Recently I got hit with a case of the black dog, as Winston Churchill used to call depression.
So I wrote about it just as the corner was being turned. You might identify with it, you might not. But the more you share your experiences with others, the better we will all understand those around us.
Saturday morning was the worst. Getting out of bed seemed impossible, despite the wintry blue sky doing its best to show itself off.
The black pall hovers over the eyes, permeates the head and renders you immobile. Tears well up, they want to roll down your cheeks as gravity would have it be, but can’t quite summon the energy to fall. There is no future — it is impossible mentally, emotionally or physically to feel, see, or think of things one minute hence.
It was a dream a few nights previously that triggered a painful memory. Like an avalanche, it pounds you and the bruising stays with you for days. You might encounter others during the day, try to write or work, drink coffee, wish for an adrenalin rush from a run along the river early in the morning, but as soon as your mind and spirit is able, it reverts back to the pain of the avalanche. Almost like your screensaver on your laptop — it’s always there, sometimes hiding, but ready to leap out in front of you.
But isn’t the medication meant to free you from the pain? The cocktail of pills, tailored as your doctors say, for your illness. You have been a good patient — not skipping the dosage, coming off the white tablets and then jumping back on the dosage when you need it. Well, you rationalise, imagine the pain you would be in if the medication wasn’t there? You are not wanting to end it all, are you? It will get better, won’t it? It always does, others tell you.
Your behaviour becomes erratic and compulsive. The dream has sent you spiralling into a space that seems fraught and dangerous. An emotional jungle, with impenetrable undergrowth, has you lost and lashing out, screaming for directions to help you find your way to a serene beach, but there is no one hearing you.
The nights are worst. The voices become whispers, the activity is done for the day, and the time for rumination begins — you can set your watch by it. When the depressive episode is raging, the nocturnal hours are hell on earth. This is the time for paranoia and obsessing; for regrets; and for when merely crying over spilt milk takes on a significance that is distorted beyond the boundaries of reason.
And you know you are in trouble when the next morning, the Saturday, you wonder should you go to hospital. Close the door on the world and retreat to couches, white coats and the 4pm medication-dispensing queue. It’s not like a heart attack — you know then there is no choice but to get to the emergency department on the double.
No, with a depressive episode you can mull it over. If you go to hospital, will it make the pain go away? How far from the edge are you? When you rummaged through the medical cupboard last night and checked what dosage of a painkiller is needed to do some serious harm, you put the packet back on the shelf, so you know you can stay put and get through it.
Instead you ring friends. You lean on them and hope they will not turn the other away. They don’t on this occasion. They let you talk at all hours. You feel like the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who made a habit of breaking into his friends’ nocturnal hours by calling and subjecting them to a rambling discourse about whatever was on his fertile mind at the time.
The pain will go away of course, eventually. Perhaps a roller-coaster high is just around the corner, the flipside of this condition they call bipolar depression? When you are riding the high, the anxiety rages but the invincibility you feel masks it for a while, and lets you get on with working manically, or conversing on 10 topics at once, as your mind skips and races and tells you that you really are different.
The journey through a depressive episode does have an end point, for most of us anyway. All tunnels have light at the end of them. All holes have a bottom. The black dog has been banished for now!
More than a decade ago now, Andrew Solomon wrote about his battles with depression in a famous article in The New Yorker. Sullivan wrote the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality.
Just being able to get out of bed and see that the sky is blue, and not grey, equals vitality.
This article was originally published in The Hobart Mercury.