balance. When I walked the dogs in the morning, I gaped at the men and women jogging or biking past me while I sucked on a cigarette and squinted my hungover eyes against the sun. Every morning, every night, as I contemplated everyone else’s healthy normalcy, I felt like an ugly exoskeleton, wishing I could fill myself with whatever they had. I could see it, but I couldn’t access it. Instead, I stumped down the road with my unwashed body and my stringy short hair, pulled along by two ill-behaved dogs. In my mind, my body, I couldn’t find those families’ goodness and light. The closest I knew to it was liquor, so I filled myself with that instead.


That first round of IOP didn’t take, but maybe Dave and, more importantly, Ryan, Jack, Gladys, Robin, Jane, and Madison had planted a seed. A year later, I walked into my first meeting and said Hi, I’m Emma, and I’m an alcoholic. As soon as I said it, something cool and smooth moved to the center of my chest and clicked. That sentence was the most honest thing I’d said in years. It removed the barrier of I do not belong and replaced it with the doorway of Help me—I’m just like you. 

Today, I’m ten years sober. When I give a lead, or speak at the psych ward, I try to remember the scared girl I was. Head thrown back, chin up, elbows wide; putting up a tough front to hide my fear. I look for her in every crowd, and when I find her, I make eye contact. She usually looks away, but that’s okay. Someday, she might be able to hold my gaze. 

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Emma Faesi Hudelson is a teaching fellow and PhD candidate studying literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She lives with two dogs, two cats, and one husband in a house by the woods near Indiana’s White River. Her work appears or is forthcoming in BUST, the Chattahoochee Review, Foglifter, The Nasiona, The Rumpus, and other publications. Her essays have been selected as finalists in the 2017 International Literary Awards and Creative Nonfiction's Spring 2018 Contest. You can find her on FacebookTwitter, or at www.emmahudelson.com.