I had a black dog.
Winston Churchill used the metaphor of the black dog to describe his bouts of depression and (in the only sentence I will ever be mentioned alongside Churchill) I too am the non-too proud owner of a black dog.
I have referred to my previous struggles with depression in earlier posts and the resulting feedback from others that are struggling has prompted me to want to tackle the subject head-on. I have always sought to be open about my struggles; I like to try and find the positives in the challenges that I face in my life and being an open person by nature I feel something of a responsibility to try and help others by challenging the stigma and misunderstanding that exists around the illness.
And make no mistake, depression is an illness.
At its worst it is an all-consuming, torturous, desperate, lonely, terrifying illness that has the power to strip you of your very sense of self, to crush your self-worth and your dignity as you try and fail to face the obstacles, both real and those that are perceived in your damaged mind, of everyday life. Depression closes around you like a prison and from within its walls it is all but impossible to conceive of a way to escape. You are no longer you, and it is incredibly difficult to comprehend just who and what it is that depression has turned you into.
At its very worst depression offers not a single moment of respite from its cruel grip, the physical sensation of your head trapped in a vice with a storm of terrifying thoughts constantly battering your mind, shaking, sweating, losing the ability to think and speak coherently, and the ability to spontaneously smile and laugh cut from your being as if by a surgeon. And this suffering can persist, unrelenting, for months. And so, exhausted, the only haven appears to be beneath the covers, where we find one final cruelty as our ability to sleep is lost.
There is no exaggeration here. And whilst it is impossible to conceive of unless you have experienced it, by writing about it I hope that more people can at least open their minds to the idea that depression is a real and serious illness. The sense of disconnection from others and, critically, from yourself makes depression a cruelly isolating experience and as such the words of others who understand and who have prevailed over the illness can be a huge source of comfort and support when these are in desperately short supply.
They can also help those that are around the sufferer to better understand what they are going through. The sufferer's pain can be compounded by the sense that they are somehow to blame for their illness, that some failing or weakness on their part caused it and that their continuing condition is their fault for not being stronger or more resilient. It must be said that being around somebody in the grip of depression is a draining, isolating and emotionally exhausting experience itself and relationships can be rocked to their foundations. Family and friends do their best but whilst they can visit the sufferer in their prison they can't break down the walls, they can't provide the key. Only the sufferer themselves can do that, but the love, support and care of others, including qualified professionals, are an essential part of the cure. And when the depression passes the bonds of love and friendship can be stronger than ever before.
And therein lies an important truth of depression, it passes. There is no magic solution, no immediate fix, but a gradual process of recovery facilitated by a combination of things that together help to lift the sufferer out of despair and into the brightness of new days of hope. And there are truly no brighter days than those that follow the darkness of depression.
It is difficult to accept that a black dog lies within. Following my first depression I managed to convince myself that it was a one-off event and that in my recovery lay the proof that I had conquered whatever it was that had caused it to strike. I had to reassess that view when it returned to viciously shake me from my complacency. Now I try to maintain a balanced view of myself as someone that has the seeds of depression within, whilst not accepting as inevitable the possibility of a future episode.
Vigilance is key, understanding depression - as far as it is possible to understand an illness whose roots are still largely unknown - and understanding ourselves, our triggers, and the sometimes subtle behavioural signs that indicate that the black dog may have started padding along in our slipstream. It's important to keep busy, take one day at a time, be around others whilst recognising that sometimes it is necessary to take time out to rest.
And always to know that 'this too shall pass'.
Depression can be very difficult to admit to but I don't fear being thought weak for admitting my struggles, because I know from experience just how much strength it takes to overcome them.
Labels: black dog, depression, mental health, mental illness, recovery, suffering