Partying with Depression Turned My Life Upside Down
What do you do when the comedown never ends and the club is your only escape?
Illustration by Sarah Schmitt
Every clubgoer has experienced a shitty feeling or two the day after a big party. Sometimes it can just be a bad mood and even worse hangover, while other times it's a hollow feeling of sadness. Some people refer to this feeling as "post-party depression." Well-meaning friends might tell you that this feeling goes away eventually—others will just tell you to simply not party and avoid the comedown altogether. But what happens when this feeling of sadness lingers? What do you do when you can't even talk about how you're feeling, because there's no obvious reason for it? What's it like when you're clinically depressed and the club is your only regular attempt at an escape?
Depression is pretty common and an estimated 350 million people suffer from it around the world. In clinical terms, my own case is called dysthymia, which according to Wikipedia "is a mood disorder consisting of the same cognitive and physical problems as in depression, with less severe but longer-lasting symptoms." Since the symptoms of dysthymia are less intense than with classic depression—which often is experienced in episodes—some suffer with it for years before they seek help and get a diagnosis. I was one of those people. The symptoms of my own condition were easily attributed to various aspects of my personality: I was overly sensitive, pessimistic, and negative. These feelings first appeared during my childhood. Some kids went about their lives with ease, but that was quickly lost on me.
Friends were never much help, and the usual platitudes—like "everyone feels this way sometimes"—would often only make me feel worse inside. I started to put an insane amount of pressure on myself to finally get it together. In college, even good grades couldn't satisfy my inner critic. I eventually turned to alcohol as an escape. But drinking often led to aggression, emotional breakdowns, or crying for hours on end. The next day would be centered around the shame of the previous night's behavior, which in turn would propagate a new cycle of self-hatred and criticism. I was studying in a small town at first but I eventually transferred to a school in Berlin, the epicenter of club culture, to continue working toward my major.
My propensity for destructive escapism found a lot of fuel in Berlin. I could spend days in an altered state that gave me a different, better feeling than my oppressive normal condition. I soon started taking drugs. I didn't always take them, but when I did, I would feel stronger and more positive. Maybe you know what I mean: You aren't yourself on drugs, but at the same time, you're totally you. During these drug-taking hours, my burdensome and crippling mental mechanisms seemed to be switched off.
After the first time I took MDMA, I realized that my old ways of thinking were back and more intense than ever before. My close friends traced my feelings back to the drug itself, which, as science has proven, will lower your serotonin levels. I thought it would all be ok and that after a few days I would be back to my normal self. Still, being myself meant being depressed. Still, I thought taking MDMA would be better than alcohol, since that only ever put me in more danger.
I started consuming MDMA regularly and by the time Monday came each week, I'd already be looking forward to the weekend's party. I repeatedly would go out, take drugs, and feel good for a short time, only to feel deeply depressed for the next day. I experienced long bouts where I couldn't get out of bed. It got so bad that I started to choose classes that were scheduled at the end of the week. I continued to live this way because I thought the state I was in was the closest I could get to happiness. One time when I was on the dancefloor, a woman turned to me and said, "You're so happy. I've never seen someone looks so happy." She stood there for a while watching me while her boyfriend kept trying to pull her away, until she finally went with him.
Over time, the positive effect of partying had diminished and near-breakdowns were piling up. The emotional highs were coupled with new lows—emotional outbursts which brought back suppressed childhood memories. Leaving the party started getting harder because I was afraid of the comedown. One time I spent a long night at Club de Visionare, followed by a trip to the pinnacle of hedonistic clubbing: Berghain. The bouncers there, who are infamously feared, said to me—no joke—that I should go home and sleep for a few hours, then they would let me in. I complied, but ended up drinking beer on a couch behind the club. There I met a homeless man, who told me a bit about his life. He said how he missed his daughter who he hadn't seen in five years, and I wondered to myself how I could possibly complain about my own situation. Before I left I gave him ten euros; half for alcohol, the rest for a phone call to his daughter. He accepted the offer.
I made it back to Berghain and got in this time, but after three hours there I just felt alienated from everyone as well as from myself. It was three in the afternoon when I left. I walked to the East Side Gallery with tears in my eyes, listening to an Austra album. I lay down on the grass and started crying, surrounded by other visibly happy people. Someone asked, "Can I help you somehow?" I just shook my head.
The spiral of self-accusations got worse in the time that followed. I started thinking more and realized that I should get help, but I still didn't manage to actually do so. Looking back, I know that not being able to seek help was just another part of my illness. Nevertheless, I'd still go out and party. My friends advised me to go into therapy and after weeks trying to pick up the phone, I made an appointment with a therapist specializing in deep analysis. After the first session it was clear that I needed treatment. But first I had to stop taking all legal and illegal drugs, which was something I couldn't do at the time. I decided to keep on doing what I had been doing, looking for something I knew I couldn't find inside the club. My studies were soon affected and so was my relationship with my partner at the time. As hard as your partner may try, they can't empathize with this feeling. It's not as simple as just permanently being sad or crestfallen. The only thing you can feel is powerlessness.
When I met my girlfriend back then, things got better. But a relationship can't rescue everything and it can increasingly suffer over time if one partner is suffering from depression this all-consuming. You simply can't imagine a future together when your own future seems so gloomy and doomed. I often felt misunderstood, helplessly trying to explain that this state was just the way I was. On other days in turn, the problems caused by my mental state seemed to be a burden.
I used my last bit of energy, which I was only able to muster because of external financial pressure, and finished my degree. For many, college is followed by an emptiness—a hole that everyone talks about falling into. For me, it was one that I had already experienced. I partied more after finishing my thesis, not because I was happy, but because it was a routine at this point. The months that followed were the same and my mental state got even worse.
Today, I see for the first time that life could have been better for me. This discovery came from exterior factors, like my girlfriend, who gave me a phone and the number of a help line. "I'm not leaving until you make the call," she said. She was right. I found a therapist and was diagnosed, which in itself was relieving. Finding out that some things differentiate you from other people, from those who just feel down sometimes, meant a lot to me. Of course, this feeling of relief eventually subsided. But through the weekly therapy sessions, I got perspective on how to achieve happiness, even if social situations make it hard for me to do so.
I still party today, but without MDMA or similar drugs. Because despite the promising research with MDMA and ketamine in psychotherapy, the comedowns after an excessive night of partying on ecstasy are harder to get through for depressed people. So any therapist is right in advising you not to take drugs while in therapy. And since my treatment is going to go on for the rest of my life, I must avoid substances forever.
Nightlife is especially attractive for people who suffer from mental illness. If you have issues sleeping—like I do—you can block this out by going out, and especially in a nocturnally-friendly city like Berlin. By now there are some DJs who talk about how playing at night changed their lives; how living that lifestyle for years masked their own mental state or brought about certain issues.
The image of a depressed person is often dominated by the cliché of a sad person sitting in the corner, unable to have any fun. But if you aren't depressed yourself, then think about it: Maybe the depressed person isn't the person lingering at the dancefloors with a dour expression on their face—they could be the happy-looking person right next to you.
This article was originally published on THUMP.