Walking with the Black Dog

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The problem with pain is figuring out what to do about it. Do you take a pill to make it stop? Do you fix what’s causing it? Or do you learn to live with it?

The problem with the Black Dog is the noise it makes when it’s tearing your heart with its teeth. It muffles nuance; the tune pain plays on your heart-bones-breath emerges as random notes, dissonant and jangling.

Black dog in the dark

I could take a pill – put the leash back on the Dog. I still have plenty – at least a month’s supply – and my doctor would willingly give more. Here’s how the argument goes (I know it well, having used it often on others): “If you had diabetes or a heart condition, wouldn’t you take whatever pills were necessary to control it?”

The problem with that argument is, it’s specious. If you have diabetes or a heart condition, the first act of a sane person is to change the way they eat, move, sleep, live. The TV commercial narratives – glowing visions of super-sized burgers and greasy pizzas followed without a pause by ads for aspirin and Tums, Lipitor, Prilosec and metformin, always with the soothing reminder to “talk with your doctor” – those are the ravings of a crazy person.

I may walk in the dark of an imaginary tunnel with an invisible black dog at my heels, but I’m not crazy. I’m on a mission to find what’s real – friend or enemy, loss or gain, joy or pain. I’ve rejected the phantasmagoria that lie in pill bottles. I want to grieve real loss, fear real terrors, fight for what’s really good. And laughter – the kind that makes the fat on your belly jiggle … It’s been a while; I need to remember how that’s done.

So here we are, the Dog and I, still walking together and now deep within the tunnel. How deep I can’t say; how much further we have to go I don’t know. Sometimes a crack in the roof lets in a beam of light, a breath of clean air. Sometimes in the darkness the Dog leaps, knocks me to the ground, sinks its teeth into my flesh – and when that happens it makes no difference whether or not I scream, because in the dark we’re alone. So far, I’ve yielded sometimes and fought back sometimes, and I’ve learned that, either way, sooner or later the Dog is sated. It comes back to heel, its breath steamy on my left thigh, my fingertips resting on its head, and we walk on, watching for light, hoping for joy.

Let’s talk. Do you live with depression, anxiety or some other mental illness? How do you deal with it? And, as you deal, how do you identify and give priority to the things that are most important to you?

About Belladonna Took

Into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, at constant risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic. A wife, a mom, a daughter and sister, kind of a grandma. Until recently a full-time dog rescuer, now more concerned with rescuing myself. User of dog hair as accessory, decor and garnish. Technical writer, strategic thinker, occasional entrepreneur. Voiceless poet and storyteller. Born again Christ-follower and former missionary schoolteacher chewing on some uncomfortable questions. Ignorer of rules, challenger of assumptions, believer in miracles. Skeptical libertarian, equal opportunity despiser of politicians and assholes. Gonnabe gardener, wannabe beekeeper, Monsanto-hating tree-hugger. Morbidly obese chocaholic, with a horse I don't ride because I might break him, and if not he would probably break me.

18 responses »

  1. This is an argument I have with myself frequently. Others like to get in on it with their advice, too. I tend to be super-sensitive to pharmaceuticals, but I’ve lived with cyclothymia most of my life (bipolar light). Would my life have been better if I’d gone the pill route? Possibly. But I made a choice and should I find myself unable to function, I will make a different choice. For now, my dog is familiar and sometimes comforting. I know what to expect and I know that I’ll get through it. If I thought I might not, that would definitely indicate that it’s time to get help.

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    • I’m sorry you struggle with this. I’m not anti-meds; over the years they have helped me a lot, and for the most part the help has been positive. There have been times when I’ve fallen to the point of being suicidal, and the simple relief of not feeling like that, and of being able to be up and doing, has been enormous. It’s only recently that I realized they were numbing me to life rather than equipping me to live … I don’t think this has always been the case, but maybe my metabolism has changed in some way. I’m open to the possibility of one day getting back onto a small therapeutic dose just to take the edge off of clinical depression. But as long as I’m not sure where the edge IS, they’re no help at all!

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    • Thank you. I’m sorry if she also has to deal with this, and while I hope my words help, I hope more that she knows that we each find our own way. There is a time and a place for meds. Lifestyle changes are important, but sometimes meds are necessary to make those changes possible. I’ve been there! And now I’m here! And I still have only the vaguest idea of where that might be.

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  2. I just wrote a little about this very subject in my last blog post. I’ve been living with depression for about 30 years. Mine is seasonal but it always comes, without fail, usually the first of October. Even so, I am surprised when it arrives and the hope that this year “it” will pass me by vanishes. Funny thing is, recently I’ve decided to find the upside to it. Yes, I sleep too much and I have horrible carb cravings. My thoughts are morbid and defeating. My body aches from too much time in bed. You know, when they say depression hurts, that’s what they’re talking about. But, the depression also sends me to my reading table where I have a SAD light and a journal waiting. I write and write and write when depression hits. I also have an adult coloring book that I only get into in the winter time. I also put on my pajamas as soon as I get home from work and often times I’m in bed before 7pm. I’ve decided to embrace it. That moment right before my head hits the pillow is sheer bliss. I know in a minute I’ll have my eyes closed and I can escape the gray cloud that has followed me since I woke up far too early that morning. It’s almost a high, that feeling. Then I wake up and falsely believe that it will be different. And, one day, in March, it will be. Until then, I’ve decided to enjoy the slow down time. The pressure to go and be has been lifted. I don’t need to do that. As far as medication goes, some years I take an anti-depressant, some years I try to live without it. Last year, my doctor invited to try adjusting my dosage. She said take a low dose and then try taking it every other day and see what happens. I hate one side effect of the medication: an inability to hold a thought. I can have a really bright idea and as quickly as it comes, it goes. It’s very frustrating. But without the medication, I am dark. Very dark. Like a black dog, dark. Hugs to you, my friend. love, susan

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    • Ugh, Susan, I had no idea. I really struggled with SAD my first couple of winters here. I arrived on Thanksgiving Day and it was a daily shock to eat my lunch with the sun so close to the horizon. SAD light helped, but what made the biggest difference for me was color – the gaudiest clothes I could find to wear, and lots of scarves – and also candles and good smells. Hmmm … I’m glad you made me think of this. I need to winterize my house with candles and cloves!

      By the way, your name links to your old blog, Suddenly Susan. Please could you provide a link to the new one?

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  3. So sorry you are still struggling with this, particularly as you are heading towards winter. I’ve been so caught up with stuff, I’m not catching up with things. I do hope that this finds you feeling a little better!
    Greetings from McGregor (without the usual descriptors….)

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  4. I don’t live with depression, so I don’t know how much this is worth, but my question is whether this will be about grieving and moving through and letting go or about losing yourself in the grief. I won’t vote to cover up grief (if we’re voting, which we’re not), but I do know that sometimes the body throws us into depressions that are not about finding some truth but simply about depression itself–chemical signals that say the world is bleak, bleak, bleak. The body and the mind are strange things and I doubt we’re anywhere close to understanding them. But I’ve known people who (in my opinion) who mistook the body’s chemistry for some deeper truth.

    Whatever you do, I send my good wishes.

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    • That’s absolutely correct, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out. I do suffer from clinical depression, and it does distort reality. I’ve also been diagnosed with ADD, which makes it hard to make a decision about doing something and then actually do it. This becomes even harder when you’re o ese and moving is difficult, even painful.

      Inhe past meds have helped me deal with both those conditions. But a little while ago I realised that my reality was still distorted, I was still not making progress in the areas that matter to me. The drugs were no longer helping, and in fact may have been hindering. I’d been reading about fasting and its tremendous benefits on the body, which leads to benefits to the mind and emotions. Well, you can’t take some of the meds I was on on an empty stomach, so I stopped taking them, and I found that there was a space of unexpected clarity sort of overlaying clinical depression. That is NOT a sad place, it actually hints of joy, which is something I haven’t experienced in a while.

      So, long story short, I have reason to suspect that the meds I’ve been on haven’t been working entirely as intended. I’m not opposed to using them where they help, but I feel a need to define where reality actually locates itself. It’s scary and it hurts, sometimes in ways that demand an apocalyptic style of writing, but Not Feeling is also a bleak place to live, you see. That’s the place I’m walking away from.

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  5. I had a period of major anxiety with panic attacks at the same time that I had an intestinal parasite that made medications ineffective. For me it was a postpartum thing, but just as real and powerful as what you seem to be going through.

    Something that truly helped me through was knowing that there was a spiritual side to it all. This battle, this pain, this suffering could all be used for good – mine and others. I spent many hours reading and reflecting on the Passion of Jesus as He walked with the Cross, bearing all things, knowing suffering beyond measure, and waking with me in mine.

    I saw that even Jesus fell – three times. But each time He got up. For me. Even Jesus needed help carrying the cross. And he sent me many Simons along my path. I can see from the comments here that you have many Simons as well.

    I knew that this depth was taking me into places of darkness in order to bring light. And in the end, that is what happened. I couldn’t take medication, but I could do some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. That helped, but I still had my own spiritual path to follow.

    Now that I sit on the other side of the whole thing, I wouldn’t trade what I received from it for anything, although I hope to never go through something like that again. As St. Theresa of Avila said, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”

    God will take us into the darkness, but He will never leave us there alone. You mentioned that there are moments of light, and breaths of fresh air. Take those moments of refreshment that help strengthen you for the journey. (1 Kings 19:3-12) Watch for the blessings that are there, even though you can’t feel them. Write them down so you can remember. Sometimes God comes in the small, quiet sounds that can be drowned out by the storms of life.

    In the meantime, I will be praying for you.

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    • Bless you, Karen. You’re right, there is very much a spiritual element to this, and I know deep in my heart that I won’t find true Joy until I quit being mad at God for the sins of his Church. These days I find it near impossible to call myself Christian – NOT because I don’t love Christ and try to follow him, but because I am sickened by the attitudes and behavior of so many other Christians. The problem is, I’ve let my anger distract me to the extent that I don’t want to go to church in case I hear something hateful (and, to be clear, my pastor is a wise and gentle man; we don’t agree on everything, but he’s not a hateful person); I don’t want to read the Word because I keep stumbling over things that ugly people use to reinforce their ugliness; it’s hard even to pray. I’ve reached out to a couple of fellow believers whose goodness and wisdom I trust, but somehow have failed to make a connection – and even if we did connect my thoughts are such an angry jumble I don’t know what I’d say.

      Reading this it’s clear that I’ve been letting the Enemy steal my peace. Thank you for your message, and for your prayers. They are well-timed.

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