Black dog

Two days ago I was crossing the southern border of North Carolina, coming back from a trip to Georgia, where I’d handed Mia over to her mom to spend a week with her. I was driving up an unlit road; the mountains were ahead of me: huge, black shoulders, spangled with light. I was listening to the kind of music that lets something loose inside me, like some dark wing. I hear music like this and it has an almost physical effect; it’s as though atmospheres of pressure are lifted, and suddenly my lungs can fill deeply.

Normally, I would have let myself slide into an easy depression; it would have been comfortable and familiar. It may seem strange that I would describe depression as comfortable, but human beings can acclimate themselves to just about anything. There is a familiar rhythm to it, a cycle of emotion and thought that is as true as an ocean current, and as powerful. It is an easy thing to surrender yourself to it, and to let it pull you along its courses. You know where you’re going. You know how you’ll feel along the way. There are no surprises. There is pain, yes; but it’s pain you know. It’s pain you can prepare for. And pain, at least, is something. Sometimes, you think, it’s all you can get. And so you’ll take it. You might even get greedy for it.

But a few months ago I finally got tired of it. I started taking antidepressants, and it’s hard to overstate the change. What I think is best described as a steady spiritual deliquescence has stopped. Some measure of self-regard is returning. The impulse to work — by which I mean to write — is back in force. And I haven’t felt that in years. Depression was, I think, the chief reason for my small output over the past few years. My thought was, very explicitly, that there are too many writers in the world anyway — we’re drowning in pablum, and seem to have lost the ability even to recognize it — and one less would make no difference at all. It might even be a small good.

I still believe that most writers would serve us best by surrendering the pen forever (yeah, I’m an asshole), and that we’ve become so inured to mediocrity and small ambition that we celebrate that which should be condemned for its miserliness of spirit, but the drag on my own intent has been removed. I feel a drive to work like I haven’t in years. Shortly after getting on the antidepressant, I finished writing a story that has been languishing on my laptop for months, and submitted the collection to a publisher at last. It was work that could have, and should have, been done at least a  year ago. But the will was crippled then. And now it isn’t anymore.

I say this because even though the social stigma against depression is fading, I think there still exists a strong personal aversion to admitting one is afflicted. I know I had that aversion. I denied it and its severity for years. It damaged friendships, may have ended relationships, and slowed my advancement in my chosen career. Throughout my life I’ve seen it happen to people I know and love. It’s deadliest trait is that it makes you believe that there is no point in fighting it. And the kind I had — have — was so subtle that I barely noticed the breadth of its effect. There was no sturm und drang, no self-annihilating impulse; only the steady, creeping rise of cold water in my brain.

I still love this music. As I drove into the mountains, letting it fill my head, I was still lifted. I still find beauty in the desolate. I still have a melancholy soul. Those things are characteristics of me, and will not change; nor would I want them to. I like them. But I can love this music now, I can love the poetry I see in pale bones and cold nights, without the accompanying despondence that had all but frozen me. Antidepressants did not dull my feeling for all of this, as I’d feared they might; they enabled me to more fully engage with it.

I debated putting this up. I was afraid it would come off as fishing for sympathy, which is certainly not my intent. I can look back on it all with a fairly emotionless cast of mind. But I think some of you will feel some measure of recognition. I think we waste too much time trying to construct a social image of ourselves as characters from television commercials: clever, funny, unbeset by loneliness or self-horror. Fuck all that. That’s what leads to all the shitty writing I was talking about.

Tell the truth. That’s what this is.


8 thoughts on “Black dog

  1. Veronica Schanoes

    Thank you so much for this evocative, beautifully written piece. I know what you speak of very, very well, and you are certainly speaking for me.

  2. I’ve battled depression for years – which should be no surprise to anyone who even slightly knows me – and I confess that I’m not winning the battle (it’s always just a stalemate). I’m glad to see that you are, though, and that you’re writing again.

    1. Thanks, Liv. I think the important thing for me — and for anyone who is experiencing any benefit from medication — to do is to capitalize on the reprieve, so I can start pushing things in a better direction.

      I know that feeling of stalemate all too well.

  3. Good for you, Nathan. I first went on an antidepressant back in late 1997, following my divorce from my first wife. I’d had some form of depression since childhood. A few years later I went off it, had some more bad times, then went back on. I’ve stayed on a fairly low dosage since 2004, and it has done subtle wonders for me, helping me, I believe, to be a better father and a better husband. I have a theory on why so many writers suffer from depression. It’s not causation; it’s correlation. I strongly feel that the act of writing is a form of self-medication, and that if a physician would hook up an EKG machine to a writer’s brain while the writer is in the midst of an especially productive writing session, the patterns shown would mimic those produced by a runner’s high (or by serotonin uptake inhibitors). I think so many writers are heavy drinkers because they utilize both writing and alcohol to self-medicate. Anyway, I’m very glad to hear that your productivity has picked up. I’ve loved your work for years and look forward to seeing a lot more of it.

    1. Andy, thanks. Your theory seems intuitively correct to me. Even in the midst of the worst of it, if I could eke out a good day writing, I would be on a high for several hours afterward. The problem, for me, was that I could rarely summon the motivation to write anything at all. It seemed like such a useless endeavor. Things seem so different now, and I’m in sympathy with your choice of terms: “subtle wonders.” Exactly that.

  4. Jose Cruz

    I am not someone who has suffered from clinical depression, but I’m familiar with some of the feelings you mention here all too well. The lack of self-worth is probably common amongst us all, but the notion of being just another mindless voice in the throng, a nobody, a peddler in insignificant thoughts not fit for the consumption of others, is one that has plagued me continuously. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat and considered posting an update on social media–thinking of how best to phrase my thoughts without sounding like an idiot–only to close the tab and say “What difference does it make anyway?”

    I’m very glad that you were able to get your creative drive back. I messaged you a year ago to tell you how important one of your stories was to me. We’re halfway into 2015 and it’s no less true. That’s almost four years out from this blog post, and I hope that you have been able to find the same emotional fulfillment from your life and your work since then as you did here. Your work is vital; your voice is important. Like you, I also enjoy the lonely, quiet hours and the strange beauty of the melancholy. But every now and then it’s good to hear another voice come out of the darkness and know that you’re not entirely alone.

    Thanks for that.

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