David Lynch calls it the “suffocating rubber clown suit of negativity.” Churchill referred to his bouts as his “black dog” days. For Sylvia Plath it was an airless glass bell jar. I’ve found depression to be like a leaden hand to the forehead, ushering me down the basement steps.
This January, the first staccato notes started in. By the time I got laid off a month later, it had reached forte fortissimo. Historically, I’ve dealt with this in a number of ways: sleeping, drugs, exercise, sobbing, therapy, booze, eating (or not). Different methods have their different perks. The therapist would study my face and nod with concern, making me feel worthwhile (even though she was getting paid to do so). Wellbutrin pleasantly flattened my emotions and felt like a broad horizontal line drawn behind my eyeballs. Wine felt like a giant air bubble in my head—a buffer from my own brain. Mood charts would seem like a cheerful system of organization for the most mundane emotions. Sleeping would beget more sleeping. After a while, it’s hard to tell which is the symptom or the cure or the cause. The black dog days have a way of smearing it all together.
When I felt normal, I’d laugh at those earnest “Depression Hurts” Cymbalta ads. Buck up sweetheart, I’d think. There are people with real problems in the world. Then, when I became like the droopy woman in the ad, I’d feel guilty for feeling so rotten when “nothing” was the matter.
Worldwide, depression affects 350 million people, of all ages. It affects more women than men. It’s popped up at intervals throughout my life like an eager house-guest who requires constant entertaining. When I wasn’t forcing myself to pitch to editors or staring blankly at TV, this last bout consisted of being more or less soldered to my bed.
My friend Marie* has manic-depressive disorder. She would stop in sometimes, flushed and chattering, her mind flooding with ideas. She would string them together breathlessly in rapid fire succession—her new art project she thought up in the middle of the night and could she get funding and where could she show it? She would stay up for a couple of days, ecstatically working, followed by the inevitable crash. A morose collapse, peppered with hospital stays, medication experiments, weight gain and loss, retreat, and then another discombobulating period of feeling up again. It was exhausting to watch, I can’t even imagine what it felt like.
One of my mom’s best friends was on a pretty even keel until the last ten years of her life when everything started to slip apart. Her job ended. Suddenly, there was no more interest in the things she had loved and lived for: the community, the kids she taught, travel, her friends, herself. As my grade one teacher, she had inspired such zeal for life—prompting us all to cycle around after school in a group called “pedal pals,” helping us learn to to ski in the winter, laughing with deep affection during my mother’s stories.
That all dissipated. I can see her in the doorway, refusing to cross the street for a visit, but pleading with her eyes for us not to take it personally. When she wanted to sign herself into the psych ward she was deemed to be stable, it was not a crisis situation. A few days later she took a taxi to Zellers, bought some anti-freeze, drank it, and died. People in the town shook their heads, called it “selfish.”
During my last bout of depression, I was buoyed when I finally got an interview as a dog walker. If anything could lift my mood, it was dogs.
The interviewer was a perky, pug-nosed blonde in pristine Adidas runners. She met me in the lobby of one of those cookie-cutter glass condos on the lake.
“Do you have any experience with animals? We only want experienced walkers,” she chirped. “Our clients know us for maintaining impeccably high standards.”
“Yes, well, I’ve always had animals growing up. But I live in a basement apartment so I don’t have any right now.”
“Oh,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “So you can’t board them.”
“No. But I love dogs. And I walk everywhere, anyways.”
“Hmmm,” she replied, her eyes glazing. Her manicured fingernails clicked briskly on the keyboard. “What would you say is your greatest weakness?”
“Um. Well. I…uh. Lemme think about that a minute.”
I hadn’t anticipated the typical BS question usually reserved for administrative assistants. I could lie and say it’s being too much of a perfectionist (ha!). Or that I take too much on but have since learned to delegate (lies). I became aware that if I delayed any longer, she would think I thought I was faultless.
“I am prone to bouts of depression, I guess,” I blurted.
She laughed nervously and diverted her gaze to a man walking a Yorkie. The dog yapped piercingly, eager to get out and pee.
“Well, I guess that wraps it up then,” she muttered, snapping her laptop shut. “Nice meeting you, and we’ll be in touch.” She turned and slipped through the lobby’s security door, slamming it shut behind her. I never got a call. Hearing about another’s depression is about the most boring thing in the world. And it’s even more boring to experience.
But the worst part of depression is what a big waste of life it is. You wake up every morning hoping the guest will be gone but she’s still there, expectant and eager to stifle all your plans. So you advance as quickly as possible through the day and try to sleep it out to the next and the next and the next. Months pass. People would ask if I was getting excited about an upcoming wedding. On a cerebral level, I knew I should be, and I knew that the “real” me would be very excited. But all I could muster was a half-hearted “Yeah, it’s coming up soon,” and a weak smile before trying to change the subject. Virtually nothing brings joy, least of all life itself. Instead of enjoying the precious moments of this one-time-only gift, life becomes an insufferable, glitchy fog that one wants to fast-forward through.
I remember a tear-streaked Megan Follows as Anne of Green Gables, sobbing into her hair and wailing, “Can’t you even imagine you’re in the depths of despair?”
“No I cannot,” Marilla replied curtly. “To despair is to turn your back on God.”
That’s certainly what it feels like, but I don’t think it’s intentional. No one in their right mind would seek to be depressed. What may seem like a fleeting adolescent indulgence quickly escalates into a very real problem, one that can actually kill you. If you are going through it, give yourself a break. If someone you love is, allot them the same kindness.
It takes time to get turned round again.