One of the many veterinarians I know with depression calls her depressive episodes the “shadow dog”. Shadow dog is not to be confused with “Black Dog”, a killer tune by Led Zeppelin, with one of those instantly recognizable riffs for anyone over the age of 50, and younger people with good taste. I haven’t named my depressive episodes. I just call my self loathing and lack of vitality at these times my demons.
A common misconception regarding depression is that people who suffer from Major Depressive Disorder are depressed all the time. Even those unmedicated or otherwise uncontrolled may have long periods of relative normality between depressive episodes. The episodes themselves may be long or brief and that depends on the person. While all such episodes have of a number of things in common, there is no typical depressive event.
I nightly dance with my demons, but at least I lead. When you’ve lived with depression for a long time you know the routine. My friend feels hers coming on, mine hit me without warning. Hers come on like a hurricane, mine strike like an earthquake and like such natural phenomena, you simply have to ride them out. She moves to high ground. I stand in a doorway.
How does depression make you feel? I can’t speak for everyone, but the best description I ever heard was “a lack of vitality”. There can be a sadness component, but not always. It depends upon the trigger (if one is discernible). An emotional personal event (for me, usually involving demons in heels, hiking boots, or running shoes) may trigger a spiral leading to an episode. Such life events, and others such as death of a loved one, may trigger episodes with overwhelming sadness. Most of the time, there is no discernible trigger for me. For others, this may not be the case. Lately life has banged me hard and without lube. Such times, when you’re emotionally exhausted you’re more susceptible to depressive symptoms, but there may be no specific event precipitating it.
Depression is the great liar. It tells you that you deserve this. You don’t deserve anything good. You’re responsible for the all bad events in your life and any success you’ve had is only an illusion. You have no self worth. Where it’s especially dangerous is when your demons gleefully remind you of your mistakes. They project them in IMAX in your mind and convince you that you alone are responsible for an unpardonable sin; impossible from which to recover.
Of course all of this seems almost silly to someone without this disease. It’s unreasonable to expect a young child to do calculus and it’s likewise unreasonable to expect someone in a depressive episode to see the objective facts. They simply aren’t capable of doing so (and this is also critical to understand) at that moment.
Everyone deals with these episodes in their own way. For me, it depends on how deep they are. Most often I am able to be reasonably productive with work and no one is the wiser. Some days, like yesterday, are a total loss. You’re almost catatonic, a complete power outage. You. Can. Do. Nothing. Maybe you’ll eat. Maybe you won’t. (You’ll always feed the dogs, though. They’re the ones giving you purpose at that moment.)
On these days I listen to music. Lots of music. I try to limit alcohol consumption, but I basically smoke up a dispensary. While it does mellow me out and limits the sadness, it has the added advantage of the munchies. Without it, I wouldn’t eat at all hardly. Back in 2014 when I was finally diagnosed it took several months to get it under control. During that time, I lost 20 pounds. I called it the Depression Diet.
Thankfully, there are some effective meds that can help normalize neurotransmitters and limit these episodes. If they don’t eliminate them entirely, they’re not as deep when they do occur and may be more brief.
In my case, the episodes end as abruptly as they begin. The earthquake stops. My friend’s episodes end more slowly until the storm passes.
I share this for two reasons. First, if you believe you may have depression, get help. Insurance is much better about covering mental health counseling and meds are covered like any other prescription (for what that may be worth). Medication and therapy together are more effective than either alone.
Secondly, I write to remove the stigma, especially in men. For fuck’s sake (or is it fucks’ sake, plural, like multiple fucks) depression is a disease. People don’t hear about someone with kidney disease and gasp, “he must have done something to bring it on! How terrible… he comes from such a good family. He was a good boy…” It just so happens in this case, depression affects the brain and the brain is imbued with mystical characteristics such as personality and character. Space isn’t the final frontier, the brain is, and how the organ works is still poorly understood. But because of these mystical powers, diseases affecting behavior and emotion carry an unfair and unjust stigma. That has stop! Stigma kills and in reality, depression can be treated by balancing certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, GABA, and norepinephrine. Stop the stigma!
I got this. Not alone. A few select friends are aware and have been checking on me. There’s strength in numbers and my demons are more easily defeated with help. I’ve learned not to fear asking for it.
I know my episode is ending soon. This one was unusually deep and lasted longer than typical. But by tomorrow I suspect I’ll be back to normal. It is what it is. Tonight I’ll snuggle with my dogs and sleep knowing that a new day is not merely a cliche, it’s literally a completion of the climb out of the abyss.
If you feel suicidal please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK.