Is Boyfriend’s Substance Abuse Self-Medication for Mood Disorder?

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Reader’s Question

I am a 23-year-old female, and I have been dating my boyfriend for a year. When we first met, he was abusing alcohol and drugs, which I thought led to his lack of motivation to get a job or finish school. I told him if he could finish school, get help with his abuse problems, and get a job to save money so we could travel together, I would pass up a great job opportunity of my own. We now live together and went through a period of adjustment in which he would still stay out all night abusing substances, but he has gradually been able to cut drugs and alcohol out of his life. Now that he no longer has substance abuse problems, however, he thinks about suicide often and feels as if he is a waste of a human being. He told me he realizes he has spent the last several years doing nothing with his life, yet cannot find the motivation to do anything now either. For awhile he did not tell me about his feelings of worthlessness because he said if he had told me he wouldn’t have been able to kill himself.

My boyfriend hasn’t always been this self-loathing and unmotivated. He is very intelligent and received his Associate’s degree at 17 while starting numerous clubs and organizations. He has now spent 5 years completing the last two years for his degree and lies to me about the classes he attends or the work he does. He has been unemployed for a year and a half. He knows that putting in the effort to finish school is crucial for me to feel that he respects what I have given up to be with him. But he can’t seem to find the emotion to care. I want to travel and feel that being with him will tie me down and keep me from doing what I want in life — but I am also afraid that if I go he will kill himself either by suicide or with alcohol and drugs. I love him dearly and want to help him if I can, but I can’t make him feel motivated or loved.

He is incredibly supportive, intelligent, and sweet, and he definitely is trying. He has given up a lot of his vices to make life better for us, but there’s something within him that is a much stronger force than I could ever be for him. I don’t understand how he did not feel depressed when abusing alcohol and drugs but feels this hopeless now that he has given them up.

Any insight would be appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

There are some fairly well known facts about substance use and mood disturbances that you should consider.

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The biochemistry of some individuals predisposes them to mood disturbances. Some of these individuals attempt to self-regulate their moods through the use of mood-altering substances. But because some substances have such a powerful impact on mood as well as the body’s biochemistry, chronic substance abuse can also create disturbances in the normal processes of mood regulation. In any case, it’s not uncommon for mood disturbances to become an issue once a one-time substance abuser makes a serious effort to kick the habit.

It’s important to recognize that although you care for this person, you are not responsible for his makeup or for his choices. You can, however, encourage him to seek appropriate help from a trained professional. These days, a wide variety of effective treatments is available to help people with mood disturbances. There are also professionals who are more uniquely qualified to address the issues of mood disturbances in those with a history of substance abuse.

You rightly indicate that you don’t have the power to be the sole motivating force in your boyfriend’s life. Encourage him to get the help he needs today.

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