Fading Light: The Fight Against Depression
We tend to shun what we don’t understand.
Posted Dec 20, 2018
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting...,”
—Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven"
For all creatures of the Earth, nothing is as fundamental as daylight, which blooms new memories and sheds light on life itself. The darkness can be numbing; isolation warps the mind.
On the rim of holiday celebrations and year-end resolutions, the tilt of the Earth, 23.5 degrees south, summons the Winter Solstice when the sun is lowest in the sky, reflecting a scant nine hours and 32 minutes of daylight—the shortest day of the year, a time of inner reflection, perhaps withdrawal. Then, in earthly redemption, daylight slowly begins to flow like the billow of a high tide.
With the shortest day of the year comes the promise of the longest—yet not before a press of depression for many in the Christmas and holiday season, the elephant in the stable. So let’s talk about the elephant. While the holidays engender emotional highs with family and friends, they also can induce, in some, as light dims, great sadness, anxiety, helplessness, and thoughts of suicide.
The hope, the gift that keeps on giving, is gut faith, courage, and perseverance, along with shared holiday empathy to connect with those in need, to reach out without judgment in unconditional love, to reject stereotypes. We tend to shun what we don’t understand, engaging in the “drive-by.”
“How ya doing; you look good,” we often say, dashing away to avoid involvement, or simply because we’re not conditioned to look below the surface of one’s life. Mea Culpa! One’s appearance, gifts, and intellect have little to do with an individual’s fight against depression and related diseases.
In fact, many who have battled depression and associated disorders, initially called “melancholia,” are considered among the brightest, most creative in life, an irony of enduring proportions. History tells us that Michelangelo, Beethoven, Mozart, Sir Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Tennessee Williams, Vincent Van Gogh, along with scores and scores of other creative geniuses, have suffered from depressive disorders, the “black dog,” as Churchill called it—the tortured genius. Yet some in the throes of depression see the affliction as a gift for unlocking the inner self in ways that have stunned the world. Take the case of the late Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch, whose best-known work, “The Scream,” is one of the most iconic in the art world. “I cannot get rid of my illnesses, for there is a lot in my art that exists only because of them,” Munch once wrote. “…Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. My sufferings are part of myself and my art.”
Aristotle is thought to have said, “No great mind has ever existed without a strain of madness.”
In depression, there is no off button. While situational depression can come and go with a death in the family, the loss of a job, a divorce, or serious accident, clinical depression is not a mood swing, a lack of coping skills, character flaws, or simply a sucky day, month, or year. It’s a depressive disorder caused by defective brain chemistry, inherited traits, and other variables.
“It is often said depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn’t capture how complex the disease is,” notes a health report from Harvard Medical School titled, “Understanding Depression.”
For those suffering from clinical depression there are no Hollywood scenes the likes of Moonstruck, a Norman Jewison classic where Loretta Castorini, played by Cher, slaps Ronny Cammareri, a beguiled Nicholas Cage, then slaps him hard again, commanding, “Snap out of it!”
You can’t snap out of depression. Not going to happen. Churchill used the ever-present “black dog” as his daily symbol of despair. Reflecting on his depression, he wrote: “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”
Yet Churchill used his affliction for good; in his case, as a battering ram against Hitler in World War II. In the book Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind, psychiatrist Anthony Storr observed how Churchill marshaled his depression to enlighten political judgments: “Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance, which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940.”
Churchill’s depression, observers have noted, allowed him to fully assess the Nazi menace and recognize in the process that conciliatory gestures—the policy of England at the time—would only embolden Hitler. Thus, as prime minister, he altered the course of history, attacking Hitler head-on, using his black dog to his advantage.
Likewise, so did the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln, who, on at least one occasion, was so oppressed with melancholy that he collapsed. Yet he led this country out of slavery, began the process of healing, and is considered one of our nation’s greatest presidents.
Robert Bly captures such darkness in his poem, “Melancholia,” in his book of poetry, The Light around the Body:
“A light seen suddenly in the storm, snow
“Coming from all sides, like flakes
“Of sleep, and myself
“On the road to the dark barn,
“Halfway there, a black dog near me”
The black dog also stalks those with dementia—a double whammy for us with Alzheimer’s, a family hand-me-down for me. Accelerated depression is common in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in early and mid-stages and, at times, to the point of paralyzing one’s existence, and pushing some toward the cliff, often beyond the view of others on a drive-by. Like depression, Alzheimer’s and other dementias are greatly misunderstood.
Please don’t be fooled by the inaccurate stereotypes. Like snowflakes, no two patterns are alike. There are millions of individuals living with depression, dementia, and with both, still highly functioning, many not even diagnosed yet. And they are fighting off horrific symptoms daily beyond the observations of others. Those on this journey aren’t stupid. We just have a disease that at times, and often without notice, takes us down—dramatically diminishing, more and more, our ability to function.
My depression was brought on as a young man. Looking back, I felt at times lonely, totally worthless, desperate, and confused. I was an “A” student in school, a jock, a good-looking kid, the funny man at family gatherings and parties. Still, I felt useless. I spoke to my parents about it, and they told me that eventually, I’d get over it. Years later, I discovered my father was on depression medication, and my mother had succumbed to depression as well. Earlier, her brother had taken his life in a depressive state. Finally, I saw a doctor and was diagnosed with clinical depression, exacerbated today by Early Onset Alzheimer’s. The black dog now roams within me as I look for its leash to try to rein in the beast and, in a way, make good from evil.
It’s difficult to talk about this, but if in doing so light is shed, then the candor is worth it. I’m not trying to bring anyone down; I’m hoping to lift up, to give voice to individuals in the fight.
Those of us in this cycle of depression and Alzheimer’s are told to take our meds daily, exercise as much as possible, eat the right foods, and sleep when possible. Also, good to have guardian angels at the ready. I have one—Dick Koch, retired police chief in the Town of Brewster on Outer Cape Cod, one of my best friends, and a guy with whom I coached Little League for many years. Dick calls himself “Clarence,” a reference to Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody in Frank Capra's classic movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. He calls me “George Bailey,” and yes, he’s talked me off the bridge a few times when I felt life and this disease closing in. As a dedicated, veteran police chief there are no drive-bys for Dick, who has dealt with Alzheimer’s and depression in his family. He intuitively grasps the critical need to get below the surface in one’s life. On my desk, there’s a card from Dick; I keep it there as a reminder. It reads, “May there always be an angel by your side.” Clearly, Dick has won his wings.
My hope at this holiday time is that there’s a Clarence in your life. Depression, dementia, and other hardships can be fought with a four-letter word: Love.