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. Maybe it sounds callous to say, “Okay, we get it,” but seriously – we 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 this condition as a large shaggy unruly black dog that has a particularly pungent air. It follows you around, sits on your lap when you’re trying to get close to 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.
There’s a difference between “clinical depression” and “situational depression” deliberately. There are sometimes when you have every reason in the world to be depressed. You got fired from a job you loved. A very close and dear loved one died. Your job and living situation sucks, 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 a**holes.” That is situational depression.
Clinical depression is when everything around you appears 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, or perhaps it’s a chemical imbalance. Often, it’s a little bit of both. You are unable to see anything except the dull grey darkness, occasionally punctuated by fits of anger or guilt or shame.
It doesn’t just suck for you
The Black Dog sucks to live with as a constant companion, I know. 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; it fidgets and whines and constantly gets between the two of you. You try to point out to your friend that it’s hard to talk to them 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. No. That’s not working. 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. I’m specifically talking about when 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 the first four times.”
“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 priority, it ignores critical information, it hijacks entire conversations if they look like they might be productive. 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.)
Here’s what your loved ones experience: You no longer take part in anything that requires effort, leaving them to do chores, pay bills, arrange events, and get on with day-to-day life. 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 awful things to your S.O. and create a lot of deeply hurt feelings, often in an effort to “be left alone”. The dark thoughts in your head that you think are “just thoughts” influence your decisions and set you up to look like a proper a**hole.
You beg off when people are supposed to rely on you. You get selfish over stupid things. You ignore the things that were precious and important to you before. All your emotional investments are turned upside down and everything that you ever loved is called into question.
If you’re incredibly lucky, your S.O. will be understanding and compassionate, and they will give you room to sort it out. If you’re actively ignoring the Black Dog, though, how far do you think that understanding is going to get you? If your S.O. knows you’re depressed, knows about the Black Dog, that only 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 chooses to sleep with a revolting matted malodorous Black Dog. Some people do anyway on faith that it’s only temporary.
Please know that I’m not telling you this to make you feel guilty. 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 you away from the people who love you, if you knew how deep that lie of unworthiness was, would you fight it?
It’s probably never going to go away, but it can be tamed
Once you have a Black Dog, you’re not going to get rid of it. If you focus on getting rid of it as the only victory scenario, it’s the Black Dog telling you this as a recipe for failure so that you have to keep it.
Imagine instead that the Black Dog is an important and vital part of your personality instead of a bane. It got injured at some point in your life and spun out of control. The way through is not to get rid of it but to tame it, to heal it. It’s trying to tell you things, and while those things are dangerous and destructive now, 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 your fly really was undone the whole time you were on stage in front a thousand people. Sometimes you just a need to bolster your confidence.
Open your mouth and talk. The most important step in any kind of recovery is to acknowledge the beast and talk about the feelings. But, you must remember that they are just feelings. 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 my chest.” If your talking partner is clever, they’ll know that this moment must 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.
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 worth considering. 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 hard. 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 so that you can adjust your perspective while you learn better coping mechanisms.
You are not less of a man by asking for and accepting help; you are more of a human.
Photo: Getty Images