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The expression “black dog” has been used to describe a state of depression since Roman times. Apparently the Romans felt about dogs the way some feel about black cats with regard to luck and the outcome of future events. Winston Churchill revived the popularity of the term in World War II and it’s been bouncing around in the artistic and literary world ever since.
I happen to like black dogs, and I own black cats, so my use of the term has nothing to do with a dislike for the animal or color. I like the term because it puts a form on depression, making it separate from one’s self. The implication here is that the ‘black dog’ or depression can either overwhelm or be controlled. There is comfort in that, at least for me.
Here is where I tell you that I am not a doctor and I am not recommending any form of treatment to anyone for depression. I am acutely aware of its serious nature and how missteps can lead to permanent damage and death. What I am doing here is telling you what happens to me and how I attempt to work with it. If there are no dialogues about depression and TLE, if no one shares their experiences or thoughts, how will others know how to evaluate their own struggles? You can’t wait for a doctor to tell you how you feel. You must understand it yourself so you can explain it in a way that will help get you the best possible care.
I am assuming that anyone reading this knows what depression is, whether it is from first-hand knowledge or second-hand observation. If you don’t trust your definition, here is a simple description on the NYU site:
Depression is a constellation or set of symptoms including:
• Changes in sleep, mood and appetite
• Decreased interests
• Suicidal thinking
• Poor concentration/attention
• Change in thoughts, movement and speed
• Pains in various parts of the body
I struggle with depression on a regular basis. I consider it manufactured and not a part of my individual makeup. Seizures and the medication that I use for the them are two things that trigger the appearance of depression in my life, and here is how I deal with it on a day-to-day basis.
I have both simple and complex partial seizures that are uncontrolled because no medication has been successful in reducing them. For me, some medications decrease one type of seizure while increasing another, along with causing additional problems such as suicidal thinking and severe nerve pain. My best guess after years of looking at medical research and reading everything I can on this subject is that my body has an autoimmune reaction to the drugs.
Valium is my only rescue drug, as I call it. I use the brand name not the generic, because I am sensitive to even the slightest change in the chemical formula. I can use very tiny amounts when needed to stop muscle contractions caused by the seizure and to quiet some of the other symptoms, but this has its down side as well. Valium causes depression for me. So, I know when I take it that I will be pulled by the dog for at least the next 24 to 48 hours.
The seizures cause depression in me, as well. I realize that this is a bit controversial in the medical world, but this is my reality. The seizures seem to mix an ugly cocktail of chemicals that result in muscle contractions, nerve pain, confusion and depression. Add this dog to the one I grab onto when I take the Valium to eliminate the worst of the physical responses.
Now I have two dogs. Sometimes they have me. They take off running, pulling me in odd directions, taking me to places I had hoped I would never see again. They cause self-loathing, despair and fear where there was none a few hours before. If the anguish is very bad, they can trigger another seizure cycle.
Controlling them requires that I take them on, like I was always told you took on a German shepherd to show who was the master. I look them in the eyes and remind myself of what they are: manufactured responses from electrical circuits in my brain going haywire, remembered pain from taking a drug well-known to cause depression. Then I focus on who I am, on who I have always been, reminding myself that my feelings are really the black dogs.
This does not in any way stop the depression, but it makes it more understandable to me. It helps me realize that at a point in the near future I will no longer feel and react as if there is no hope remaining in my life. I will be myself again. When I am pulled by the dogs, I try to look at where they are taking me instead of allowing them to pull me down that dark road.
Looking at depression as something outside myself is not easy; it requires a constant internal dialogue. I am learning all the time, finding ways to delay responses until I know that the depression has worn off. But, it is hard and it is ugly and my heart goes out to individuals who have depression as a part of their personality, individuals who find no relief.
My stepfather was one of those people. He ended his life with suicide after a particularly hard period. Any depression is serious and deserves a thorough examination to find its source. If you have it, don’t be afraid to really look at, to talk about it, and to determine the best way to protect yourself and those you love and who love you.