Meet Old Shuck, My Black Dog

I suspect almost everyone has a black dog in their life. I have Old Shuck, the legendary beast of East Anglia. I didn't always call him that, but he's been around my entire life. Which was confusing, because prior assessments on the presence of the dog suggested that he was not there. But I knew he was. In fact, it wasn't until quite recently that I could give Old Shuck a name and understand him. Perhaps like most people, at times the black dog has kept his distance, or remained small. At other times he has been bigger, and sometimes he is very, very big indeed. Whilst he has visited multiple times in the past year, in quite recently, I have never seemed him loom so large. Thus, it is opportune to put finger to keyboard, and compose a few words about this beast, silent and invisible to others, but so very loud and very present to me.

In his celebrated Ted Talk, Andrew Solomon points out that one of the difficulties with depression is that their existential observations are often matters of fact; "what they are expressing is not illness, but insight" e.g., "It doesn't matter if we all die" (The Cure, One Hundred Years), or "we live, as we dream - alone" (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness). Factual statements like these are the reason why I believe that most people have a black dog somewhere in their life. It is, of course, a mongrel. Can you imagine the black dog being a preened toy poodle? You would have to be very rich and very superficial for that, and of course such people exist. They may even spend £250,000 on a luxury doghouse complete with spa and plasma TV. As Scott Alexander pointed out, that's a lot of dead children.

Another celebrated remark from Andrew Solomon's presentation is that "The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality." "Vitality" is defined as "energy and enthusiasm" (Oxford dictionary), "energy and strength" (Cambridge), "lively and animated character" (Merriam-Webster). Solomon correctly notes that sadness, grief, and depression are often confused and notes this can exist as a continuum. Six months after a catastrophic loss and you find yourself deeply sad, but being able to function, it is probably grief. If you can't function at all, that's depression. This is a challenge to the functional approach to mental health, which often works for things like phobias. Have a phobia of heights? Don't put yourself in a position where you have to deal with them, functional problem solved. But depression? How do you escape what is within, that is part of you? Somehow, such people in this category find the strength to give a pretence of normality to the outside world: "Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal" (Albert Camus).

But here I will part company somewhat with Solomon. For what he describes is the usual expression of depression, whereas mine is quite different. For me, when the black dog is at its worst I express it through vitality. Rather than consuming me, Old Shuck growls, nips at my heels, driving me onward. I have come to realise that this is not a coping mechanism, an attempt to overcome the presence of Shuck through working myself harder, "crash through or crash", like the faithful yet naive Boxer from Orwell's Animal Farm, "I will work harder!". The catastrophic event occurs first, Old Shuck arrives, and then there's the vitality. Be very worried for me when I appear to be at my best. Which is why for many years, I simply would not register correctly on depression assessments; half the questions relating to one's inward assessment of the world would suggest a very deep condition, whereas the other half, the outward actions, would indicate that there was no problem; a melancholic romantic inside, a determined stoic on the outside, if you will. In aggregate the traditional assessments came out as "average", when really the result was "mixed".

It was in the past year that I discovered that this particular manifestation of the black dog has a name; driven dysthymia, a variation on bipolar II. There's a fascinating essay that uses the polymath Goethe as an illustrative example of this condition, his "normal" fact-and-process orientated scientific and political work, punctuated with deeply melancholic periods which matched great creativity and output in the fields of aesthetics and justice. It comes with some of the persistent elements of dysthymia; in my case, an ongoing sense of hopelessness, private sadness and despair, and a terrible fragility in my own sense of self-esteem with utter misery at my failures. When these feelings have cause to be accentuated a period of driven activity follows. Which is why the condition does seem to have some strong adaptive advantages, including achievement orientation and professional advancement, public optimism, cognitive flexibility, and a high level of perseverance and adaptability when confronted with adverse conditions.

It would be tempting to suggest that this is not a dysfunctional condition at all, if that was all there was to it. Certainly, these positive aspects are part of the reason why I have become so accepting of Old Shuck, as the condition does provide some beneficial inspiring and reflective qualities. But you don't want to experience the bad parts. A sense of hopelessness can be overcome, and meaning generated, through the relationship of trust, promises, and reconciliation between authentic people. If that is betrayed or avoided, the roaring void of failure becomes all the more evident. The objective facts of a string of formal successes, or even an amazing network of truly incredible friendships, can all become unravelled when one perceives failure in one aspect considered to be among the most important. The degree of sadness, grief, misery, and despair can bring one to questioning their entire value in life.

It is a fashion, among some, to have a tattoo of a semi-colon to represent a moment when that they have given pause that their story isn't over yet, a signifier for survival from potential suicide. Quite clearly, it is valuable for many. But for myself, there is simply not enough skin on my body for the semi-colon tattoos that would be required. Every day, usually multiple times, serious consideration is given to the central question on the existential psychology of life; is this life worth living, both now and in the future? I know quite well, if the answer is ever in the negative, there will not be a thing that anyone will be able to do about it. There will be no cry for help, it will be painless (indeed pleasurable), it will be quick, with no possibility of medical intervention. Until then, I continue to live with that extraordinary motivator called hope (Dr. Curt Richter's experiment was monstrously and wickedly cruel, but the facts remain true).

Hope in all things is a great inspiration. Recently I encountered the extraordinary efforts of the crew and passengers on The Carpathia in their efforts to save any body, anyone at all, after they received the distress call from The Titanac. It is an extraordinary story of human courage, solidarity, and heeding the call of distress. What is important is that you make an effort. You might not be the one who saves the world, or even save a single life. What is important is that you try in whatever way possible to save lives, and reduce the misery in this world in the most effective way possible according to your resources. Even if it is boiling coffee and handing out blankets whilst a steamship powers its way to respond in the mist and dark, dodging icebergs on the way. If you are not doing this, if you are not prepared to do this, why on earth or you even on this planet? I see too much of this, and because of it, Old Shuck remains my constant companion. I may as well accept this dog as part of my life.

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rohan.mcleod's picture

I am conscious of a seeming hypocrisy in even talking about depression,
when at worst for me; there is just an absence of interest and energy.
Certainly suicide has never crossed my mind;
it just seems too much bother when, I know I will die anyway.
I find great empathy with Solomon's remark:
" that one of the difficulties with depression is that their existential observations
are often matters of fact; "what they are expressing is not illness, but insight" ;
as it fits well with my sense that depression as 'a dark night of the soul',
is perhaps a necessary precursor, if an extremely painful one,
of the profound personal developments. that seem to be the path
of many mystical spiritual traditions; I am thinking here particularly of Monastic Christianity;
but Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism also seem to have something similar.
It is important to understand that I say this in the context of a profound egoism;
which is to say an absolute responsibility to the self and a merely contingent one to the other.
This is not to suggest that all of the varied phenomena of depression are useful in this sense,
but then categorisng it all as 'unwellness' to be cured with pharmaceuticals also seems...un-useful.
Nether is it to give support to those who endure the downward swing of depression;
for the sake of the later creative upward swing. Stephan Fry a self confessed 'manic-depressive';
expressed such an attitude.
If the word 'sanity' is used (unconventionally for lack of another ) to refer to an intention to
see, know and understand the material world, human society, other's and oneself as they are;
as distinct from how they should or shouldn't be; then it may well be that both mania and depression;
are both mixtures of insight and insanity .
Some of the pain of depression is surely just the self-inflicted pain of excessive self-expectation;
which raises the question of how much is too much ? One popular explanation for alcoholism is
that the alcohol gives the victim some respite from so called 'excessive' self expectations.
So some of the insight of depression may simply relate to an understanding of the illusions of ;
self-expectation. expectations of the world, human society, others and one self.
This is not to advocate fatalism but rather (for example) that insofar as :
the ills of society are the ills of the citizen , writ large;
those social ills may spring from illusory self expectations of those citizens.
Finally I am much drawn to Solomon's remark:
""The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality." ;
because this seems like precisely the consequence that might be expected from
seeing depression as the perception of a profound and terrible problem of existence
and it's solution in the understanding of that problem .