Talking about the Black Dog

Today, I’m going to be talking about depression. Which counts as fair warning: Those who have no interest in this topic may wish to move on, now.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I do indeed “have” depression.  I also “have” hypothyroidism, another chronic illness.  I’m lucky in that these are the sum of my health afflictions, given All, and in balance neither really gives me. . .much problem.

Except, yanno, when they do.

The most recent depressive incident. . .which started to cloud in sometime, oh, around mid-2015. . . It wasn’t too bad at first — this is a chronic illness, which I’ve had for my entire life.  After you’ve lived with something for upwards of half-a-century, you develop coping strategies and rating systems, among other tools for getting through the day.

Anyway, the clouds started forming in mid-2015.  I did those things I knew to do — made sure I was getting enough (but not too much) sleep, and exercise, and interacting with people in Real Life, persisting at doing things that would normally give me pleasure. . .and, as sometimes happens, nothing much worked.  The clouds got blacker, and thicker.  I got duller, and forgetful, and even more inarticulate than usual.

Everything hurt, by which I mean it hurt to think, it hurt to have to cope with anything; personal interactions felt like a series of paper cuts — not stab wounds, because frankly I couldn’t work up enough energy to feel stabbed.  Life was a burden, and thinking was exhausting.

I drew hard on the cats, but even such cats as ours can only do so much, and belatedly I realized that white-knuckles, and waiting it out wasn’t getting me anything but duller, darker, and more exhausted.  My writing was suffering, and everything else, too.  So, I went to the doctor, reviewed the situation, and received a prescription for antidepressants.

I don’t like to take antidepressants, personally, so the ‘script was low-dose, just enough to take the edge of the pain, and make it possible to write, and more or less get through the day.

Things were still dreadful, naturally — the Black Dog had not left the room, he was just curled up on the rug, watching. Everything was still too hard, there was no joy, no humor, every one of my accomplishments was a failure in my mind.

And, all that changed, about a month ago.

No, it wasn’t the drugs; the drugs were only to help me continue coping.  And it wasn’t an Awesome Change in my General Situation.  Mark this, now, because it is key — nothing had changed.

Except that the Black Dog had left the building, and I was no longer depressed.

My accomplishments were once again victories; the fact that I’m old is a victory, because I really never expected to make it out of my thirties; I’m married to my best friend; I have energy; my vocabulary has leveled up; I can say what I mean to say — and I want to say it.

Like flipping on a light — trite, but true.

Since the last dark episode was so very long, I’m hoping to be Black Dog-free for quite some time.  I do so much enjoy being able to think clearly, and not have to fight for every concept — I can’t even tell you.  I enjoy being able to have ideas for stories*.  I enjoy — well.  Everything.

So, that’s all; no life-changing insights here.  Except that it always does amaze me — the change from dark to light, when it happens.  And the worst thing that depression does, among a dark legion of bad things — is withhold the hope of light.

*The moment I knew I had to do something other than Just Wait It Out was the moment when Steve and I were, supposedly, brainstorming a story, and I looked at him, said, “I don’t know, and I don’t care!” — and burst into tears.

24 thoughts on “Talking about the Black Dog”

  1. I can relate, although the Black Dog is still breathing down my neck. I just went back on antidepressants (for the umpteenth time), so hopefully I’ll be feeling better in a few months. I’m glad to hear that you are feeling pleasure in life again. Best wishes.

  2. Ah, Sharon. All of this is so true. And really struck home:
    “the worst thing that depression does, among a dark legion of bad things — is withhold the hope of light.” All I can do is commiserate. Glad it’s turned to light for you again.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience. When the light finally becones visible again, it is helpful (for me, anyway ) to know I am not alone.
    I find that having a regular contact with other people is helpful. You have had some severe obstacles toward that, I know.

  4. Thank you for this. For me the dog is in the house but not in the room with me. I can hear in the hall or downstairs. I am working on getting him out of the house. Sometimes I can get him to the door but he just. won’t. step. out!

  5. I have had that experience. And I too am hypothyroid, so I am medicated for that. There was a time when I was in denial and when I would take one of those 10 question magazine quizzes and 8 out of 10 answers said I was depressed, I just chalked it up to the fact that there were a lot of sad things going on in my life. I was never in danger of hurting myself over it, but I just didn’t care if I lived or died. However, I did get medicated for it and for the hypothyroid as well. It made a huge difference for me. My wife told me, “I feel like I got my husband back.” I wish I had done something earlier, but it can be hard for someone who is inside depression to realize that it isn’t necessarily life causing the sadness and loss of interest. Life is not a battle, but an exercise in navigation. Learning to get from here to there and not ending up on the rocks.

  6. You are preaching to the choir. I have lived with the Black Dog since childhood. No antidepressants worked until the advent of Paxil about twenty years ago. The mutt comes and goes a couple of times a year, and is generally manageable if I remember to take care of myself. But after the death of my father last year, he moved in for a long spell. I am finally back to what passes for normal and am grateful for his departure. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

  7. I’ve spent most of my life believing mental illness was an unusual problem but recently recognized that most of my closest friends have some close association with it. In my book club of 11 women, at least three take meds and two more have lost a sibling to suicide. I chose Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy last time I hosted and Jenny points out that when psych meds don’t work or stop working the response is something like well you didn’t really have a problem, buck up where they’d never say oh your cancer meds didn’t work so you don’t have cancer. Glad the dog has left and hope very much that he stays away.

  8. My doctor once told me, “It’s the intelligent woman’s disease.” Apart from possibly being sexist, I have to conclude he was right. We just have to be smart enough to recognize the need for help, and to ask for it. Scat, dog!

  9. I know in my head that I have been there – I remember bursting into tears when the luminescent stars I had stuck to my ceiling to cheer me up started falling on my bed – but it is long enough ago that it is now just a story I tell myself. I never developed coping mechanisms other than waiting it out because I was never faced with what would happen if I couldn’t cope, for which I am grateful. I have immense respect for people who fight through this affliction, and I appreciate everyone who shares their insight. While I hope I never need these skills myself, I find they help me support friends and family who are struggling with depression.

  10. I’m so glad you feel better. I’ve taken anti depressants for almost twenty years. There are some side affects I’m not crazy about (loss of libido, for one; monotone emotions for another) but I’ve discovered over the years that I just cannot live without them. I’m so glad you’ve banished the Black Dog. Enjoy. ?

  11. So very glad the light has come back for you. Other health issues make it harder to keep positive, I know; it’s much like OMGherd, I’ve got to shovel all that snow AGAIN??? A big help for me is that I’ve finally found a group of women to knit with once a week. So many diverse interests, backgrounds, but laughter and issues in common. Maybe you can find people to meet with for coffee, to keep an outward-looking perspective.

  12. The first onset was so insidious, but once I learned what to watch for, Paxil & an occasional counseling series works for me. I am getting tired of watching me over my own shoulder, but that’s the way it goes.

  13. I’m glad your feeling better now. I, too, know that depression is a sneaky thing, coming up on you when you are least expecting it. I have taken to wondering of late, if the beast is somehow encouraged by other illnesses. I have a variety of chronic illnesses for which I take a great many medicines, and now I find the beast trying to sneak up on me again and again. (I will never call this beast a black dog, because it was black dog that helped me hold things together when I was a teenager and ‘had nothing to be depressed about’. )

  14. Sharon, I’m glad the toxic cloud has lifted.

    I’ve been very lucky in my…genetics/upbringing with respect to depression. My mother has struggled against it for years, although I didn’t know it until I was in my 30s, most recently after her father died. She has sometimes told me that I must have it too. Her mother had had it as well, you see, but something from my dad’s side has protected me. The closest I’ve come was about a year long affair when I’d taken on a new area at work, and just hated it. I would half-jokingly tell myself that I’ve got to stay alive–I’m waiting for this or that book to be released! I finally got rid of that project, and went back to my main area.

  15. Mine comes and goes…usually (not always) one or another management things will work (getting enough sleep, eating better, exercise) and sometimes I have to go back on meds, but I do understand about the black dog and its presence “in the house” but not breathing down your neck…and that time when it’s just…gone. Whether it was there a few days or weeks or months…the relief when it’s just gone is, like recovery from other illnesses, a joyful rebound.

  16. So glad to hear that the clouds have lifted for you. Depression runs in my family, especially on my dad’s side (2 suicides – his brother & grandfather), though my maternal grandmother was on Paxil for years which is apparently an anti-depressant from what I read here. So far the worst problem I’ve had was back over 20 years ago when I still lived in Texas when I went through a spell of being able to go to work, but not able to do much of anything else except come home and collapse on the couch with a book. Like your situation, eventually I came out of it.
    Depression is not well understood by psychologists, psychiatrists and physicians. The same drugs don’t work the same way in everyone, and if I remember correctly it often goes away whether or not the patient gets treatment or not. But not treating isn’t really a viable option either; why should anyone hurt more than necessary.

  17. Yeah. I’m kind of in that ballpark. Mine’s is low level but chronic. I, too, draw heavily on my cat(s). By way of reaching out I invest too much of my heart in friendships where people take and take but rarely give. Things feel worse when the world reflects the bad feelings you have – homophobic behaviors; Black people literally being shot to death by the POLICE; etc. I started this journey by being diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. I would literally feel like the ‘sap’ was rising when the light returned in spring. Nothing had changed – all my teenage problems were the same but the literal light shown down and suddenly my mood brightened from one day to the next. It’s been decades since I felt that sharp difference. The clouds don’t part so often as I try to adult these days. It’s like always having a cold – no chance to rest from it and heal.

    I can only congratulate you on finding that clear space and I wish for you no return of the beast.

  18. Thanks, Sharon, for sharing this with us. The poor Dog has been my companion as long as I can remember. On again-off again meds showed me that on-again was definitely better than either/or…and a low dose that kept me on an even keel and happy, too. When the lows are so very low and emotion so intense I drown, the temporary respite can seem like numbness, until my brain chemistry evens out and the light looks bright again to me. Welcome back!

  19. I have suffered from depression as well. It’s so common as to be “almost normal.” Since you know you have a tendency, do frequent “system checks” on yourself and get to the health care provider for medication as soon as you see that the trend is downward and not letting up by 2-3 weeks. I used to wait until I had 3 days lying on the couch crying, but that’s too long to wait. Yes, the depression will cycle off in 12-18 months (for most people) without medication, but isn’t it better to be able to function and enjoy life during that time rather than drag around, wondering each day if life is worth living? There are some studies that associate untreated or under-treated depression with a higher incidence of dementia later in life. None of us would favor of that outcome. All that being said, I salute your courage for dealing with the issue and applaud your persistence for beating that black dog back.

  20. Another empathizer here. I do hope you’ve banished the Black Dog for a long time!

    The Black Dog lurks around the edges for me, and occasionally comes in and bites — hard. Medication helps; it’s been 22 years now and every time I have tried to quit, it’s been a disaster. I cope with the side effects and luckily have a very understanding husband. But what I would give to not have it!

  21. I’m grateful for this honest post, and for the opening of this thread stitching so many of us together haphazardly.

    Like many, many people I take high blood pressure medication and have various annoying problems with cartilage and other stuff that holds joints together. I don’t feel ashamed of taking meds for these conditions. But it makes my heart beat hard, despite having the shield of tenure, to admit the seriousness of my mental health issues with students struggling to complete work. Someone asked, during a faculty senate meeting, whether we could screen for this in the admissions process? (Tenure shields all kinds of thinking.)

    They wouldn’t say this about a student in a wheelchair, of course. Oddly it felt like a slap to hear my psychiatrist make this obvious observation: am I wheel-chair bound? Mental mobility is my stock in trade as an academic. It’s not always possible to wish oneself out of a wheelchair. I take three medications daily of pretty serious types and levels. They don’t send me off-kilter like being drunk: just make me… me. Like the mobility of a wheelchair. It doesn’t cancel out what-ifs and couldn’t-I thoughts.

    I don’t enjoy the high-energy attention of muddy, slobbery, sizeable and oblivious pets running amok at and below waist height. (That’s unpleasant.) Awkward situations of this sort should be of limited duration or curbed by patient training. I still do like black dogs, preferably short hair medium sized mutts who need rescue from a shelter. In the meantime, I have cats who train me and not vice versa.

    Ultimately, therefore, all is right in the world.

  22. Very glad to see this discussed openly. I’ve struggled on and off with it for years. Usually it arrives with other stresses, but then doesn’t leave. It pretends to leave, so I don’t bother calling for help. Then it comes back, and I’m not motivated to call for help. Then it leaves and I have no reason to call. Until it all spirals down and I can’t ignore the signs.

    Also good to see two very successful, prominent authors taking meds. My amateur writing group was convinced that andtidepressants would hurt their ability to write. Those who had tried them had what my doctor calls incomplete responses. The tears were gone, but the motivation didn’t come back.

    Then there’s the long, very long, list of things to do that are supposed to help, with no motivation and limited energy. Exercise. Eat right. Get sunlight. Go outside. Socialize. Meditate. No, that other form of meditation. Read books you enjoy. Make things. Fish oil and vitamin D. Eat that other thing, but not that first thing.

    This season, I’m cutting back on those outside commitments that are supposed to keep me moving. Strategic retreat. Temporary. It seems to be helping.

    My latest trial is meditation and self-compassion. They help with the part that says, “If you’d only do all those other things, the depression would go away. And if you don’t, you haven’t earned the right to ask for help.” They also help with just letting the emotions come, whether they’re appropriate or not. Once they’ve had a good turn, I’m able to see more clearly.

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