Devon Miller-Duggan Contemplates The Black Dog of Depression

Sick Leave

A friend posted on FB today about how wretchedly sick she is. A bunch of folks (students, friends, grandson) have gotten flu this year in spite of having had their shots (proving what they always tell you, which is that the vaccines aren’t 100% protection). Not only do these people feel that staying home is the right thing to do, all the humans with whom they don’t share their viruses are rightly grateful. Flu is a disease, right? You get to be guiltlessly sick and are urged to take care of yourself.

Depression is a disease, too, right? It’s not, in epidemiological terms, contagious. But it is an illness, a system failure, and it makes you as miserable as flu, though not as non-functional. I can’t count the number of people I know who just keep going while depressed. There is no vaccine, but there are medications. Many are convinced that taking medication is a surrender, a failure of character, even people who wouldn’t think of condemning other depressives for doing so.

And the blessed truth about anti-depressants is that they are not “happy pills.” They’re maintenance drugs for a disease that is frequently chronic. Of course, anti-virals for flu are also not perfect. But when you recover from flu, you are not only “better,” you are immune to that particular strain. When anti-depressants function, they mean that you can live and function, which is a powerful kind of “better.” But there is no immunity, and circumstances can override whatever drug(s) had been keeping your difficult balance.

All of which is saying that my difficult balance is not working today. And that, in an act of ferocious rebellion for my Puritan self, I decided to skip a committee meeting at church this evening because I am sick, not with flu, but at heart. I wouldn’t be guilty if I’d stayed home with the flu or a nasty cold, but I will be about this. Maybe not. There are lots of chunks of my life where I don’t have the option of staying home when the Black Dog is eating me alive, and I am mordantly aware of how good I am at faking sanity/health. But just for tonight, I need a sense of agency. I need to choose to stay cocooned where I won’t be watching myself fake my way through time with people and loathing myself for it.

Why so Black-Dog-ridden? Stress, anxiety overload, and a sense of having no agency. The “no agency” thing is different from hopelessness. The two issues over which I have no agency are both subject to hope: my mother’s anguished existence (in my house) will end (hopefully before the stress of it kills me), and I will wake up one morning not praying both that she did not wake and that the day will be a good one for her. Other than promise her that she can be here until the end (many of you are familiar with the long, unhappy story of the attempt to have her live elsewhere, but if you’re not, trust me, it’s not an option). My job situation might improve (though I have many reasons not to succumb to hope—and it’s funny how knowing you shouldn’t waste energy on either worry or hope doesn’t help the brain keep crap secret from your heart). A couple of heavy rejections haven’t helped, but they’re not the drivers here, just more negative noise in a metal-band-chorus of anguished discombobulation and aggressively paradoxical emotions. I have Bach playing on Pandora as I write. Usually, it takes relatively little Bach to convince me that everything will be okay. Today, it just makes me want to cry. But so do Joni Mitchell, Bill Evans, Steeleye Span, and The Chieftans, which pretty much covers my range.

Lots of things do help—writing, walking, being in the classroom, being with my kids and grandkids. Many parts of my life are highly privileged, lushly interesting, and as secure as anyone’s can be, not to mention full of love and friendship and all that stuff that is supposed to make me feel better. And they do. But I always have to come home to my mother, I am likely to always be an adjunct, and my brain chemistry is ALWAYS going to be frangible.

Some of this is genetic predisposition. I have a family tree full of depressives, alchoholics (who doesn’t?), epileptics, migraineurs, and psychics. As nearly as I can understand it, that genetic quirk can be tripped by trauma. Another person with different genetic structures could live my exact life and not be so bedeviled. But me and my genetic imprint, including a tendency to live in my head, we gave birth to mucked up brain chemistry that decades of therapy, several attempts at yoga, a remarkable marriage and family, lots of education and work I love, as well as a metric ton of hard work on my part have not dislodged the chemistry. I just understand all the traumas and their tangled tributaries VERY well.

There are several lists/memes floating around the internet containing things NOT to say to your depressive friends, so I won’t reiterate them here. But let me be clear: I am intensely grateful for my life. And I live much of it in pain. I am exactly the same as someone with intractable post-surgical pain who keeps going. It’s just that she can show you scars. Neither of us is a hero (in my definition, heroes save other people, or provide extraordinary succor in extraordinary circumstances—think Malala Yousefzai or Januscz Korchak), or put themselves in harm’s way for others. Many days are good, most are mixed-but-do-able. But some are like trying to climb mountains with a knife in my heart and huge black mastiffs fastened to both ankles. Yes, it’s a pretty dramatic image. Tough.

I’m a lousy Christian, though I work a little at being a better one. This is only relevant insofar as I need to say that prayer gets me nowhere. I don’t feel singled out for un-love in this, just kind of interested and a little baffled. In my experience, when The Divine wants me to hear, it thumps me pretty hard on the head/heart, but otherwise we pretty much leave each other alone. I think I’d probably have this slightly odd relationship to the Universe even if I were not a depressive. Maybe not. No way to know. I do know that I grew up with an acute sense of having to EARN everything good in my life and that that is, in some cultural way, connected to the overwhelmingly Protestant ethic that runs like an aquifer under everything in American life, or at least in WASP-American life. I believe in Grace (which, by definition, cannot be earned) abstractly and concretely, but none of this changes my cellular conviction that there is something keeping my hands around my throat.

So today the Black Dogs were exercising their jaw muscles, and the knife was turning around and around. Sure, there were triggers, but it’s not like the triggers (my mother was intentionally cruel to one of my daughters, and the stress of the not-knowing about my career path has just hit one of its periodic boiling points) are new, these just happened to coincide with the dogs being hungry. And so I’m going to be Not Okay and stay home from a meeting that doesn’t actually need me. Maybe even a couple of meetings. Maybe the dogs will go to sleep for a bit if I don’t feel like 47 people are asking me for things while I’m just trying to breathe. And I will get through another day. Because that’s what we do, those of us who live with the Black Dogs. We get through.

Some of us recite the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” to ourselves. Sometimes it helps:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

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