By Joseph Cox
“Antonin Artaud wrote on one of his drawings, “Never real and always true,” and that is how depression feels. You know that it is not real, that you are someone else, and yet you know that it is absolutely true.”
― Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
Depression, as well as several other mood disorders, is interesting in the manner through which it is understood. With physical illnesses, understanding is mechanistically simple. Runny noses, aching bones, sore throats, lesions, migraines, and shattered limbs are things that everyone relates to, or, at least, can easily conceive of. Mood disorders do not have a wonderful simplicity to them. Each one is a unique, entirely subjective burden that toils on each person it presides in. We know of these pains through observances or metaphors. Through the works of Van Gogh, perhaps, one can reach a simplistic understanding of what a bipolar mind can contrive. Through the observance of the schizophrenic individual, in clinical settings or on a dampened street corner, one can come to contemplate the unknowable turmoil of a shattered mind. Depression, like its counterparts, is difficult to convey in plain semantics. I could speak to you of how depression feels indefinitely, contriving countless adjectives along the way, but all the adjectives in the English language wouldn’t make me a tinge more relatable. Depression, it seems to me, is best known through metaphor. The metaphor of my choosing is the black dog.
Before I expel my experiences with depression, it’s important to note the context of this article. Since coming to UWF, a question has pervaded itself into my life, so much so that my thesis is, to a large extent, dedicated to it. Most people don’t enjoy asking this question, because they find it to be too personal, or too difficult to answer at times. The question often lurks behind the thin veil of security that’s present in most psychology classes that analyze disorders, and it’s a simple one. Why do people kill themselves?
Through my metaphor, I hope to shed a certain degree of light on this question. Though, I find the exact answer to be impossible to reach with certainty. The reasons for taking one’s own life are one’s own. Each person is an individual entity with subjective experiences, so I find any attempt to provide a universal answer to the posed question useless. However, perhaps with my metaphor I may contribute to the de-stigmatization of suicide itself, and provide some insight into what goes on, for some people, in the moments before making the choice…
Whenever I’m asked why I pursue a career in psychology I usually give a response like the following: I had a bad night, and I don’t want anyone else to have that bad night. That’s the annotation my brain has assigned the night with the dog to keep the memory at a distance, “the bad night.”
My dog had a muzzle and a chain to keep it at bay. My muzzle was selflessness, and I did not use it sparingly. I was constantly plagued by thoughts of worthlessness, so any selfless act I could perform muted a fraction of the dog’s bark. If I was up until 3 a.m. speaking to someone else about their depression, then I was having a wonderful night. The dog was muzzled in its house, because it knew I couldn’t care less about its whining for that time. Most of my days were spent trying to keep the muzzle on. I’d probe my way into the lives of those around me not just because I cared, but because I physically needed to hear their problems. Every question I got, every confession I received, and every ventilation I handled kept the muzzle on for a few hours longer. On most nights, the dog would squirm its way free, and howl to keep me awake. But on the good days, the days where I could listen to the problems of three to four persons, the muzzle would hold for the night, and the dog would give up for a change. The beast would kneel in its home with only the faintest whimpers. I became addicted to that ‘do good’ feeling. I still am today, though the reasons are different now.
The chain was made of relationships, because each one I hopped into managed to stop the dog from tearing me apart. If I had someone to give absolutely everything I had to, then I had no time to worry about myself. I had no time to contemplate my existence, or listen to the dog bark, because I was too busy doing everything I could to please my significant other. I portrayed myself as the perfect boyfriend, because I was willing and ready to do whatever it took just to see a smile. I romanticized my position numerous times, but the result, in hindsight, was always the same. My care was suffocating, and it took me years to realize it. As a depressed ex-boyfriend, people loved to feed me useless information in a vain attempt to console me. “You did nothing wrong,” was always my favorite quote, because that claim was never made with sufficient evidence. Perhaps I had done nothing wrong morally. However, no relationship executed with my method could ever hope to be right either. Even if I had done no wrong to those I was with, I had wronged myself through willing subordination. I wasn’t Joe at those times, because I was too busy being a boyfriend. To an extent, I knew of my situation. I saw the unhealthy signs in every romance. After all, I was interested in psychology, but every chain was better than the alternative. Anything was better than letting the dog loose.
The dog feeds on the cruel indifference, apathy, and gluttony that we often feed it, either intentionally or by our forced hands. The might of the dog grows in the moments that no attention is payed to it, and it is within that ignorance that it comes to dominate every fiber of one’s being. My dog was sickened by the cruelty I had shown it, and once he’s free, he can consume the world.
In the bleakest moments, there isn’t a world beyond the dog. There’s no friends outside, no support lines to call, no exercise to do, no release to be found, because absolutely every nuance of the mind has been consumed by the power of the dog. Every thought becomes a gravely howl that seeps into the body to render it motionless. If it wasn’t howling, then the dog would just preside over me with its breaths. A relentless monotony of constant misery that there’s no escape from, because there’s no distraction from an endless sound. If you’ve ever been kept up by the barks of a dog late in the night, then you can relate to the feeling. Except the barking is in your mind, rather than outside a window. Every second brings another bark that screams inside the mind, and shatters existence itself in all its fragility. Barking, howling, slobbering, and with the scent of its warm breaths heaving over me in cascading motions, the dog towered above me in the darkness. There’s only so much to feel when the dog eats the world. Sometimes the sweet release of numbness ushers itself in, and the barks, the roars, are silenced. The dog is still there, slobbering above me in all its glory, but the sound is mute. I’m pinned down by his mass, but no longer shattered by it. I’m just there, alone in the collapsing darkness.
Though, there are times when the numbness doesn’t come, and there are only two options left: Face the dog that has come to single handedly dominate every aspect of my life down to the most fundamental thoughts, or stop dealing with the dog at all. This is how it felt to want to die. The choice is no longer life versus death, happiness versus sadness, or a continued story versus writing the end, because the choice is just dog or no dog. Facing a seemingly insurmountable object, or escaping into the vastness of the dark that had consumed me to feel the revelation of silence.
Perspective is everything when choosing suicide, and it is my belief that no one should have to face that dog, or any darkness, on one’s own. What seems insurmountable when pinned down by outrageous misfortunes may be conquered swiftly with the power that kindness can bring. Though it may never leave entirely, the black dog can come to be trained. Through repetition, one can learn to coexist with that demon within, but the process is no easy incursion for anyone. From the clinically depressed to the grieving to those agonized by the happenings of life, we all have a black dog in common. We all must learn to cope.