Some people describe it as dark clouds rolling in, foreboding and immense, covering everything. Some describe it as waves that crash over them until they gasp, breathless in all the worst kinds of ways. Some simply describe it as getting knocked down and washed out.
I call it the Black Dog.
Hulking and scary, the Black Dog blocks the sun and growls at us until we retreat into corners, where we huddle, scared and alone.
Those of us that deal with depression don’t know why it comes or when it will strike. One morning, we just wake up and there it is. We know we’re confusing, the way we shut down at the very moment that opening up might help. When the Black Dog comes, we have a hard time knowing what we want, and what we need. We really don’t know. It’s scary and foggy and the gps isn’t working. I’m not talking about major depression, where you cannot get out of bed, that is another category that needs a different perspective. I’m talking about the kind of depression where you keep working and keep living, but anxiety and gloom accompany you everywhere.
The Black Dog isn’t here with me now, perhaps that’s why I can write about it. But I want to write about it for those of you who deal with him, and for those of you who love someone who deals with him. I’ve found the following things to be helpful, inasmuch as anything can be helpful when things are dark.
I can’t just snap out of it, no matter how hard I try. But man, I’ve really tried hard to snap out of it, and it just leaves me feeling exhausted and defective.
Not everyone knows how to help. Talking to certain people about it helps, but it can’t be anyone who needs you to not be depressed. It can’t be anyone who even subtly is trying to get you to be not depressed, or less depressed (“Just think about all the good things in your life, focus on that!”) It can’t be anyone who tries to over-identify with what you’re feeling (Oh, man, I’ve been there – Let me tell you about...). Friends that really help can hold your gaze, while also holding the tension of hearing the chaos of your inner landscape while not needing to fix you.
I need way more sleep than I think I need. It’s hard to get anything else on track when you are not getting enough sleep.
There is some relief in simply saying it out loud. I remember one time asking someone, “Do you think when I keep saying I’m exhausted, I really should be saying, “I’m depressed?” In that moment, it was like an elicit secret slipped out. It gave me permission to try to find what I needed.
Counselors really do help, if they’re the right kind of counselor. But for me, talk therapy is only part of the solution. I talk until I find the thread, then I usually need to take some action that requires some hard work, following it all the way to its source.
The way out is through. My mentor has said this to me for years and years. It means that you need to go all the way down into the darkness and find out what’s there, in order to come out the other side in a different place. He also says, “There’s no easy way to do a hard thing.” It’s not like you don’t know that, but it’s helpful to hear that what you’re going through is hard.
Being gentle with myself is maybe the biggest thing that helps. When the Black Dog is present, I tend to beat myself up because I just can’t seem to get as much done as I used to, or as much as I think we should. Learn to touch your limits, my friend Becky says. When I touch my limits with judgment, it doesn’t help (What’s wrong with me?). When I touch my limits with grace, (I don’t have to have everything together!) it is helpful.
Perhaps the Black Dog comes because very few of us know how to grieve. Have you ever noticed that when a national tragedy happens (a celebrity death, a shooting, a massive natural disaster), it opens up a valve of grief that you didn’t know had so much pressure behind it? Perhaps the Black Dog shows up because the pressure gets to be too much, and some grief needs to come out. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself, “What losses have I not grieved?”
God is close to the brokenhearted, we read in the Scriptures. So when the Black Dog shows up, so does God. I don’t know how that really works, and I’m not saying I feel God all the time (or very often, to be honest) when the Black Dog is there. But it’s true nonetheless.
I have a sign in my office that reads, “Bidden or not, God is present.”
In it together, friends.