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The Black Dog

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Posted May 3rd 2013 at 02:04 PM by Mahray

“Lumos,” Harry muttered, and a light appeared at the end of his wand, almost dazzling him. He held it high over his head, and the pebble-dashed walls of number two suddenly sparkled; the garage door gleamed, and between them Harry saw, quite distinctly, the hulking outline of something very big, with wide, gleaming eyes. -- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The great black dog, that vile beast that takes over the mind and soul and sits on you, never letting up, never giving a moment's rest. Vanquished it will never be, always returning when least expected, when least required, when it's very mention would cause pain. It seems to know when the worst time to rear its ugly head is and will appear, unbeckoned and unwanted, to reign supreme. Of which beast do I speak? The unspeakable, the unknown, the hidden. The one that haunts at least one in five of us, throughout lives. It can strike at any time, without warning or with a long and gradual buildup. It can be triggered by an event or by nothing at all, arrive unannounced or with a bang.

Depression. A taboo word in many circles, associated with being weak, abnormal, broken. An illness that is serious in nature and so often neglected or ignored.

What is depression? It's not simply being sad, it's more than that. It's feeling those moods, emotions, and thoughts for prolonged periods. Every day can be a struggle, and activities that were once fun or easy become difficult. It seems that this is an illness of many causes, some of it may come down to brain chemistry, but environmental and psychological factors also play a large role. For some people it is a crippling illness that has a major impact on their life. Others find with medical and psychological help they can recover relatively quickly, while more are resigned to spending their life taking medication to control their depression.

I cannot lay claim to an in-depth knowledge of this field, I am not a doctor or trained psychologist (I struggle to spell psychologist without thinking on it). What I have is some experience, both of myself and others, in dealing with depression.

My own experience was triggered by a number of causes. Firstly, I have a tendency to maudlin periods, this is simply a fact of my personality. I was also in a situation where there was a great deal of upheaval in my life. University study, moving out of home and into living with my sister and her partner. My course did not suit me, or more to the point I was not a suitable student at that time for that course in that place. There were a variety of reasons for that, class size and structure, living arrangements, motivation. In any case, I ended up struggling desperately to motivate myself, and I did not feel that I had anyone who would help me.

It developed to a point where I would not get out of bed in the morning, and instead sleep through a large part of the day. When asked, I would say that I had gone to my uni classes and returned. In reality, I was rarely attending, not studying, and frankly doing very little apart from sleep and lounge around. As an introvert I have never had many friends, the few I had at the time I drifted away from, simply not keeping in any form of contact. There were other symptoms, but of a similar vein. This continued for some time, with the obvious eventual effects on my results.

I cannot remember why I finally went to see a doctor. Knowing what I know now about the illness and treatment, the advice I received was not really that great. Basically, I was given a prescription for SSRIs (a form of antidepressant drug) and sent away again. I remember when I took my first tablet, I was staying with my parents who were down for the holidays. I took the pill at night, and then could not sleep a wink, tossing and turning through the hours of darkness. That was unpleasant, to say the least. After that, I started taking the tablet in the morning instead.
The pills seemed to have a positive effect, at least at first they did. My mood was noticeably better, as was my motivation. I started seriously considering my study options, which led to my eventual change of program. I spent much less time asleep and more time active.
I spoke to a friend not long after I was diagnosed and started treatment. He said that he had noticed a change in my behaviour and mood, but had not wanted to say anything. My sister just thought I was being an adolescent male (which explains part of the behaviour in any case). It seemed that while there were people in my life who had noticed a change, for various reasons they didn't want to make comment or ask me about it. This is a common situation, sad to say, there is somewhat of a taboo around mental health and depression. It's better not to comment, not to ask. Perhaps it is an attitude that if you ask, you might have to help, or deal with it, or simply recognise that something is wrong in someone's mind. Physical illness is easy to deal with, mental illness cannot be seen, often takes time to diagnose (if ever) and is difficult to treat. Better to leave things as they are, and hope that all passes unnoticed.

After a while on the drugs I noticed a few side effects and problems. I lost passion, a lot of it. When I played in my music groups, instead of really getting into the music and playing with all my heart it was just notes on the page to be played. I didn't have the great lows of mood, but I had also lost the peaks. Everything was blurred out, averaged. The valleys had been filled in, but the cost was to knock down the hills. Other... passions were also reduced.
Some months after I started on the antidepressants, my sleep became troubled again. I will admit that for a period I was self-administering alcohol in an attempt to get to sleep. It worked in a sense, it often helped me drift away at night, but even as I did it I knew it was not a viable option. Eventually I got up enough courage to see my doctor again, and had a referral to a psychiatrist. He listened briefly, wrote me a script for another tablet to take that would help my sleep (apparently) and sent me away with a hefty bill. I never saw him again.

Those tablets worked, again for a while. Then my circumstances changed, and I started to see an improvement in my life. Without any consultation with my doctor I simply stopped taking the pills, both sets. I regained my passions. There were still times when I was sad or upset, to a much greater extent than while taking the medication, but I had the peaks back. My music became something much more meaningful, I could play and feel the beauty again.

My depression was over. I will not say cured, because it was not, but that episode was done.

Since then I have had times of mental anguish, I have had periods of great sadness. I have spent years recovering from a relationship ending. I have kept most of this to myself. I have not, yet, slipped back down that slope into depression, for which I am grateful. I do not take credit for this, but I am grateful that for whatever reasons it has not gone that far again.

Knowing what I do now, I would have sought different treatment. Instead of medication, there are a range of psychological techniques that have been proven beneficial in the treatment of depression. I am also aware of watching my friends and family, and asking them if they are ok. Being aware is the first step, both of myself and others. This is not to say that I will always make the right call, the correct judgement, but if I can help other people find themselves or find a solution then I feel I have done something useful, and right.
The great black dog lurks still, hiding around the corner perhaps. With support, it can be vanquished. The problem, as always, lies in trusting enough and sharing enough to get that support.
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