This also appeared on the Good Men Project, December 2016.
Throw a proverbial rock somewhere on the internet and you’re going to run across at least one essay trying to tell a non-depressed person what it feels like to have depression. It’s not just feeling sad all the time or having no energy, it’s a complex emotional state that is defined more by its self-perpetuation than exclusively by what emotions are experienced. (I know, I know… blasphemy.) Maybe it sounds callous to say, “Okay, we get it,” but seriously – we do.
Yes, I know that many, many people who suffer from depression would like their loved ones to know that they can’t just “snap out of it”, that it’s not about “adjusting attitude”. Most people these days are in such a state for whatever reasons that drugs are heavily indicated. It sucks. I’ve been there myself, and I know how rough it is. I really, really do.
There’s a whole other side of the story that seems to get left out.
The Black Dog
The best description of clinical depression that I’ve ever seen is the Black Dog analogy. Imagine that this emotion is a large shaggy black dog that has a particularly pungent air. It follows you around, sits on your lap when you’re trying to get close to pretty much anyone else, and actively interferes with life. It eats your food before you have a chance. It flounces around at night and keeps you from sleeping. It sits on you during the day, keeping you from getting up and being productive. Even if you manage to leave the dog in another room, you can still smell it. It’s still there. It’s always affecting you, anytime, day or night, even if sometimes aren’t quite as bad as others.
I make the differentiation between “clinical depression” and “situational depression” deliberately. Frankly, there are sometimes when, yes, you have every reason in the world to be depressed. You got fired from a job you loved for reasons you don’t understand. A very close and dear loved one died. Your job and living situation sucks balls, and there’s no real clear pathway to making it better. As the wise man once said, “Before diagnosing yourself with depression, make sure first you are not merely surrounded by assholes.” That is situational depression.
Clinical depression is when, for all intents and purposes, everything around you is great (or at least not awful), but you just can’t enjoy it. Maybe it’s a projection from the past coloring this moment, such as with PTSD. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. The point is that, for whatever reason, you are unable to see anything except the dull grey darkness, occasionally punctuated by fits of anger or guilt or shame. One friendly moment does not a cure make, and efforts to “snap out of it” are often fruitless. Nothing that made you happy before works, and everything tastes bland and distant.
It doesn’t just suck for you
The Black Dog sucks to live with as a constant companion, I know it. You know what else sucks? Living with someone who lives with a Black Dog, especially when they refuse to acknowledge it.
Imagine hanging out with your friend and having this huge smelly nasty wet beast taking up three-quarters of the couch while you’re trying to have a conversation. It doesn’t just sit there, no: it fidgets and it whines and it constantly gets between the two of you. You try to point out to your friend that it’s really hard to talk with this ridiculous dog in the way, but they say, “It’s not a big deal, just ignore it, that’s what I do.”
Ha effin’ ha. No. You’re not just ignoring it. You’re complicit in its game to consume you whole. It’s isolating you from the people closest to you, and you seem to be letting it. To my gentle readers: don’t jump down my throat just yet. I know, some people are awesome about listening to feedback from loved ones and recognizing that maybe they’ve sunk further than they thought. I’m specifically talking about the scenario where someone is reeking of nasty wet dog fur all the time and they make every excuse to ignore it.
“That’s not wet dog smell, it’s just the trash that wasn’t taken out.”
“I’m not pinned to the couch right now, I just really want to watch this ninth hour of ‘CSI’ reruns, again, in case I missed something.”
“I don’t really want to snuggle right now, I really have my hands full with this do– I mean, I’m not in the mood.”
The absolute worst part is that it’s a talking dog, but it only speaks vague-truths and lies. It dresses up the slightest detail to be the biggest deal, it ignores critical information, it hijacks entire conversations if they look like they might be productive… and by “productive”, of course I mean “contributing to working through the depression”. It speaks for the person it’s stalking, and it says really sh*tty things to their loved ones and it whispers back to its person even worse things. (I named my own Black Dog “Bad Voice” for exactly this reason.)
Let’s say it’s you that has the Black Dog. Here’s what your loved ones experience: You no longer take part in anything that requires effort. Your cycle of insomnia and lethargy completely remove you from any kind of family or social life. If someone does manage to get you involved in a social event, it takes you so long to recharge from that experience that you’ll miss the next two or three opportunities if you can. You say really fucking awful things to your S.O. The dark thoughts in your head that you think are “just thoughts” influence your decisions and set you up to look like a proper asshole. You beg off when people are supposed to rely on you. You get really selfish over stupid things. You ignore the things that were more precious and important to you before. All of your emotional investments are turned upside down and everything that you ever loved is called into question. Everything is left for someone else to carry, and you don’t seem to care if things get done or not.
If you’re really, really lucky, your S.O. will be understanding and compassionate, but if you’re actively ignoring the Black Dog, how far do you think that’s going to take you? How patient can they really be and for how long? If your S.O. knows you’re depressed, knows about the Black Dog, that buys you time, but it doesn’t buy you forever.
No one wants to be in a relationship with a person that they can’t touch or talk to or be intimate with. No one wants to choose to sleep with a revolting matted malodorous Black Dog. Some people do anyway with the faith that it’s really only temporary.
I’m not telling you this to make you feel guilty. I’m pretty sure you’re already there and probably live there. I’m telling you this because one of the most common lies that the Black Dog tells is that you don’t matter, that your actions or your presence don’t matter. You have no impact on anything around you, and if anyone wants you around, it’s for what you give, not what you are.
If you knew how much the Black Dog steals away from the people who love you, would you fight it?
It’s probably never going to go away, but it can be tamed
Again, this is coming straight from personal experience.
Once you have a Black Dog, you’re not going to get rid of it. I’ve come to think of mine as a “canine of variable size and shade”. If you focus on getting rid of the Black Dog as the “victory scenario”, you’re setting yourself up for failure. In fact, it’s probably the Black Dog telling you this, that the only way to be happy again is to get rid of it, but that’s not strictly true.
Imagine now that the Black Dog is actually an important and vital part of your personality, but because it was injured at some point, it spun out of control. The way through is not to get rid of it but to tame it. It’s trying to tell you things, and while those things are dangerous and destructive, they can’t resonate with you unless they have a tiny little core of truth. The trick is to find it and understand what it means outside of the context of the dark words the Black Dog speaks. Sometimes it’s that your fly really was undone the whole time you were on stage in front a thousand people. Sometimes it’s just a need to bolster your confidence.
Open your mouth and talk. Any therapist will tell you that the most important step in any kind of recovery is to actually acknowledge the beast and talk about the feelings. BUT, you have to remember that they are just feelings. If they were facts, they would feel totally different. Black Dog might try to tell you that they’re facts, but Black Dog doesn’t know any facts. (Black Dog is a liar, remember.) Talk to a counselor, talk to a lover, talk to a parent, a best friend, anyone. Preface with, “I don’t need advice, I just need to get this off of my chest.” If your talking partner is clever, they’ll know that this moment has to be about you – not about them, and not about the Black Dog itself.
Trust your loved ones. If someone is calling you out on depressive behaviors, pay attention. Black Dog is an abusive partner, and relationships don’t get abusive all at once; they ease you into it. Sometimes it takes someone else pointing out what may or may not be okay to trigger recognition from you that, hey, you haven’t bathed in a week and when was the last time you had an actual meal. The very fact that someone was willing to ask if you’re okay already points that they care about you. (I promise, it’s not the week-long shower-less funk motivating the question, this time.)
If you don’t think you can trust anyone else, turn to a blank page. Get the thoughts out of your head and onto the paper to see if they are really worth considering. Most of the time, once you’ve done that two or three times for about twenty minutes each, you’ll find that you can think of at least one person who would be willing and able to listen, or you’ll at least have a better understanding of your own thought processes.
Not gonna lie, it’s really hard. The single most difficult thing I have every done was force myself to get up off the couch and make the Black Dog stay behind – and I’ve had multiple natural childbirths. As I pointed out at the beginning, the very nature of clinical depression is that it is self-perpetuating. It can come up with thousands of excuses to justify itself, but in the end, they are only just excuses. The good news is, if you can just break out once, get a little exercise in once, let yourself be cuddled and snuggled, the next time is going to be just a little easier. It’s still not going to be a cakewalk, but it won’t be as hard as the first time.
And if you still can’t get the dog smell off, fix your nose. By that, I mean talk to your doctor about medication. A lot of times, you’ll only need meds for a short period of time so that you can adjust your perspective while you learn better coping mechanisms. No one on the planet is suffering from a “Prozac deficiency”.
Finally, please remember: you’re not less of a man/woman/winner by asking for help, you’re more of a human.