Sometimes you can find sage advice in the most unexpected places. An overheard conversation while waiting in line at a store, a newspaper article, or as this photo shows, a marquee sign at an auto-body repair shop. I was struck by how succinctly it summed up my black dog. No matter how many fresh tears I use, the pain of past losses still haunt me, they never wash away. My past has not passed, it’s right here. Sooner or later I need to give up hope of having a better past.
When I was younger and the only dog I had was a daschund named Fritz, birthdays were a time I looked forward to. Whether it was my own or another family member’s big day, it was always a pleasant time of family, good wishes, home-made food and fun presents. Now that Fritz has been replaced by a black dog, birthdays aren’t so pleasant.
Today is my 52 birthday. No matter how much I try to ignore it and treat it as any other day, it’s still an anniversary - a reminder of time passing and losses experienced. Another year of unfulfilled dreams, another year I won’t hear from my daughter.
Black dogs have a way of causing you to re-experience old losses & painful times as though they had just happened. We try to gain some measure of control of our past (& by extension the present) by reliving it. No amount of telling myself, “If only . . . ” or of reliving my earlier life, changes it one bit. Nor does it alter my present except to keep feeding my black dog.
I’ve been reading Irvin Yalom’s book “Staring at the Sun, Overcoming the Terror of Death. In it he talks about a form of existential shock-therapy (think Scrooge in A Christmas Carol) which he calls ‘An Awakening Experience’. These confrontations with death can dramatically transform people (like Scrooge or Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych) into making significant life changes that give their life zest and purpose.
The author points out that there are also everyday experiences that are transforming and so fall under the umbrella of an Awakening Experience. His list includes:
grief at the loss of someone you love
breakup of an intimate relationship
major milestones like birthdays (40, 50, 60 etc.)
cataclysmic trauma, fire, flood, rape, robbery (& other crimes)
loss of a job or a career change
moving to a retirement home
. . . and finally even powerful dreams that convey a message from your deeper self can serve as awakening experiences.
Interesting that these things are also major life stresses. I’ve experienced several events from this list, namely - several deaths, illness, breakup of intimate relationships, turning 50, a flood and a career change. Most of these were over a relatively short period of time and so I think their effect was perhaps doubled if not tripled.
One of these events can be a powerful life changing rite of passage. If you’re prone to walking a black dog though, it doesn’t take much to turn it to a rite of passage into depression. When these Awakenings happen close together over a short time, I think the result (for me anyway) is not so much life transforming as life-numbing. Too much and you want to shut down and not deal with life. It’s kind of like having too many windows open on your computer. It’s difficult to focus on the job at hand. Too many emotional windows open in your life’s computer and it’s hard to get anything done.
My brother-in-law said it best when we had just put my folks into a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s, my niece’s new born had to be life-flighted to a children’s hospital & wasn’t expected to live and my best friend had just died of cancer. He said, “One thing is for sure, we aren’t in control.”
It seems obvious but oftentimes when you’re in the midst of a crisis (or several), that thought escapes you. Like a tiny sailboat adrift in a hurricane, you’re left groping in the dark for some measure of control. It seems like all we can do is raise our voice and shake our fists in protest to heaven.
There are many things in life over which we have no control but while we may not be able to tame the sea, we can grab the rudder and do the best we can at guiding our little boat over the waves.
How do we avoid being overwhelmed by life? The first thing is to realize what we do and don’t have control over and then act on what we can. Depression colors our vision so that this is difficult to figure out. The black dog makes you feel like you have no control over anything and even if you did, you don’t have the energy to act.
When I go over what I may have done or not done, said or not said in relationships I had in the past, I am trying to control things that are beyond my reach. Ruminating over real or imagined slights or bad behavior by others is also trying to change things through obsessing over them. Ditto for worrying about the future.
When we take on responsibility for things we can’t possible be in control of, we find ourselves mired in a breeding ground of guilt & frustration. But we don’t want to fall back on blaming others for our woes either. It’s a balancing act. You don’t want to place responsibility entirely on others - or on yourself.
We can’t control what happens to us but we can control our reaction. You and you alone are responsible for yourself and your reaction to life events. No one else can do it. When you’ve been carrying the weight of the world around, personal responsibility may seem like a small piece of the pie, but it’s your piece & no one else’s. There’s a tremendous sense of relief when you put the world down.
This morning I found myself ruminating over my daughter and her absence from my life. It wasn’t something I was even aware of until it had already affected me. It left me feeling very down. After a couple of hours I realized that #1 it’s normal to sometimes feel down during a birthday, #2 it’s natural to feel down when estranged from your child #3 as sad as it is, it is beyond my control to change. All I can do is to keep reaching out to her. That’s my grabbing the rudder and steering through the situation. I would like more control but it’s not going to happen. I have to accept reality and act on what I do have influence over.
Oz never did give nothing to the Tin man that he didn’t already have.
My family has lived in Kansas for a long time. Anytime we lived out of state or even out of the country, people will usually say one thing when they learn where we’re from, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” or some other Wizard of Oz reference - as though that cliche is a terrific and witty insight into the essence of the sunflower state.
Cliches aside, in many ways walking the black dog of depression is a lot like being Dorothy in Oz. We keep looking for ways to get home again. We get lost and have to confront all sorts of scary things, haunted forests, wicked witches, flying monkeys, sleep inducing poppies and even tremendous disappointment with the ONE person we’ve put all our hopes in. In the end we find out the only person that can really help us, is US.
We all have the ruby slippers and all we have to do is click our heels.