I’ve heard a few times that Winston Churchill experienced depression and referred to it as his “black dog.” It may or may not be completely accurate, but it has become one of those anecdotes that’s oft repeated. I’ve had some black dog times throughout my life, where the giant mutt mistakes me for a dog bed and nearly suffocates me. But I’ve also faced a gray dog often enough, who is mostly content to sit next to me and put his big head on my shoulder.
I am working on trying to pull out of a current visit, shooing away this stray dog who isn’t welcome but manages to barge inside my house and settle in for a while now and then.
I feel sure many people have experienced gray dog times, whereas not everyone has faced the big black dog. I’ve struggled with mental health for decades and am what I consider to be in mostly good shape at this point. I’ve got it managed with good medication and a good psychiatrist and therapist. But I think that means I’m a bit more susceptible to a down time that might not bother others so much if they don’t have a predisposition to depression or other mental health challenges.
So when I lost my job a couple of months ago, it just sent me into the fog. I knew it would be a danger and I knew I had to face head-on the grief of losing something I really enjoyed and I was very good at. But I’ve still had to push on, moving through what feels like mud many days just to keep up with all my responsibilities. I still have three children at home, who are busy and keep me going, and who depend on me emotionally and for taxi-ing and providing nourishing sustenance, among many other things. So I’ve kept on getting up and getting moving, pulling myself to the grocery store, to the errands, taking the girls to their events and practices and so on. Providing a listening ear, an embrace, love.
A very unwelcome side effect of my gray dog visits is that I tend to eat more (gotta eat for me and for a huge furry animal, after all!). I have struggled with emotional eating my whole life, and I have yet to get past it, despite much awareness and much investigation into ideas of ways to combat it. I lost 44 pounds last year and now after the past few months, I’ve regained a lot of it (not all, yet, though!). That, of course, just makes me feel worse. One horrific complicating factor, unfortunately, is that the society we live in does not look kindly on fat, on weight gain (though we cheer others on whenever they lose weight, for any reason; heck, I enjoyed all the compliments when I lost weight), on what is supposedly an outward manifestation of personal weakness. I feel weak, and now I feel others judge me as weak, but in a negative way, not a compassionate way. And I feel doubly bad that I look so weak because society at large is wicked on this count.
But here’s the kicker — as much as I’ve said to those close to me I’d love to have a sign that warns people I come in contact with (and who likely are needing something, expecting something, from me) that I’m not my usual kick-butt, get-stuff-done-with-a-vengeance, talented, skilled, intuitive, amazing woman, and to just give me a little leeway, breathing room; to lower their expectations, to not ask for that favor or expect me to do what they need me to do; I almost DO have one. That weight gain is a pretty good bet I’m eating emotionally, and that means I’ve got a lot going on in my heart and head, and I need some gentleness, some TLC, some hugs, some quiet time, some understanding. And to not ask anything but “would you like to go to a spa?” or “let’s get you a pretty new dress that fits just right and looks awesome” or something similar.
But pretty much no one knows, or believes it, maybe, because I pull off really well that appearance of having it together. Because I don’t have a lot of choice otherwise. And I try to quietly tell people when it’s appropriate that I’m not my best and I’m working on getting back to my better self, because I do want some understanding and I want to be honest. I do know I’ll feel better; it’s just a matter of time, and I can reassure others of this. But I do want to share, in the meantime. I do want to be open.
But I CAN’T FORCE IT, force being better, being at the end of that rough road and back onto a smoother one. And neither can anyone. I have such compassion and empathy for those who are struggling with any of these unwelcome dogs, darkest of midnight black or a paler dove gray. Because anyone who is outside doesn’t get that you can’t do the simplest of things. You cannot say, “But can you just do ____?” Because any of those “just” things are somehow far too hard to do when you’re in fog.
I’ve not been going to the gym for two months. I got sick twice (that did NOT help this whole matter) and didn’t feel well enough. I always enjoy my workouts. But now I’m out of the habit, in small part, but I’m also stuck in the mode of “I can’t get GOING” on many “extra” things that aren’t absolutely necessary every day. I am denying myself something I enjoy and that helps my health and my weight and even would help improve the depressive symptoms. ! But I can’t make myself do it. My brain is stuck.
I’ve also not been using my CPAP machine. I only needed it once I’d gained a fair amount of weight after my daughter got married (my last real gray dog episode, a bit under 4 years ago), and it did help. But then last year I lost weight and I felt pretty good without it. I know now I need it again. Here is the exchange I have had in my brain a number of nights:
Me: Just put the thing on your head.
Brain: Nope. We are resting comfortably, and reaching over and getting the thing that’s two feet away on the nightstand would be too much effort and then we’d be too worked up to get to sleep.
Me: We need this. It’s so close.
Brain: No. Toooo tiiiired to reach for it. It won’t make a big difference anyway. Why bother?
Me: This is ridiculous. It’s right. there. Good grief, get it already!
Brain: No thanks. Just go to sleep. Maybe tomorrow.
Me: Ohhhhkay. Maybe tomorrow will work. Pfffttt.
So when my doctor tells me, “You need to use your CPAP,” I nod and agree and tell her I’ll do it soon, knowing the mental hassle it’s going to cause. She will NEVER get it. Oh, and don’t get me started on how I have to brace myself when she notices the weight I’ve gained…. grrrr. That’s nowhere NEAR as easy as putting on a CPAP mask. And that’s ridiculously difficult sometimes, as you just read. I (kind of) grin and bear it through any doctor visit.
As I said, when I know that this one tiny, tiny thing, which seems so easy and so obvious to outsiders, is that difficult to actually execute (and this is simply one example of a number of other things I know logically I need to do and that would be good for me), I know that depression, whether it’s gray or black, is NOT something people can just pull out of on their own. Don’t ever say to someone going through this, “If you just…” Because it’s far more difficult than you can possibly imagine if you’ve not been through it yourself.
I managed to actually put on my CPAP two nights this week, so I’m feeling like I’m actually pulling out of the fog. The dog is showing hints it’s going to be heading out for a while. That’s very good news. One or two things get the ball rolling. But it’s on the dog’s time, not mine or anyone else’s. I’ve come to terms with this. And I guess that’s a lesson learned and it’s OK. It’s OK if you’re in this spot, too. I’m with ya.
I'm a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.