Walking the Black Dog

Since the news of Robin Williams’s suicide broke, I’ve had some incredible, brave, and heartbreaking conversations with friends about the nature of depression and what would bring someone to the point of taking his own life.

 

It’s been disheartening to see accusations of “selfish” leveled against those who commit suicide, and frustrating to hear, “But why didn’t he ask for help?” But ignorance is an opportunity to open dialogue and educate, and our collective mourning is a chance to lift the veil of shame that covers mental illness.

 

There is a perception that if you don’t look or act as if your world is falling apart or if there is not some profound triggering event in your life, that you couldn’t possibly be ill. I’m a confident, positive, strong person who has been brought to her knees by depression. It’s not the blues, it’s not a reaction to crisis, it’s a cocktail of biology, chemistry, genetics, and personality that I have to work daily to keep in balance. I haven’t asked for help when I most needed it, either. I can look at the woman who suffered so greatly and think, “Did she know she needed help?” I don’t remember thinking much of anything but a suffocating hopelessness that I just wanted to stop. There surely was a point when a mental health professional could have helped me turn things around before I fell so far, but depression is insidious– it creeps in and swallows you whole.

 

Asking for help assumes a level of energy and rational thinking, a sense that you would even know what help looks like or that you don’t feel profound shame and guilt for your entire existence. Asking for help means you hope. When severe depression hits, there is no hope. There is only white noise and emotional exhaustion. No one chooses this.

 

I believe that even though I can’t change my genetic makeup or my biology, I can alter my chemistry and improve my mental health through diet, exercise, writing, and meditation. I can change my responses, be on guard for my triggers, and prepare myself when I feel I’m starting to slip. I accept now that I will have to manage my depression and anxiety for as long as I live. I’m beginning to find the beauty in the scary times. As a writer, those ebbs become times of quiet gathering, a gentle harvest of words and feelings, a drawing down of reserves, and a turning inward to listen and be still.

 

I have no idea what my future holds and when or if I will tumble again into an abyss. None of us with mental illness do. But I do know that talking openly about mental illness is a powerful step toward managing the worst of its evils. Depression is not logical, it is not fashionable, it is not a choice. But it is not a curse, either. It is.

 

Let’s just keep talking about it until we’re no longer ashamed. Until we no longer condemn someone for reacting to something beyond his control.

 

I sit beside Robin Williams. I take his hand and I say, “I’m so heartbroken, not because you didn’t ask for help, but because I understand why you couldn’t.”

 

Take a moment to view this video. I had a black dog, his name was depression

For those with depression, watch and take heart. For those puzzling over the whys and wherefores of depression, watch and understand.

14 thoughts on “Walking the Black Dog

  1. In my darkest times, even so, I cannot call myself depressed when I read what others have written about that hell. Something, something saved me and whatever it was also taught me “there but for the Grace of God? something? go I” because I know how vulnerable and complex we are. Hold tight to yourself my dear, you are loved. I know for certain that all the very best people have struggled.

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  2. It saddens me when people judge suicide and it saddens me when people commit suicide. A more compassionate and understanding society might go a long way in changing both the stigma and the rate of suicide.

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  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. Unless someone has struggled with the crippling darkness of depression, then they can’t imagine how debilitating it is, and they can’t pretend to understand the thoughts of someone suffering from it. We never know the pain someone may be hiding behind a smile.

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  4. Julie, what an incredible post! You have done such an amazing job in capturing life with depression. This conversation has been long in coming for our country (and the world) and perhaps now we can have it. Thank you for your part in making it happen.

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  5. Thank you for this moving post, Julie. My oldest daughter suffers from bipolar disorder and has struggled with depression since she was in grade school. It is heartbreaking to watch someone you love disappear; I can only image the pain of struggling with that level of hopelessness.

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  6. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. This disease is a horrible thing and hopefully we, as a society, will start to understand what depression is NOT. But until that day, I fear the ridicule and contempt will continue. Which, for the depressed or anxiety-wracked person is simply fuel for the fire.
    Bless you.

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  7. Reminds me of Churchill’s black dog, Julie. I don’t know why it is such a good symbol for depression, but it certainly is. Perhaps because depression hounds us?
    Unless a person has experienced the complete and utter lack of sunlight in their life, the stifling sense of hopelessness, and the inertia that follows, there’s no way they can truly understand.
    I’m glad you found that taking good care of yourself is key. Those things work for me, as well, and I’d add getting adequate rest and not overworking. Sometimes just getting out for a walk on a sunny day can be good medicine for the soul.
    I wonder if RW knew how deeply his death would be felt? I read somewhere that he was ashamed of some things he did a few years back, and what I heard, reading his words, was that he couldn’t forgive himself. Maybe that’s something we need more of too – self-forgiveness.

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    1. Oh Cynthia, I couldn’t agree more. My husband and I were talking just yesterday about how being out of doors, fresh air, movement, is critical to our well-being. I have a hard time with self-forgiveness- that’s an on-going battle- but I agree we need more. Forgiveness of self means thinking less about self and being more attuned to the world around you.

      I felt Robin Williams’s death keenly-even outside of the tragedy of his suicide and the personal context of depression-he was such a tremendous artist and his films brought so much joy and humanity to my life. Such an aching loss.

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  8. Such a wonderful and moving post It’s true when you’re so down you don’t need help, because you don’t see you need it. How could anyone help? But they do. There’s always hope. And there’s always light at the end of the tunnel: it’s usually your family or beloved ones holding a torch so that you can reach out to them and get out of the hole.

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