(image: screenshot from “Shutting out the Sun” trailer by Sightsphere)
I’m taking a bit of a break from music posts with this one. I’ve decided to get personal. I apologise if this topic is of no interest to you; stay tuned, the music ones will return shortly. I likewise apologise for the length. This is not a trivial topic, so I hope you stick with it. The chances are pretty good that you know someone who suffers from depression, even if you don’t know that they do.
And if you didn’t before, you do now.
The Black Dog
The topic of depression has resurfaced of late in the news, for reasons that are driven by tragedy (as the reasons almost always are, when depression becomes A Topic)…and there have been editorial responses to the intense focus on the background of the Germanwings pilot, which I will link to but not discuss, beyond noting that it is entirely understandable, under the circumstances, that people are anxious to know why a human being could have undertaken such a horrifically deliberate act.
What is more to my point, however, is this: when Robin Williams ended his life last year, there was much the same sudden flare of interest, with lots of blog posts and stories in the media. It was a rather different flavour of hand-wringing of course, because it was a much different kind of tragedy. But amongst all the earnest attempts To Understand and Be Sympathetic were peppered certain questions: (some, regrettably, from people I thought should know better) how could he do this? He had everything, certainly way more than most people. Fame, success; he was beloved, esteemed…the clear implication being that his was the ultimate act of sheer selfishness and disregard.
I am saddened (but not surprised) by that kind of response; it demonstrates that deep down, many people regard depression as a thing of fear and confusion. As much as they express sympathy, shock, regret, there still seems to be the underlying sense that somehow depression (especially this, because on the outside we are not obviously crazy) is a failing, a personality flaw, a weakness of self-discipline. People do want not to stigmatize, at the same time is the need for some kind of explanation. Tragedies like that aren’t supposed to “just happen”.
I get that. That is why I decided to write this post. If that notion has ever crossed your mind…you are mistaken. As Stephen Fry says…”There is no ‘why’ ”. That is not the right question”.
And I will add: if you or your loved ones have never suffered from this terrible thing, then drop to your knees and thank whatever deity, or karmic influence, or genetic luck of the draw, or whatever – for your good fortune. You do not know how lucky you are, and I sincerely hope you never find out.
The Black Dog arrives
This is my story. I can’t claim that my experience encompasses all experiences, it is just mine. If I can provide even a glimmer of understanding by doing this, then my effort will not be a waste. I have suffered from depression twice (arguably three times, it just depends on whether this current episode is a new one or a continuation of the last one, but hey, in the overall scheme of things it’s not like it matters…). This is me, below the fold.
So what is it like? Besides sucking majorly?
I think as if my thoughts are plowing through thick mud. Everything works, but very slowly, and I often get stuck. A routine task, like negotiating through a series of internet pages to get to a site, takes more time, because I get hung up along the way. I can’t stay focused long enough to get to the end. Sometimes it is such hard work that I just give up. That’s when I find myself clicking through screens and posts, seeing but not processing. I can do that shit for hours, cuz, you know, not thinking is Good.
I feel like I have two brains. There is the rational, objective one that says “Oh look: the sky is blue and clear, the day is warm and beautiful, you should get out there…” and the other one, the one that is currently in control, says “Yeah but who fucking cares. Let’s stare blankly at the floor.”
And so I do. It is probably impossible to explain just how completely and utterly depression robs you of even the most basic of motivations. Most people do not have to sit and argue with themselves about normal self-care. If you need a shower you go have one. I will sit staring at the floor, thinking about how I need to go have a shower, and it will take a supreme mental effort to stand up and walk down the hallway.
I get irritated extremely easily—snap first, feel bad later. That was actually my first clue that the black dog was sniffing round my heels again. I have very little patience with anyone at the moment, and I have to engage in exhausting mental wrestling to maintain a civil demeanour. You don’t want to be around me when I lose that battle, because I have a finely honed sarcasm blade and it can flay. Which of course leads to guilt and anger, and the Bad Thoughts start creeping from their dark corners…“Why should I be inflicting this bullshit on my loved ones? Why should they be forced to try to understand and deal with my difficulties? None of this is their fault. They don’t deserve that…”
Well, you know where that kind of thinking can lead. Depressives think a lot about how one might end oneself, it seems a perfectly normal thing to do. Of course, most of us have no intention of carrying it through, but still…it’s nice to have A Plan. And yes, the rational brain knows perfectly well how completely fucked up this mode of thinking is, you don’t have to explain it. But see, that brain isn’t in control any more. It’s just an outside observer.
It isn’t always complete blackness. The bleakness, the moods, they ebb and flow. We can laugh, make jokes, enjoy the company of people, engage in activities that help to disconnect us from the black dog for a while…and no doubt this fact makes it so difficult for others to understand. We often seem like normal people. We function. We can be past masters at hiding the big hole inside us, and we work hard at it. We depressives might be the greatest actors of all.
But eventually the effort exhausts me. Inside…every day I carry around that bubble of pain, in my breast, in my throat, all the time. Sometimes it recedes, it shrinks down and it is just a dull throb behind the breastbone. And other times it swells up and chokes me, takes my breath, dulls my vision, paralyzes my mind and muscles. The trick is to do my best to make sure you can’t tell the difference.
My first undeniable bout with depression occurred when I was in graduate school. If you looked up Major Depressive Disorder in the textbook, my picture was there. I had all the classic symptoms, which made identification and diagnosis real easy.
First, I stopped sleeping. Not gradually, just bang. I lay awake all night, miserably awaiting some unknown, unspoken catastrophe. If I dozed it was in fits and starts. I realize now that a big component of that depressive episode was anxiety, but I had no word for it then. I just lay blinking into the dark, my heart pounding in my throat, night after night after goddamned night.
I stopped eating. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel hungry, I just had no motivation to feed myself. Eating was a chore. I swallowed enough to still the pangs and then I simply stopped. For the first (and last) time in my life since puberty, I weighed less than 100 pounds. My clothes hung on me. This is not a weight-loss program I would recommend.
I lost complete interest in sex. It wasn’t as simple as loss of desire or difficulty in getting aroused…it was as if the entire idea was couched in a language from another planet. It was a completely foreign, abstract notion. Yet another layer of difficulty for a partner making an absolutely heroic effort to understand what the hell was wrong with me.
And remember: I was in grad school. So when I say that my ability to concentrate was thoroughly trashed, at least some of you will know exactly the implications. Reading for comprehension became a sick joke. I couldn’t stay focused long enough to get anywhere, nor could I remember what I had read. Where I used to blast through research papers in a couple of hours, I now couldn’t get through a page in that time. Meanwhile I was trying to complete research of my own, take part in seminars, do presentations, and write papers while maintaining the required academic rigor necessary to avoid being booted out. I don’t think I ever slogged so hard. And yes, it hurt me academically, and personally: When I was home, I simply had nothing left to give my family. I stared at the walls, or clicked unseeing through the internet.
I didn’t waste any time getting my ass to the doctor. I knew what was wrong with me; I was put on Prozac and we all crossed our fingers. It can take many weeks for these drugs to work, and they are no magic bullet: there are no magic bullets. Eventually though they worked. Within a year I was done with them, and with the depression.
And scared to death that it might happen again.
Last year I fell again. But this time the Black Dog was crafty; it crept up on me, sly and insidious, concealing itself inside other things. I was largely oblivious, because it was different than the first time. Even though I knew I was at risk for a repeat performance, and had long enabled a sort of emergency mood alert system…I missed the signs. Well, to be perfectly honest, I ignored and denied the signs.
I was undergoing a bit of an emotional crisis, but I wasn’t, you know, depressed. My sleep patterns got screwed up, but that is to be expected when sadness drives you to bed at 9 pm…I cycled through rounds of sleep/wake until the alarm sounded at 5:30. I wasn’t concentrating well, and I found it difficult to maintain an interest in my drawing projects: many were started, but none were completed. I read nothing for pleasure. It is so blindingly obvious now what was wrong with me, but I simply didn’t see it at the time. I never lost appetite for either food or sex, I didn’t have really bad thoughts, I might have been a bit snappish, but everyone has bad moods. I was mostly just sad, but I thought I knew why. And I trundled along like that for months and months.
It all started to unravel when I traveled to Austria. In hindsight I probably shouldn’t have gone, but given the reasons for the trip it is doubtful God himself could have talked me out of it. And just like the first time, the turning point was my inability to sleep, at least in any meaningful sense of the word, and I started to spin down. By the time we got to Balve, Germany and the concert, I was clinging to sanity by the thinnest of threads. If I came across as any way normal (although at least one person, I think, suspected not all was right)…well, remember: we can be tremendous actors.
The crisis hit when I returned home. I have to say that of all the shit that depression dumps on us, the inability to sleep is the one thing I dread the most. I became almost psychotic. My own doctor was on vacation, so I managed to talk another one in the same office into prescribing me some sleep meds…which failed to work very well. So one night, I gathered up the prescription meds, stacked up all the useless OTC sleep aids I had accumulated, and started calculating quantities and dosages.
You have to understand: I was not aiming to die, that was not the intent at all. The calculations were to avoid it. But I was so desperate to sleep, so fucking insane from lack of it, that the possibility that I wouldn’t wake up again really did seem like a perfectly reasonable risk to take. And this is something I have never revealed to anyone before.
At my next visit to the doctor I got some different meds, which took a bit longer to kick in, but eventually did. But stupidly, I went off them probably too soon. I am distressed that this has returned yet again. But this time I’m ready for that damned Black Dog, and I will deal with it. I am sorry for the grief and confusion I will inevitably cause people in the meantime.
If there are people in your life you know or suspect are suffering, what can you do? I will return to that in a moment, because it is a tough question.
However, I sure as hell can advise you what not to do. And often NOT doing these things can make us just as abjectly grateful as doing something. So please: do not tell us to “feel better”. Do not suggest we think nice thoughts, exercise, socialize more, go to museums, listen to music, smile; PLEASE do not post “inspirational” memes, brainless flowery aphorisms, links to natural cures and fixes to our timelines. We are depressed, not mentally defective. Most of us are fully aware of what is wrong with us and what steps we should be taking, and yes we know you are sincere and well-meaning, but that sort of thing can so easily come across as condescending bullshit that trivializes a condition that destroys lives. If you are not sure what to say, a virtual hug will do.
Be present. Be willing to listen, to anything, at any time. Have patience. It can be hard, especially if we simply retreat into ourselves and go silent, but believe me…knowing that someone is out there and willing to hold our hand or wrap their arms around us even virtually, means everything. Lack of response doesn’t mean lack of appreciation. Remember: you are dealing with people who at some deep level, when the black dog is home and the nights are long and bleak, honestly believe they are not worth loving.
If you have managed to get to the end of this, you are brave and virtuous and I love you.
That’s all I got. Thank you for listening.