…of black dogs…

I’ll be blunt with the confession; I have chronic depression. I’ve had it for just over twenty years now, going on twenty-two.

There have been ups-and-downs. This past half-year has seen one of the ‘ups’.

No, depression has had nothing to do with the slow blog output, or at least I don’t think so. The past half-year has seen me more lucid and emotive than I’ve been in a very long time, possibly in as long the mentioned twenty, going on twenty-two years.

Why am I mentioning this?

First of all, Rousing Departures serves as a writer’s journal, amongst other things – at least as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s. And it’s in part because of wanting to write, I’ve engaged in protracted ruminations on mood and the like.

Who do I let into the home I write in? Who do I let in my writing area? Are there people who disrupt my state of mind in a way not conducive to writing? What smells/sounds/space/…?

I’ve made a few changes. I’ve ousted a few passive-aggressives, closet racists and self-pitying misogynists, who frankly, in addition to the obvious, really rub me too far up the wrong way to be allowed so close to home. I’ve ousted people who treat my writing space as their entitlement.

Mood was itself, a means to an ends, but now, upon reflection, it’s become more important than that (and in turn, may have more important implications for my writing than I’d imagined).

When you’re in one of the ‘downs’, you can fall into the trap of normalizing things, and just surviving your way through the turmoil. You can lose track of what exactly, it feels like to be unafflicted; convincing yourself you’ve recovered, that you’re restored, when in fact you’ve only had a moderate, partial improvement. Repeat the process, and you can rachet yourself down into a deep low, all while normalizing it.

I fell I’ve fallen into this trap a half a dozen times over the past two decades. The result has been a ‘she’s al’right’, before driving myself into the ground, again, for the nth time. Each recovery incomplete, and each subsequent downward turn starting from a reduced baseline.

It’s a bit of a family tradition on my Father’s side, downplaying medical inconvenience and just making do. Once when my father broke his jaw and had it wired up, he couldn’t wait to recover and eventually took to the wiring with a set of pliers. It was a similar story with the stitches from his vasectomy (this being prior to the use of dissolving stitches).

I’ve taken to myself with a knife before, in the interest of health, and I’m pretty sure a more recent scalpel-plus-sandpaper therapy wouldn’t be covered by Medicare, either.

Having had an unprecedented ‘up’, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to confess I’ve been in progressive phases of denial. Aside from being in a more able mood for confession, it’s a lot like having climbed the side of a steep hill, enabling a view of the topology of my previous mental state.

(The litmus test for reaching these new heights has been the ability to listen to Amy Winehouse, and Dave Brubeck, and feel something. This music couldn’t have resonated with me in say, 2007.)

This isn’t the first time I’ve made any such confession, of course. The difference this time is in the scope. Back in the day, I admitted I had temporary problems associated with unpleasant events – fights, bogan torture, blows to the head, stress, workplace poisoning, etc. All these seemed to correlate with my melancholy (but which caused which, or what caused either or both?)

First I was put on tricyclics, which lasted about three weeks. (Medication this antiquated may give you an idea of the historical length of both my awareness and denial).

Then I was put on an early SSRI. This provided little-to-no benefit, while bringing a lot of side-effects into the mix. It didn’t last, and it has to be said that the projectile vomiting while discontinuing, wasn’t a high-point.

That was then, and we’re here in the now.

When I get in a rut, it’s not like what a lot of people think about depression. It’s not so much that I get sad, it’s more that I become listless, numb and have difficulty concentrating. Not that I’ve ever self-mutilated in this state, I also tend to be overly tolerant of pain and physical damage (I have permanent damage to connective tissue in my right foot, thanks largely to this undue tolerance).

It’s the ability to concentrate that I value the most out of all of this. While I may have long since lost the ability to fall in love, I’ve still had experiences of high mental clarity recent enough to be well remembered and hence desired. Or at least, I still remember enough of these moments to want something like them.

If you’ve been reading my writing for any number of years, you may be familiar with the typographical results of my late night coffee-binges. Lack of sleep and caffeine certainly enters into it, but it’s never been a sufficient explanation for all the malapropisms, or the occasional failures of logic.

It seems I may have normalised the fuzz in my skull just a little too much, for just a little too long.

There have been newer SSRIs released since I was last prescribed, with at least a couple of graduations of improvement. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been prescribed and SSRI released in recent years, and it’s already showing noticeable signs of working. Indeed, this early on, it’s already performing better than what months of what I was prescribed in the 1990s achieved.

This improvement, during a seemingly unprecedented ‘up’.

The results are thus far mixed, being early days. I’m waiting for things to plateau and smooth out. My sleep has been disrupted, and I’m only just starting to show signs of being able to catch up. I’m a little tired writing this right now.

However, in the mornings, I’m no longer groggy at all, and my motivation doesn’t seem to flag as the day goes on. And then there have been moments when my mind feels like a steel fucking trap. Or rather, the love child of a steel fucking trap and a fucking titanium scalpel.

I’m less easily distracted, yet without becoming obsessive. I can feel more than I could a few weeks ago, emotionally and physically, and it’s not too unpleasant.

I can feel the cold on my skin in a way I haven’t been able to in ages. I can feel the chill from a carafe of water an inch away from the back of my forearm. I can feel the breeze on my perspiration, and I can feel the salt water well-up in my eyes when I yawn.

At most, this kind of thing has been information, rather than experience, yet experience I seem to vaguely remember somehow.

The unfolding of these new sensations and feelings don’t, however, stop me from focusing on whatever problem I’m mulling over. I just acknowledge the stimulus out of the corner of my eye, with a smile, while continuing with what I’m doing – it’s no juggling act.

At least, this is when I’m not too tired.

Again, I still have sleep to catch up on, and I’m told things will continue to improve for another three to four weeks before levelling out (all I was looking for was something to ameliorate the next ‘down’ in advance). I’m not sure where I’ll be with any of this in a month, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I won’t revise my judgements on my track record by then. I’m heading up a very steep hill, seemingly very rapidly, so who knows what things will look like from up top?

(If there is a side-effect, and I’m not sure it’s a side-effect, that I want to get over, it’s the change in either my taste in coffee, or in my ability to make it. Every damn coffee these past two weeks has tasted horrible. Maybe I’ll have to revert to Blue Mountain, or Turkish coffee.)

For the sake of consistency, all long-term writing projects are being put on hold as I try to find and organise my writing space anew. I guess in this respect, I am experiencing disruption, although of a secondary nature, and ultimately as a productive process.

I’m not too fussed about the ‘suffer for your art’ nonsense. I’ve never believed it. It’s always seemed to me that suffering’s relationship with creativity is as a side-effect of being sensitive about gaps in the world; gaps that the creative seek to fill in the first instance, irrespective of any suffering. My ‘suffering’, if reflection serves, has at any rate only ever hindered my creativity.

Perhaps if I was going to be made insensitive, to be anesthetized, then I’d worry. But as I’m feeling things more, rather than less, this isn’t the concern. The trick, I think, will be in not forgetting my past with The Black Dog, and thus taking my newfound clarity for granted.

We’ll have to see if and how this alters my prose and argument as things run their course.

~ Bruce

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6 thoughts on “…of black dogs…

  1. You’re not alone Bruce and I recognise much of what you’ve written about here. It is important that people stop thinking of depression as being sad. I’m very rarely sad. However, a great deal of my life is spent in pain and feeling like I’m walking through mud!

    Denial is a two-edged sword. On the one hand it stops you from ‘being’ your disease. Not giving in to it is important. On the other hand, as you say, you can end up pushing it too far and finding yourself in a state of collapse.

    It’s a balancing act – and one I’m not particularly good at. As I careen towards the ‘low’ I feel a lot like a mouse running on an increasingly fast moving wheel – I know I need to get off but somehow – I. Just. Can’t.

    I’m glad you’re writing and glad you’ve found some treatment that seems to help. I know so many brilliant, talented people who deal with (I refuse to say ‘suffer from’) depression that it can almost seem like this is a normal state of affairs.

    I don’t think there’s a ‘cure’ for those of us who’ve lived with this long term. I think it’s more like learning to live with any chronic condition – you have to find out how far you can ‘push it’ in order to have as close to a normal life as possible, but you have to recognise the red flags that signal you’re operating beyond your limits.

    Stress, to us, is like high GI foods to a diabetic – we have to limit our intake. You can’t live a normal live and eradicate stress altogether. You can’t live a productive life and eradicate stress. But, somehow you have to keep it within manageable limits and sometimes you just have to go on a total stress elimination ‘diet’.

    Anyway, I just wanted you to know that you’re not alone and there are more of us who understand than you think.

    Hugs, Chrys

  2. It is important that people stop thinking of depression as being sad. I’m very rarely sad. However, a great deal of my life is spent in pain and feeling like I’m walking through mud!

    V. true, it can be very much about getting the important things done but you just don’t care anymore or if you do you couldn’t be bothered. Bruce sounds like Dysthmia – a chronic low mood. That can have creative benefits. As recent studies have highlighted depressives seem better at analytic thinking, which is no big surprise because if you’re always focused on looking for incongruities guess what you’ll find. Intelligent people tend to pick up on incongruities more quickly so … . Perhaps it pays not to care so much. Humans are full of folly, better to laugh than cry at that.

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