Why Self-Discipline is the Best Anti-Depressant

My default coping mechanism has always been hedonism. But thanks to training self-discipline, I am finally finding happiness in balance.

Image credit: Celeste Mountjoy

For as long as I’ve been able to legally drink alcohol I’ve been hedonistic. I never missed a freshers’ party and when my flatmates stopped going out in the second year of uni, I would easily spend most weekday evenings alone on the sofa gulping down an entire bottle of wine, or carelessly going clubbing the night before exams after only a few hours of Wikipedia cramming. Looking back, I guess the drinking — and generally not giving a shit — was a classic case of teenage rebellion, after spending so many years under the governance of strict parents who, although facilitating academic success, did all they could to limit pretty much all of my personal freedoms.

Eating, drinking, doing whatever I wanted was all fun and games, but my total lack of self-control promoted a burgeoning mental instability which left me without the tools to deal with my grandmother’s passing that summer. I sunk into my first wave of depression: a two-year period punctuated by doctor’s notes and deadline extension requests, finally resulting in the rash decision to quit my degree six months before the finish line.

During that time, I felt so numb I’d rather feign sickness than leave my dark little studio flat: my only strong emotions stemming from university-induced guilt and low self-esteem. I hate to say it but the doctor was pretty much useless. Every time I mustered the strength to get off my ass and try to do something about it, I was met with the generic are-you-depressed questionnaire and sent home with a magic-wand prescription: “it’s your choice whether you pick it up, but it’ll definitely fix you up.” Desperate for any solution but medication, I went cold turkey on the contraceptive pill which, quite remarkably, ended up being the quick fix that no medical professional would dare endorse. Miraculously, the mental fog lifted and I could finally appreciate living again.

Ascending to hedonism’s higher planes was an act of pure curiosity, rather than sadness or rebellion. I had always vowed never to touch drugs, but getting increasingly absorbed into underground nightlife — where dropping a bomb with your beer is as standard as a sugar cube in your tea — I became desensitised to drug-taking. My initially cautious once-a-month consumption spun quickly into a non-stop whirlwind of weekends: two to three sleepless days of each week mindlessly shovelling any available pill or powder into my system before dragging my thinning body through work days, getting pissed on week nights, and eagerly counting down the days till I could begin the destructive cycle once more.

In the midst of this frenetic lifestyle, there was no time for reason or reflection. Any free moment was spent seeking out the next source of intoxication, and even though one of my eyes was constantly swollen and unsightly from sleep deprivation, my menstrual cycle had all but ceased, and my work, finances and relationships were deteriorating, any niggling anxieties or responsibilities were lost in the ecstasy of everlasting escapism: a place where fun was indistinguishable from happiness.

The excessive substance abuse was part and parcel of the scene — it felt fine because everyone was doing it — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a coping mechanism. Before I took to relentless partying, I had been writing for publications and styling fashion shoots, but failed to get anyone to actually pay me for my work so that I could leave my fruitless retail job and move forward with my real ambitions. Disenchanted with my passions, I filled the void with feeling good.

Teetering on the brink of annihilation, something had to give, and it was my partner in crime (later in life) who initiated our eventual escape to Berlin. I think we both knew it was time for a change — at the very least, swapping out weekends chatting utter nonsense in the same boring clubs or living rooms for the exotic allure of a vibrant new city. And despite now living in one of the most notoriously hedonistic metropolises, away from the toxic people and patterns of our former city, our heavy drug use rapidly declined. Each day became an exciting opportunity to discover something new and on nights out, drugs didn’t feel compulsory any more. The radical change of environment had seemingly restored me back to health.

Although I wasn’t getting fucked up nearly as often, my hedonistic spirit endured. Rather than losing my mind at parties, I took to drinking bottled beers and smoking weed and cigarettes. A definite case of when-in-Rome syndrome, and certainly not as harmful to my body as my former lifestyle had been. But several months in, my world began to shake again.

At first, I couldn’t attribute an explanation to the resurgence of my anxiety and depression, but looking back I can put some of it down to the hair-pulling trauma of trying to find permanent accommodation in Berlin, and the rest to my progressively lax attitude to what I was putting in my body. Panic parasited on me daily, my self-esteem hit rock bottom and I felt the “old me” washing away amidst a sea of tears and paranoia. I took advantage of my freelancer status and gradually stopped going to the office, drinking at lunchtime and grabbing for the weed as soon as the clock hit six-thirty for a few hours of evening delirium — even though sometimes it only elevated my anxiety. Weekends were for chain smoking and binge drinking. I had lost control.

Everyone knows that taking drugs for happiness is basically the same as eating Big Macs for weight loss, but when you’re knee-deep in this shit, all you want is a few moments of pain relief. I count myself lucky for my boyfriend’s tireless counselling and my immutable passion for techno, which could almost always lift me from my misery and temporarily transport me to comforting familiarity. With a gentle push from him, I began to creatively re-engage with my mixing hobby, and we set the wheels in motion for our own monthly radio show and club night. Being a DJ was something I never thought I would have the guts to do, but two months later I found myself behind the booth, the unlikely recipient of dance floor applause. My long-lost sense of ambition had returned in a shiny new ride with a newfound confidence in the passenger seat.

Most instrumental to my recovery, however, was regaining enough self-worth to readdress my self-destructive tendencies. It’s fucking hard to not be in denial — not to fall for the seductions and false promises of the overgrown devil on your shoulder — but I have learnt that the moment I allow myself to lose self-discipline, I leave myself vulnerable to negative emotions, and less able to process them. I’ve come to realise that there really are no lasting quick fixes with depression; it’s only by reconnecting with yourself — learning to love yourself and listen to what you really need — that you can begin to emerge from the darkness, move towards healthy new goals and finally find the strength to show your devil who the hell’s in charge. Everything in moderation, including excess.