Sir Winston Churchill was a two-time Prime Minister of England, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, leader of Great Britain through World War II, and the first person to be made an Honorary Citizen of the United StatesHe suffered from depression.
He called it “The Black Dog.”
A friend once told me that, whenever I felt depressed, I should look at my two young daughters, that it would cheer me up. That suggestion underlines the general failure of people to understand the difference between sadness and depression.
When I’m balanced, I see the miracle of my children and know that there is a god, for only he could bestow a gift as sublime as my two girls.When I’m depressed, I look at my children and think that, if there is a god, he’s a bastard for putting such beauty in the hands of someone like me.
A sad person can be cheered up. A depressed person is incapable of feeling joy. Sadness is a feeling. Depression is a prism through which you look at the world.
Sometimes a depressive state can kick in spontaneously, but any good kick to my self-esteem can do it. My agent tells me she can’t sell my latest book, and I’m just off the phone when the world feels a touch cooler, the seat cushions in my car more beaten, and the sky a little darker.
Common tasks, like filling up the tank, chatting with friends, and… well, eating, feel trivial and begin to irritate me.
Thinking about the impending depression will just suck me down faster, so I try to distract myself. Going to the doctor seems silly at this stage; it costs money, my mood isn’t that bad, scheduling is a nightmare, and sometimes these moods self-abort.
I start trying to manage my dwindling supply of joy. I try to pamper myself a bit, eat out more, saving on tedious meal prep. But we’re on a budget, so the immediate joy of doing something nice is soon replaced by guilt and a further slide down.
It starts getting harder to work. Chocolate helps, I don’t know why, but it’s noticeable—a couple of candy bars can boost my mood for as many as seven hours. But everything else starts to taste bland and unappetizing. Numbing my hunger pain with copious amounts of caffeine is easier than choking down food, so I start brewing and don’t stop—shakes be dammed—and I eat as much chocolate as I can stomach without getting too sick.
This is about the time my anxiety disorder kicks in. Any sudden move by a car on the freeway triggers a micro panic attack. I think this is it. You’re going to die now. Bet when you got up this morning you didn’t think this was going to be the last day of your life. Well, it had to be one of these days. My wife turns on the garbage disposal and I brace myself for a blood curdling scream as her hand gets trapped inside. A swig of milk that tastes funny, a sudden loud noise, a skipped heartbeat—all prompt a panicked vision of my own death. A thousand heart attacks a day… and casually I wonder how it is that, at a time when I’m becoming less interested in life, I’m more afraid of dying.
The attacks even begin to plague me in my sleep. As I drift off, I suddenly jolt up, terrified—a dizzying array of medications making it impossible to tell the difference between sleep and a lethal toxic drug interaction like those that killed Britney Murphy, Heath Ledger, and Krissy Taylor.
By now, sunlight is hurting my eyes, and even the summer air feels cold. It’s nearly impossible to concentrate on work, so I triage, going for the stuff that I can do by rote—stuff I don’t have to get creative with.
I could go to the doctor, but it can take days to see him, and I know that anything new he prescribes will take at least a week or two to work, and will subject me to a host of new side effects, all for a solution that would be nothing more a stopgap till the next episode. And the fact that every medication he recommends carries the words “risk of sudden death” on the label doesn’t help either.
My contempt for the world grows in leaps and bounds. I see a man inspecting a ding in his car, and I wonder if he’s even remotely aware that 1/3 of the world’s children are starving to death. In the 5 minutes it takes him to curse God for letting something like that happen to him—a fine upstanding citizen who deserved better—70 children will starve to death in front of their parents. I hold myself in that same contempt, that I could lavish time and money on this “depression” while the rest of my family goes about the chore of living. But the joke is on us all, since we live like kings compared to the thousands of generations before us. All that stands between our fragile façade of civilization and the brutality of the real world is global warming, the next superbug, a real financial meltdown, or a good asteroid hit.
Every day we’re on the verge of extinction, and I’m the only one with vision clear enough to see it. And while I’m picking up my kids at school, shopping at the grocery store, or watching the latest sitcom, it’s all I can think about… that someday all this will end.
The distractions have now stopped working. I can’t work, I don’t want to play video games, and I don’t like music or television. Nothing is of any interest to me.
And I realize just how lonely life really is—nothing more than the square foot of real-estate between your ears.
My wife asks what’s wrong. I say I don’t feel well. She asks me where it hurts. What can I tell her? It hurts everywhere. I’ve got a headache from the light and from the constant caffeine swings. I’m light-headed from a lack of caloric intake and a weeklong sugar crash. I’m cold. My joints are stiff; my mussels are sore, and my stomach growls and shrinks. I don’t even begin to know how to answer her. “I just feel sick” is about all I can muster.
Now I’m dreading getting up in the mornings. It’s almost impossible to get out of bed. I’m not surprised when I wake up anymore, I’m disappointed. I feel the physical pain in my chest that you feel with bad breakup or the loss of a loved one, and it won’t stop. I get the girls and the wife out the door so that I can just be alone, but once they’re gone I realize… now what? I can’t work. I feel overwhelming guilt and anxiety if try to do something I might enjoy, and like an abject failure when I do nothing.
And I think of the advice, to look at my daughters, and I curse any god who would give them a failure like me for a father. And I hold my head in shame before my wife, who thought it was a good man she was marrying.
Then I begin to get scared, and wonder just how long I can survive feeling like this.
That is depression.
It rarely gets that bad—maybe once or twice a year or two. But it’s rare for me to go more than a month or two without a smattering of these symptoms kicking in for a few days, maybe a week or two. I see the doctor while I feel good, plan regular checkups so that if I head south, there’s already an appointment planned. I manage symptoms, try to stay on top of the constantly changing doses and medications, keep an eye out for the dyslexia, dysphagia, tachycardia, cognitive impairment, near fatal case of hiccups, or vocal paralysis that seems to accompany any new regimen.
And I remember, too, that in the end, I always take the Black Dog down.
I remember that I’m not alone.