Like many Americans, I live with depression. Abraham Lincoln referred to the “Black Dog” that visited him. For me, when depression moves in, it’s more like a miasma, a thick fog smelling of mildew and tasting of aspirin. This internal meteorology is almost never related to any external factor. I mean, if I’m feeling blue after breaking off a relationship, being criticized or mocked, I can see the cause, and know it will recede into the past, getting smaller and smaller. When depression comes in like a poisonous (but not fatal) front, I can try to convince myself it will leave as suddenly. In a self-stoking cycle, though, depression pokes a leak in my gumption tank, and once I’m depressed, I’m too exhausted to make that argument. These two forms of the same feeling are known, I believe, as exogenous (coming from the outside) and endogenous (coming from my soul) depression. The difference between them makes all the difference in the world.
I’ve talked with migraine sufferers who have warning signs, the aura that lets them know to get their immediate effects in order and prepare to take to a darkened bed for hours—or days. Without wanting to dismiss their pain, I wish sometimes my depression would give me a head’s up that it’s time to make any necessary decisions, then prepare to feel powerless, hopeless and unable to choose anything but thoughts of suicide.
As I write this, I am not depressed. Two days ago, I was. Objectively, my human situation has not changed one iota. I am still the same older but not old man living in the same Tiny White Box with the same Sam (is a dog) by my side. I haven’t been treated particularly well or badly by the universe as a whole or any part of it in particular. Today, the present seems pleasant and the future holds allure. I can look back on my life with pride and look forward with hope. Two days ago, the past seemed a joke and the future a pit of pain.
Having a logical bent, I want to use the scientific method but can find no foothold. If there is no discernible difference between two days ago and today, there’s no variable to test, no way to ensure tomorrow will be like today.
Ten years ago, when the poisonous fog came in, I had a fog cutter. No matter what I was feeling, I had a surefire way to change my perspective. Three or four drinks always made me feel significantly better, was always able to drive away either exogenous or endogenous depression. If events caused my depression, alcohol changed my view of those events, making them grow small indeed in the rearview mirror alcohol gave me. If, instead, the depression had arisen within me, like a boil on my soul, alcohol provided the warm compress to ease the swelling and the pain. I wouldn’t go back to drinking for anything. It was like syphilis—pleasant to contract but carrying way, way more pain than that initial release was worth. Here, I’m not talking about hangovers, but the constant feeling of worthlessness, the vague self-loathing and the cloak of guilt always over my shoulders.
In a moment—and they are rare—of self-awareness, I’ve just described the constant state my active alcoholism gave me using the same terms I would in communicating my depression. For at least the last two years of my drinking, I lived in a gas chamber of depression, breathing nothing but despair. Since getting sober and living sober, I now have periods where that fog rolls in—it always leaves again, whether I believe it will or not. I’ve traded a life where all I could breathe was emptiness for one where I sometimes have that Black Dog pinning me down, never going for my throat or mauling me. All in all, that’s a pretty great trade.
Today, I’m not depressed, and depression seems like such a silly thing to feel. Feelings, though, arise and depart, and next Wednesday I may feel hopeless again. If I do, I want to remember this, that my life today is infinitely better than it was 10 years ago. I hope yours is, too.