The Days of the Black Dog

Posted: March 21, 2012 in Braak
Tags: ,

I’ll write about it, because this sort of thing is always difficult to talk about  to another person. Not just because it gets stuck in your throat, which it does, and who knows why?  Shame, probably, which I suspect is close to the root of the whole thing.  But also because when you talk about depression, there’s always a host of reasonable questions that the person to whom you’re speaking thinks of, and they ask them, and so you never make any progress.

“Why don’t you cheer up?”

“Why don’t you go find something to do?”

“Why don’t you focus on the good things, or how lucky you are?”

Alternately, they’ll try and say things that make you feel better, all of which miss the essential point.

“Everything will be okay.”

There are, obviously, a lot of different ways that everything will or won’t be okay.  For instance, thousands of people will probably die from African sleeping sickness while I’m writing this, and things won’t be okay for them.  As it stands, despite the depression, things technically are pretty okay for me, so what do I have to complain about?  This is either a meaningless platitude or a flat-out lie.  All of which makes it hard to talk to another person about.

This one came on me subtly, so I just spent the last few days wondering why I was so tired all the time, or why I couldn’t concentrate, or why I wasn’t getting anything done.  You think of depression as a kind of sadness, like the way you feel when you watch a movie that makes you cry, only all the time.  Maybe it’s like that for some people.  For me, it’s not.  For me it’s a kind of drawing away, like I’m being pulled off course by some mysterious psychic lodestone, one that gradually but firmly puts me out of synch with the rest of the world.

It’s abetted by the fact that I usually feel out of synch with the rest of the world.  Like the way that I talk to other people never quite lines up with what I mean; I’m always straddling this shifting line between being funny and being a boor.  Between being a wit and being a pedant.  So I’m drawn away, drawn out of the world that everyone else seems to share, and every attempt to reach out just seems to isolate me further.  Like the population has been replaced by Martians when I wasn’t looking, all sensitive to cryptic signs that have no meaning to me anymore, and every time I try to speak their weird Martian language, I just embarrass myself further.

And there is also a kind of hollowing out. “Emptiness” is an easy thing to say, and sometimes I think that the word just lets us gloss over what the feeling really is.  When a person says they feel like they’re empty, what does that mean?  It’s a kind of sapping of vitality, I suppose.  A lack of wants.  A lack of care.  It’s not the same thing as being carefree, because the attendant anxieties, the shames of failure, that inward-gripping anger, it’s all still there.

You’re constantly aware of how much you haven’t done, how good you aren’t at what you’ve set your mind to, how you’ve let down everyone you know in some form or another and all this hurts.  But instead of being galvanizing, energizing, invigorating, instead of driving you to new efforts, it enervates you.  You don’t think about giving up.  You can’t decide to give up, because deep down, something inside you already has given up.

It’s why you can’t talk your way out of a depression, when you’re down at the bottom you can’t muster your forces and get your shit together.  Depression eats away at will itself.  You can’t overcome it with will, because your will is the thing it takes from you.  There’s no getting your shit together, not because you don’t have the shit, but because you’ve lost the getting. This is a thing that I think is hard for people to understand: depression doesn’t just make you unhappy.  It takes away your ability to want to be happy.

Therapists ask you, sometimes, when you talk about depression, if you’ve ever contemplated suicide, and the question is another one that misses the mark wildly.  I think about suicide all the time.  Every imagined slight, every frustration, every thrill of anger turns into an imagined razor blade, a plan to let myself quietly go somewhere, an urge to reach down my own throat and tear out my heart.  Is that contemplating suicide?  Self-loathing, I’ve always thought, is the root of depression; when you loathe yourself, every thought leads back to suicide.  Suicide is the core of your being.

The question misses the point because people who kill themselves don’t do it out of a sudden burst of sadness, like they watched a thousand Steel Magnolias all at once, and the outpouring of wretching tears so overwhelmed them that they couldn’t live anymore.  People who are depressed and commit suicide do it because of a long, slow erosion of themselves; because of a sense of hopelessness that all those wants and cares, of that foundation of inner strength, is never going to come back.

Because we think, not in a pious or a theatrical way, but in a resigned and careless way (because depression is not theatrical, depression is dry and empty and enervating) that a lot of people we know really would be better off without us.

And all of this is accompanied by that same shame, that same sure knowledge that there are thousands of people who are worse off, who have suffered boils and disease and hardship and managed to power through it.  The very act of talking about it is another imaginary lash that you flog yourself with, knowing that you’re dwelling on a thing that’s so insubstantial, so inessential, so pathetic that you can’t but hate yourself for even bringing it up.

Look at me, I can’t even talking about it using the first-person, because acknowledging that it’s me that feels this way only fuels that loathing, only makes me feel like I’m begging for attention or sympathy, and there it is again.  If you haven’t been there you don’t understand:  no amount of attention or sympathy makes it go away.  Attention and sympathy aren’t the cure; they aren’t what I want.

I don’t know what the cure is.  I don’t want anything.

  1. Jefferson Robbins says:

    Hey, look, man … I know sympathy is not the answer. So how about empathy? I’ve been there, and it’s inexplicable, so the fact that you are attempting an explanation is a worthwhile grappling. I’m glad you are sharing this.

    And for what it’s worth? I like the witty/pedantic, funny/boorish Braak. That’s a guy I’m glad to have encountered, even if it’s only a net-friendship. I’ll look forward to matching quips with him again. I hope it’s soon.

  2. abbytron says:

    We are not so different, you and I.

  3. SB7 says:

    You just said a lot of things I’ve wanted to be able to say for a long time.

    I don’t know if that makes you feel any better, however marginally or briefly, but I really appreciate you posting this. Thank you.

  4. braak says:

    I actually came pretty close to deleting it after I wrote it. But I figured, maybe if I have so much trouble talking about it, maybe some other people do, too.

    So, well, there it is.

  5. abbytron says:

    You’ve probably seen me mention it here or there, usually in like a joking way on Twitter or something, because of course I feel like talking about it when it’s really bad, but I don’t really know how, or to whom or … well, you know. But for reals. I feel like this all the time, for most of my adult life, except for those few years when I took pills, and I can hardly even remember those years. People who think that depression is about unhappiness frustrate me, because they don’t realize that it’s not a mood at all. It’s a state of being that I can’t control at all. I can even feel “happy” while depressed, insofar as I understand happiness. Does it count if I’m watching a television show I really like and enjoying it, despite the knowledge that my life has no meaning and I don’t ever want to leave my couch?

    Anyway, I love the way you explained this because it really is cool knowing other people really really understand how I feel all the time, and don’t just say they understand. Like, the way you wrote this, I know you know what it’s like. Which still sucks for us both, but hey, at least we have each other.

  6. John Jackson says:

    Funny that it was playing Skyrim for untold hours that taught me the meaning of the word ‘enervating’. I want to say something empathetic and boosting, but that would miss the point of this post entirely, so I’ll try something else.

    I think a huge problem with how we live our lives today comes down to mysteriously misleading expectations. Just as those persevering and downright ebullient people find it utterly impossible to understand depression, I imagine you (and others I know, possibly me too) find it utterly impossible to understand them. I can’t speak for everyone of all walks of life, but I don’t think many people persevere through sheer determination all the time, or than anyone is ever optimistic all the time.

    I harken back to a term I either read somewhere (or made up because I’ll take credit for it if I can): pragmatic fatalism. All there is in life is our actions, so let’s make them count; it’s not like life means anything in the end, or that we’re self-aware enough to change our paths, so we best keep on going; besides, there’s stuff that needs to get done tomorrow, so I may as well do it.

    “Does it count if I’m watching a television show I really like and enjoying it, despite the knowledge that my life has no meaning and I don’t ever want to leave my couch?”

    Yes. That definitely counts as happy, possibly even ecstatic. I don’t think people “power through” life because it isn’t a brick wall that you have to chip away at and it isn’t an uphill trek. It is, for everyone, the road less travelled. A path, meandering, that for some inexplicable reason is covered in ruts and brambles and thorny branches. Also, it doesn’t actually lead anywhere until you turn around and realize just how far you have gone. Happiness is the sunshine that comes through, for a moment or for a week long picnic, and depression is when you sit down in a rut and try to disentangle a foot. Walking and stumbling and getting scratched is just life. I don’t think people suffer its slings and arrows with a well of determination and stubbornness, I just think people endure it. You don’t ‘keep fighting’, you just keep going–forward, backwards, sideways, just going.

    (Man, it really is a lot simpler to talk about this stuff in metaphor.)

    And I want to end this on an up-note, but I can’t really think of a better up-note than what I’ve said. I never claimed to be good at inspiring speeches. I don’t think there ever will be a cure for this feeling, but you do need to get groceries tomorrow, and it has been awhile since you dusted your bookshelf, you might as well start somewhere.

    I don’t mean for this to be “Find something to do.” because that just sounds so crass. You don’t have to find something to do, there are already things that need doing, and you’re probably already doing them.

    And if you read nothing else today/tomorrow, this post was great, thanks for it.

  7. Jim Stafford says:

    Good post, I believe it means a lot to many people to know they’re not alone in matters of this sort. Brave move and I applaud it.

  8. There’s a website I was reading a while ago about suicide that was, for lack of a better term, enlightening. I would go and find it, but I am at work and people think I am weird enough already.
    I think it came from a link on this page:

    I like the “black dog” metaphor. Something that sits on your chest and makes it a chore to draw breath. Being exhausted but awake. If I can find a place where I can detach myself from myself, it’s almost interesting, in a strange way.

    I do recommend meds. Even though, for the longest time, I thought of them as the “easy” way out, sometimes you just need that kind of help. Most walk-in clinics will prescribe the basics. But make sure to promise yourself not to decide anything, do anything, or act on any thoughts until the first month is gone and over. I went insane for the first few weeks. Then I got better, for a time.

    Now, it’s not great, but I have the ability to give myself some distance from the way I feel, and consider what I am experiencing. I don’t know if that’s comforting or not. It helps with the not dying part.

    If all else fails, drive to Baltimore for a weekend and visit me. We can dress up as ninjas and terrorize downtown. Or just go to the aquarium.

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