My Experience With The Black Howling Dog...
Marty Duren wrote a blog post a day or two ago, concerning depression. In it, he cited Winston Churchill .. and others .. as referring to depression as that black dog. Having experienced it myself, I understand that term completely.
Now, a lot has been said about "post-partum depression", which is very troublesome for women who've recently given birth. It's good that PPD has been publicized; I'm glad they did. But men, too, struggle with depression from time to time, and most particularly when what's called "male andropause" overtakes them. And nobody ever talks about that.
This usually comes in the mid-to-late 40's, but can come sooner or later. I'm no medical expert, but in the same spirit that leads me to teach that followers of Jesus simply need to tell folks what they do know, even though not perfect, I shall relate my experiences with that howling black dog. I'm not a medic but I am an expert on what happened to me.
In early 1983, I was working for the company that had hired me to come to Birmingham. I enjoyed the job very much, and by every objective standard I could discern, I'd done a good job. Part of my salary for the first 3 years .. 1975-1978 .. had been paid in stock, so I had an ownership stake in the company. Plus, I'd borrowed the money to buy all I could under my stock options. Then, we sold the company in 1982.
We all did well in the sale. But after a short time, the big Insurer who bought us out sent in their own president. I won't comment on him other than to say the company is no longer there, and it wasn't a lot of years later that the big Insurer itself was bankrupt. In the end, my opinion of the man they brought in to be my boss .. I was a one of two Sr. VP's at the time .. was vindicated.
At the same time, our older son announced we were going to be grandparents.
Both of those events represented stress. According to what I learned later, good changes bring as much stress as bad changes. A promotion can affect you as much as a demotion. And that stress triggered depression in me.
I had always been one, at least for the previous 30 years, who had a good handle on my own feelings. Suddenly, I felt helpless, pointless, useless, and depressed. BIGTIME. Now, I hadn't totally lost my intelligence, so I realized something was wrong, so I went to see my family doctor.
He suggested I see a clinical psychologist, which I did. She gave me a book, by Gail Sheehy, called "Passages". She said just read Chapter Eight, as I recall; the one that dealt with Male Andropause. And was it EVER an eye-opener.
Briefly, here's what it explained: Men are principally motivated by our dominant hormone, testosterone. That's what makes us "hunter-killers" and makes us want to close the sale, win the argument, kill Bambi's mommy and daddy, and generally act like guys. And, as has been pointed out in countless ads for testosterone remedies on TV, that hormone peaks in our early 20's and then starts a long slow slide into history.
I've heard 2% per year, so do the math.
The other half of that equation is that men also produce some small amount of estrogen, which is .. hello .. the dominant female hormone. And the big rub comes from the fact that the production of that in men stays pretty well constant. Some time in the mid-40's, some sort of threshold is crossed in the balance between the two, and many (if not most) men feel as if they've fallen over some internal "cliff". I recall not feeling driven any more to close sales, to win arguments, to do anything at all. I had problems remembering things, focusing on anything (I just wanted to curl up and stare blankly at the TV), and had no enthusiasm. And I couldn't figure out what was "wrong" with me.
I was very much in the throes of depression. Deep depression. And it was only made worse because goodness gracious, I was a CHRISTIAN, and everybody knows Christians don't do that. Which caused me to keep up the good front, despite feeling so bad inside.
But Peg knew. At times, I was reduced to a big lump of jello, crying in her lap. Then, I called the doctor.
First thing I found out reading the book was I was normal. There wasn't "something wrong with me". Knowing that fact disarmed it, so to speak. At least in my head .. I didn't worry about something being "wrong", so to speak.
When it got really bad, I got real lucky, I got fired.
Yup. The company that bought us "reorganized" and eliminated my position. Fortunately (thanks, God), I had something over a year and a half on my then-current five year contract, so I left with a nice big check.
Which enabled Peg and me to immediately go on our first real (not visiting relatives, in other words) vacation, to Hawaii.
In reading and talking to the Psychologist during my one visit, here's what I learned:
- Male andropause is just as real and has just as big an effect on men as the women's counterpart does, to them.
- Stress can cause a reduction in testosterone production, and hence the syndrome of andropause can be triggered by stress.
- Both the changes in our company and my impending grandfatherhood were stressful and thus that change in balance of hormones was exacerbated immediately, at just the wrong time.
- The andropause and all the attendant symptoms furthered my depression.
- Depression itself depresses testosterone production.
- Result: a downward spiral in emotions.
Knowing all those things helped tremendously, albeit I still felt that nagging "pointlessness". But I knew what it was and decided I could live with, and even, ignore it.
The check, and a week in Hawaii, helped a lot, too.
As I had time over the following few months to reflect back on my episode with that "Black Howling Dog", I concluded several things:
- That's the way we're designed. I should embrace and learn from it.
- Depression is all about feelings .. how I felt .. and those feelings were in themselves, powerless. They could not make me do anything, nor could they keep me from doing anything I wished to do. Oh, they might make me want to sit in a dark room and sort of "drop out" of life, but they could not force me to do that. Nor could they force me to do anything else that my rational mind told me I shouldn't.
- There is light at the end of the tunnel. And it's not the headlight of an oncoming train.
- Since there were real reasons for it, there was nothing any more shameful about being depressed than, say, having a cold or a broken leg.
- Since it had nothing to do with faith, there was nothing "wrong" with a professing Christian being depressed.
- Telling a believer who's depressed to "Snap out of it", "Get a grip", or telling them they ought not be depressed is really, really stupid. Well, maybe ignorant (signifying lack of knowledge of the matter).
Interestingly, about a week after the pall lifted, my pastor told me that one of the ladies in church was exceedingly depressed. That was Sunday morning and I asked her husband if I could go talk to her and he said please do. So I went over and found her curled up in a chair in a darkened room. And all I did was to share the things I'd found out, as I outlined above.
Shortly thereafter she told me how much that'd meant, and still remembers it now, decades later.
Over the years, I cannot count the men who've crossed my path, who showed signs of this phenomenon. Just by how they'd answer "How are you?", or simply by observing a change in their demeanor. Without exception, they've said something about my reading their mail or something, and all have expressed enlightenment as I shared my story, and what I'd learned. That has made my experience, and its unpleasantness, more than worth it. Many times over.
Side benefit: when a guy is no longer "driven" to do what he does, he finds himself motivated solely by what's right to do .. not by any inner drive to triumph. And that may be one reason the Bible equates age with wisdom.
It's the way God made us. Barring physical illness, let's run with it. When the light finally gets to our end of the tunnel, it's more than worth it.