Training The Black Dog
Winston Churchill called it The Black Dog. Abraham Lincoln and Sir Isaac Newton wrestled it throughout their lives. J.K Rowling, Rosie O'Donnell and Sheryl Crow suffer from it; Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain famously lost their fight with it.
Depression. There; I have said it, spoken of the Voldemort of diagnoses, The Condition That Shall Not Be Named, but from which a large minority of the public suffers. One in six people will grapple with depression in the course of their lifetimes.
I am one of the six.
Just as the gay rights movement only gained momentum when individual men and women summoned the courage to "come out," I believe it is time for those of us who have struggled with depression to stand up and be counted. To understand depression, and to reduce its stigma, we need to pull back the veil to reveal its familiar face.
So, Hineini-here I am.
I have no memory of having lived without depression. I was a despondent child, a melancholy teenager, and a young adult roiled by angst. My bookcase is overflowing with the complete works of Anne Sexton, my virtual rolodex boasts no fewer than four former therapists, and my medicine cabinet is a graveyard of discarded SSRIs*. Today I am battled-scarred, but proud that I fought hard for my mental health, and won. Yet even now, decades past the days when The Black Dog was my constant companion, the threat of depression pursues me like a shadow, visible even on the brightest days.
I am in good company. A 2006 Jewish community health survey conducted by Federation and Sinai Urban Health Institute in Rogers Park/Peterson Park revealed that 21% of individuals surveyed had been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, and that 17% currently were clinically depressed.
I'll never forget the day when I realized that my daughter had inherited more from me than my blonde hair and love for the written word. She was in preschool, giggling with her friends in the corridor, when suddenly she froze where she was standing. I asked what was wrong? "I don't know, she said, and looked up at me, stricken, her blue eyes filling with tears. "A big sadness just fell on me."
Lends new and painful meaning to the principle of L'dor V'dor, doesn't it?
We talked a lot about Big Feelings that year, logged in quite a few hours with The Feelings Doctor, and learned how to cope with sometimes having emotions so heavy that your heart staggers under the load. We chased The Black Dog away, or at least tamed him, for many years.
However, when she was a freshman in college, depression and anxiety, its fraternal twin, re-emerged in Jenna's life like a hydra-headed monster from under her bed. It wasn't just her; she had new friends who also were torn apart by existential despair. Some self-medicated with alcohol and other drugs. A few dropped out. One in particular reamed out his own psyche night and day, thrashing for help like a drowning man, clawing at the psyches of friends who could barely maintain their own equilibrium.
I had seen this movie, and I didn't like how it ends. I lay awake at night worrying that Jenna would jump into that lake of despair trying to save a boy who was more likely to pull her down with him than to allow himself to be rescued.
But my daughter is unflinchingly honest, particularly with herself. She felt the water closing in over her head, and realized that she was not a strong enough swimmer to serve as her friend's life preserver-and that, in fact, she needed a lifejacket herself. She sought professional help. With medication, she felt better in less than a week, and I said a special bracha for Celexa.
At one point, Jenna speculated that a stronger person wouldn't need medication. In response, her boyfriend asked if she thought that, instead of taking insulin, he should attempt to control his Type I diabetes through sheer force of will?
That is the heart of the matter. Depression is like diabetes, hypertension or cancer. Most cases can be treated or cured. It's no one's fault. Public awareness is key. And support from friends, family and society can make a major difference in the outcome.
As a community, it is time for us to say Hineinu-we are here-for people living with depression.
*selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors