The words jolted me to a frightening place I never want to re-visit.
“You know with 100 percent certainty you won’t be able to feel joy that day. That’s the most profoundly damaging aspect of depression.”
Spoken by Canadian sportscaster Michael Landsberg in today’s cover story in the Washington Post, “Unwell and unashamed,” I felt a connection because I lived in the athletic world for for more than 35 years as a front office executive for the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles and athletic administrator at Yale, Dartmouth, and SMU. A world where revered Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi once said that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” I wonder how he would have dealt with a depressed player who hadn’t slept in a week.
My literal wakeup call to the onset of clinical depression came when I suddenly stopped sleeping. Three days, four days….The “Black Dog,” as Winston Churchill called his depression, was chasing me.
I will never forget the first time I read Abraham Lincoln’s description of his “melancholy,” as he called it in 1841 when he told his law partner: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
The thought of facing that utterly hopeless prospect made me too scared to sleep. The Black Dog caught me three times. Three times I somehow survived.
Millions still endure the most horrific agony imaginable in silence without seeking help. Why? An imbalance of chemicals in the brain causes this widely misunderstood and highly treatable disease. Yet too many of those who have never been clinically depressed still view it as a character flaw. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, they say.
Fear and shame were my initial feelings during my first depressive episode while I was working for NFL Creative Services in Los Angeles in 1983. That was the Dark Ages when it came to recognizing and treating clinical depression.
I was scared that it would be a career-killer. It almost became a life-killer. I came harrowingly close to plopping myself in the middle of the Pacific Coast Highway out of desperation. I was headed in a downward spiral until my NFL colleagues, God bless them, knocked on my apartment door one morning after I had been up all night and drove me to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.
A week there stabilized me, a month later I was offered the job with the Eagles, and the depression lifted. I was foolish enough to believe that the change in scenery made it go away. Wrong.
The Black Dog bit me again in Philadelphia in 1987. I didn’t tell my employer at the time – the Convention and Visitors Bureau – and eventually was fired. Seven years later in Dallas while at SMU it hit me again. A psychiatrist who had overcome the illness himself prescribed the right medication (Effexor) that balanced the dopamine and norepinephrine in my brain. I finally realized that changing treatment, not locations, kept the Black Dog in his kennel.
I understand how finding the magic pill is really a crap shoot, often a maddening series of trial and error. I have taken this medicine religiously since 1994 and miraculously have had no relapses. Others stop taking their medicine once they feel better. I wouldn’t dare.
I came out of the closet a long time ago. If something I say or write persuades just one reluctant person suffering from clinical depression to seek professional help or to feel hope knowing others like me have eventually gotten well, then it’s worth it.
My message to you who have had your lives sucked out by this debilitating disease: No matter how utterly hopeless your world seems, you will get better. And make no mistake about it – with this illness, it takes one of us to know one of you.
Just remember Lincoln’s words of wisdom: “A tendency to melancholy … let it be observed, is a misfortune, not a fault.”