Don’t read this blog post.
At least not if you’re sensitive to sad subjects and violent imagery—including violent images involving dogs and human animals.
Really, I won’t mind if you stop now. Come back tomorrow and I’ll have something lighter for you to read.
But if you’re still with me, read on.
The Blog Post That Took Four Years To Write
I have a depression story.
And it involve dogs.
I’ve thought about writing it several times. I’ve even sat down and started typing.
But I was afraid.
Afraid of upsetting people. Afraid of upsetting myself. Afraid of reading comments by nasty trolls who mysteriously appear when people try to be honest and vulnerable online.
Mostly I’m afraid of giving up, in a really public way, a secret I’ve held for decades:
I get depressed.
In all the years I’ve suffered from depression, I’ve had dogs.
No, they don’t cure depression. At least not for me.
But they did save my life.
Feeling Suicidal As A Sign of Improvement
Did you know it’s possible to be too depressed to kill yourself?
I remember being racked with sobs as my body got away from me. I had no control.
Finally I was too exhausted to continue. Lying in bed, I listened to everyone in the house snoring while I felt an eerie calm. I knew I wasn’t going to wake up.
I’ll never forget the intense certainty of that moment. It wasn’t possible for a body to endure such pain. My heart was going to burst and I’d be done.
I don’t remember if I woke up the next morning feeling disappointed I was still there.
I probably didn’t feel anything. I certainly couldn’t do anything. Thinking, planning, acting were all beyond me.
Sometimes the inability to act is the only thing keeping us alive.
Slowly I climbed out of that trough. And I’ve never experienced that certainty that I would die again. I hope I never do.
But depression is like a river. It’s constantly changing.
For some reason, I recovered my ability to move and think. I went through the motions of leading a regular life.
You Can’t Always Tell
I was raised by someone whose depression stopped everything.
Depression was a physical presence in the house. You could not ignore it. It transformed everything that happened. Or didn’t happen.
My response was rebellion.
I wish I could have rebelled by being happy. But instead, I rebelled by wearing the appearance of an upbeat and cheerful person.
My husband will tell you I couldn’t keep up the facade every moment of the day. He certainly didn’t get the same picture of me that people I worked with did (and yes, I rarely missed work due to depression; perhaps 3 times in the course of my life).
My internal monologue imagined the shock and horror my friends and co-workers would express when they found I was dead. “She seemed so happy.”
It was a bizarre double life.
I remember one terrible day when every step felt like I had fifty pound weights tied to each foot.
As the subway barreled into the station, I threw my arms around the pillar on the platform to fight the overwhelming urge to jump. Because I had worked in a trauma hospital, I knew that being hit by a train at that speed would mess a person up real bad with no real certainly of killing them. Luckily, nothing frightens me more than thoughts of being in the hospital.
I managed to drag my body up the stairs to street level. But by the time I got there, every other person who gotten off at that stop had left the station. Including the old man walking with a cane.
I willed myself to move. But I’d go a few steps and then I’d stop and lean against the wall. Trying to keep myself going forward.
It took me 45 minutes to walk 5 blocks.
I had a story ready about my trolley getting caught behind a double-parked truck in my neighborhood and no one thought anything of my being late.
I remember the bizarre feeling of watching myself go through my day. At times there were three of me.
While listening to my co-worker tell me about his weekend, the physical me stood by nodding and smiling in all the right places. Some other weird manifestation of me knelt on the floor banging my head into the marble tiles over and over as blood spattered the walls. And the third me stood back dispassionately and watched the other two.
But the people in my office only saw the extrovert chit-chatting with a friend.
I’ll just put a note here that few depression memoirs talk about weird and violent images. But on my worst days, they were my constant companion.
I will not tell you what I saw in my mind every time I pushed a restroom door or watched an elevator slide open. But if you’re depressed and seeing weird things, don’t worry (more than you’re already worried). For some of us it’s a normal part of the abnormality of this illness.
But you don’t want to read this. You want to know about the dogs.
You’re hoping this is going to get better.
This is your last warning to stop reading. For a while, it’s actually going to get worse.
The Unhappy Way My Dogs Kept Me From Killing Myself
I don’t remember why I was home alone with the dogs.
Although I had thought many times of killing myself, today I was really going to do it.
I just had to work out all the issues.
- How would I keep Mike from being the one to discover my body?
- Was it fair to pass that burden onto a stranger?
- Was there some way I could prepare them in advance to make their role less traumatic?
And then my mind raised the big question—what would I do with the dogs?
You see, I was working everything out. I didn’t want my death to cause problems for anyone else.
And our dogs, Agatha and Christie, were a handful. They were noisy, destructive, and they fought with each other.
We only had dogs because I wanted them. I couldn’t see Mike managing them himself. So what should I do?
The only answer was to kill them too.
How should I do it?
I settled on slitting their throats with a very sharp knife. It would be nearly painless and fairly quick.
And then my brain flashed. I got an image of Agatha and Christie’s lifeless bodies lying in a pool of blood.
This was the absolutely most horrifying idea I’d ever had. What kind of person could even imagine killing an innocent dog for no reason?
I woke up.
In that instant, I recognized that everything I thought I knew was wrong.
I couldn’t trust my own mind. It was trying to kill me.
What I thought were kind and loving acts, like removing my miserable self from the planet and keeping my husband from being saddled with taking care of two neurotic dogs were actually horrible.
Sorry. I don’t have a nice story about how my loving dogs sensed my despair and comforted me until I could find hope.
All I have is my realization that if I was willing to think about harming my dogs that my mind really was warped. And I had to learn to ignore my thoughts until I could find better ones.
Dogs Don’t Cure Depression
Except for some people, maybe they do.
If you’re one of those people, I’m truly happy for you. Dogs have never been a cure for me.
But I do believe my dogs saved my life.
No matter how bizarre my thoughts, nothing convinced me that I wasn’t perfectly rational. Until I started thinking of harming my dogs.
What Would I Give To Be Normal
Even after I decided I would not take my own life, I continued for many years to wish I had never been born.
Now I think about things differently. And I ask myself if I could take away all the terrible days and nights I’ve suffered, would I?
Just remembering these things has been painful. With the potential for even worse to come when I press “publish.”
But now I try to focus on the lessons depression has brought me. They may be lessons I didn’t ask for. But I would be arrogant to refuse them.
Should I share them?
What helps someone else won’t necessarily help you; try not to lose hope
I resisted medical treatment for my depression for many years.
I felt ashamed that I couldn’t make myself feel better. I didn’t think anyone who saw how relatively well I functioned would think I was suffering. And I continue to have negative interactions with nearly every therapist I’ve met.
But I was desperate. A bi-polar friend referred me to her psychiatrist for medication.
I didn’t help.
In fact, it made me worse.
I don’t necessarily believe the drug interactions did it.
But they didn’t help. Not even after a few months. Not even after increasing the dosage several times. And not even after adding extra meds to the mixture.
What made me feel worse was realizing that after stripping myself bare to ask for help, the meds weren’t working. And after a year of taking pills I began to lose hope.
If drugs don’t work, do I have any chance of ever feeling better?
I had to stop taking medication because I couldn’t handle the despair of not being helped by something many people found useful.
Which led me to appreciate something else.
What doesn’t help other people just might help you
Dog people will appreciate that recent studies find that behavioral conditioning helps many people suffering from depression.
Pay attention to your negative thoughts. When you hear one in your brain, snap that rubber band on your wrist to break the pattern.
It’s sort of like anti-clicker training.
Old-fashioned talk therapy is out.
In fact, some studies claim that the act of thinking things over too much, ruminating, makes depression worse.
I know from personal experience that is true. And I know how effective it is to break bad patterns, like the behaviorists tell us to.
But I’ve also gained a lot from thinking productively about my mind and how it works.
I’ve written books trying to understand myself.
C’mon. Don’t tell me you’ve read this blog and not realized I’m the kind of person who thinks, writes, and talks things out.
I use meditation, exercise, and diet to maintain a healthy mood. But I don’t believe my good efforts to gain mental equilibrium would have worked so well without intense philosophical and intellectual work.
In fact, one of my most healing acts was to choose to no longer believe in god. Nope, I wouldn’t recommend it to other people. It’s certainly counter intuitive.
But it has worked for me.
If you suspect something is making you depressed, it probably is
This one is tough.
You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t make big decisions while you’re depressed.
You could find yourself irreparably damaging your life when your mind isn’t working well.
But sometimes things make us feel bad and we don’t understand why. We have to act on faith that moving away from something we suspect is making us feel bad is a good idea.
I find that I’m very susceptible to feeling bad when I do pointless work. Some people can work for decades doing things others find purposeless. For me, that’s deadly.
If I can’t find meaning in what I’m doing, I go downhill fast.
I’ve left jobs and distanced myself from particular tasks when, after months of not knowing why I was feeling bad, I finally realized how crappy my work was making me feel.
On the other hand, making a change hoping you’ll suddenly feel better is risky too.
It’s tempting to make a big change hoping that things will improve.
But we must always keep in mind that no matter where we take our body, our mind follows along. And it can be just as awful in a new job, home, or relationship as it was in the old one.
Get comfortable with ambiguity
Be gentle with yourself when you’re depressed. But don’t take it so easy that you continue to decline.
Helping other people will improve your mood. But confronting other people’s suffering can also bring you down.
Getting your heart rate up will make you feel better. But if you’re so low that it takes you fifteen minutes to sit up on the couch, you’ll just feel worse if you add the guilt for not running to your already low state.
Reading about the happy times your Facebook friends are having will make you feel worse. But sharing a silly online joke with a friend might pick up your spirits.
It’s a hard balancing act.
I believe with all my heart it’s good to force yourself to do something, anything, when you’re in the depths of depression. I also know that there is nothing more cruel than to tell a depressed person to get up and do something.
Remember when I said depression is like a river that way it ebbs and flows? Well it’s also like a river because sometimes it threatens to sweep you away and other times you can cross those slippery rocks to the far shore by moving very carefully. Just know that you’ll probably get pretty wet.
You have to learn to accept living with opposite truths at the same time. Because if you fight against it, the depression will just drown you.
Depression looks different in every person
And you need to recognize how it looks in you, before it sweeps you under.
Reading memoirs of articulate people who have suffered from depression is mind-opening. Depression is such a solitary disease. The act of reading that someone else has felt the same way feels miraculous.
And yet depression is different for everyone.
Back when I had a car, I’d hit a stage in my depression where I knew I needed to force myself out of the house to interact with the world. But everything felt too hard.
Driving myself wasn’t an option. It’s a terrible feeling to resist that urge to swerve into oncoming traffic.
But I’d ask my husband to take me out for a bad meal at McDonald’s. And then maybe we could walk around the mall a bit.
I hate cars. I hate recreational shopping. And I rarely eat fast food.
So when I start craving that trifecta, it’s a sign that things had already gone pretty far down without me realizing it. Now I recognize the signs of my depression earlier so I’m not driven to the extremes of the mall or Mickey D’s.
I sometimes wonder how something that is a sign of a worsening depression for me is normal life for the typical American. Are most Americans depressed without knowing it?
Or am I such an oddball that a typical day for my neighbor is an awful day for me?
Sometimes dogs do cure depression
Yep, I named this post to be attention-catching although I’m not sure I want any attention for it.
But I support any treatment or cure for depression that works for you.
If living in a rain forest with a band of flying monkeys heals you, I say go for it. If medication makes you feel better, don’t miss a dose. If a helpful therapist improves your functioning, hooray.
And if you tell me your dogs cure your depression, I believe you with all my heart.
But if you feel bad because you thought your dog would help you feel better, or your spouse, or your god, or anything else and it didn’t, don’t despair. There’s still hope that something will help you.
As long as you’re alive, there’s hope
If you’re feeling so bad that the only thing you can manage is clinging to life, That’s enough.
As long as you’re alive, there’s a chance that someday you might feel better.
Do We Have To Worry About You, Pam
Have you made it all the way to the end? Past my warning? Past my second warning? Past my horrible stories?
Good for you.
Hopefully it’s not because you’re a horrible troll who can hardly wait to leave a nasty comment that will make me feel like crap.
I’m going to trust the universe that you kept reading because you saw some truth here. Or maybe you are looking for hope for yourself or someone else you love.
And maybe you read all the way to the end because you’re worried about me.
Don’t be. I’m better than ever.
I’m still incredibly sensitive to bad feelings. I’m scared that my changing hormones or even the seasons will send me back into a very dark place.
But I have many more good days than bad. And I have a self-care regimen that people suffering from a chronic illness (diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.) would recognize as part of living.
That may include staying away from this post for a few days. Or asking someone who loves me to read the comments first.
But I’ll be back tomorrow, writing about dogs and the people who love them.
Because who knows? Maybe I’ll find that dogs cure depression after all.
Helpful Depression Resources
If you need help right now, reach out to someone. If no one you know is near, try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
And for a brilliantly written depression memoir, William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness is a classic. You can probably find it in your local library.
Easy to follow and found to be clinically effective in treating mild depression is Dr. David Burns’ introduction to cognitive behavioral therapy,Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. This book is highly regarded and probably also available in your library.
I’ve also found mindfulness meditation particularly helpful in dealing with middle-of-the-night anxiety that can accompany depression. I like Mark Williams’ The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. I did find it in my local library.
Disclosures: First you should know that book links will take you to Amazon. If you buy something after following the link, your item won’t cost you more but I will earn a few cents. Thanks for supporting Something Wagging.
And secondly you should know that I worried about the possibility of earning a dime or two from depression resources. But I decided that it’s not shameful to try to support yourself so I kept the affiliate links in. And I’ll probably feel guilty about it for the rest of the month.