This article / story first appeared in its original form in the April 2007 edition of the Media Center Messenger, the journal for the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. I am reprinting it here, with more editing and updating, to explain some things about me.

On the Care and Feeding of a Black Dog

I have a fairly complicated mental illness diagnosis that breaks down into a few different categories like OCD, BPD, and some other alphabet soup ailments. At the root, however, is the fact that I suffer from chronic, and sometimes crippling, depression. It’s what Sir Winston Churchill, another depression sufferer, called “a black dog.” I thought this started around the time I was fifteen, but in talking with my mother and therapist, we’ve determined I showed the early stages of clinical depression beginning when I was five. I was an overly sensitive child and very melancholy for my age to the point that Mama was worried enough to take me to our doctor. Unfortunately, as happens all to often, our family doctor just passed it off at the time as a stage and left it at that. Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered what I’d been diagnosed with at that time because the medical community had absolutely nothing in the way of antidepressants for people under eighteen.

So, rather than being a stage I could grow out of, the suffocating emotional blackness began growing within my mind. The deepness of my depression very nearly destroyed me in high school. In an attempt to find some sort of relief, not long after turning fifteen, I began bingeing often with alcohol and illegal drugs, a practice I was to continue with growing intensity all during my high school and, later, college years. I had no idea at that time, but my psychiatrist has sense told me I was unconsciously self-medicating. I was doing it poorly, but I was making an attempt to fight back. That spark of resistance, however misguided and seemingly futile, was probably all that saved me from suicide. I literally can’t imagine how many times I made out plans to kill myself and wrote draft after draft of suicide letters in my head.

When I started teaching, however, I knew drinking, and especially drugs, could cost me my hard-won job. Still without a clue about what was wrong with me, or the consequences of my actions, I went cold turkey and threw myself into being a teacher. Once again though, the respite was only temporary. As soon as the excitement of being a new teacher started to give way to the usual pressures and stresses of a career, the black dog was back stronger than ever. I began to contemplate suicide once more and many weekends I lay in bed just too exhausted to get up. I would come home from school and just collapse into the fetal position, so grateful that I’d made it through another day without my secret being discovered. To make matters worse, all this time, I had no idea what was truly wrong with me. I thought I was strange and weak-minded and felt I should just “get over it.”

Then everything changed when I met, wooed, then married my Budge. Just like with teaching, the early euphoria of being a newlywed ran the black dog back under the porch for nearly a year while we lived in marital bliss with my mom. A wise man once said, however, that no house is big enough for two women and my two favorite women were no exception. I began looking for a place for us to live on our own. Once we finally got a nice place of our own, however, the added stress of a mortgage, job, wife – simple, normal matters of life that other people deal with easily every day – began to cripple me. I crashed and crashed hard. Following an established pattern, I started to sink back into that abyss. My metaphysical canine friend woke up, licked his chops and crept back towards me, this time intent on finishing the job. Dana had struggles of her own, but she tried to be supportive and help me as best she knew how. She suffered silently for four years before sitting me down and gently saying, “Honey, you are going to get help or I’m leaving. I can’t live wondering if I’ll come home and find you’ve killed yourself.” That was six years ago. It was the first time anyone, including me, had consciously and openly acknowledged that I had an emotional / mental problem.

Now, what does this wonderful bit of soul-baring have to do with librarianship? Simple. Many of you have sat next to me in conferences. Several of you were my classmates at USC-SLIS. I’ve worked with lots of you on committees. In spite of my proximity to so many of you, to my knowledge, only two other librarians in the state know the seriousness of my condition. I keep up a good front and I can mask my condition well due to a good medication, my beloved therapist, and a real desire to “be well” so I can help Budge. I am functional and, if my former principal is to be believed, maybe even brilliant at times. Still, understand even though the black dog is quieter now, I know that he is not dead. I still have days when it takes all my energy and willpower just to get out of bed and face the day.

My point is this – depression is a real threat and a very serious one. Just as most of you had no idea before now of the fight inside me, many people at your schools are in the pits with black dogs of their own lunging at their throats, and, quite often, no one can tell a thing from casual observation. Think of the students you know who are loners or seem isolated or even angry. Think of the ones who are constant discipline problems. Sure, they may be loners and well-adjusted at the same time but they may be suffering some degree of clinical depression. Oddly enough, many of the best readers whom I’ve known as students have eventually been treated for depression or some other mental illness. Reading, especially big doses of fantasy or other escape fiction, can be a potent way of self-medicating, and a much safer alternative to alcohol or drugs.

Don’t just stop with the students. That colleague who always seems a little down; the teacher down the hall from the library who has dark circles under his eyes; or even someone who is “trying too hard” to be happy – all of them could be in need of help. In fact, our librarian colleagues may be suffering from chronic depression. After all, the nature of the job we do lends itself in many ways to being a haven for the depressive personality. Librarians are typically somewhat isolated, despite our best efforts to collaborate and get out of the library. We can seldom say we are caught up just because of the enormous volume of work most of us have to do. It’s just easy as the “only one of you” in the building to start feeling alone and that’s a foothold for a problem that may have lain undisturbed for years. These uncertain financial times with all the talk of cuts and layoffs have done nothing to quell the fear that leads to depression either.

Depression doesn’t know socioeconomic status, grade point average, or job description. What’s even worse is the symptoms can be mistaken for defiance or some other form of chronic misbehavior because people, especially young people, often can’t articulate what is wrong with them and on the outside, they begin to look like “bad kids.” Most people would go out of their way to help someone with a broken leg, but because depression is “invisible,” many people ignore the signs of someone crying out for help.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating we be junior mental health counselors. To be very honest, severe depression really is a job for trained people, if not Superman. What I’m asking is that we all keep our eyes open, and that we don’t get so busy working with our collections and collaborations that we fail to notice people hurting around us. I know that I always found solace in the library when I was in elementary and middle school. My depression started getting worse when I abandoned my library time in high school because I just didn’t feel welcomed there. My high school librarian was a wonderful professional, but I just didn’t connect with her.

That’s the main idea of what I’m asking us to do – connect, reach out to each other. Notes to fellow faculty members, a kind email, even something as small as a smile will all go a long way toward giving a bit of solace to a suffering colleague. As for our students, notice who hangs out in the library. Stop a minute before shooing them out the door for being in the library without a pass. Oh sure, most of them might be rule breakers trying to get out of class, but one or two may be genuinely looking for a place to hide out and collect their thoughts or to cry without the entire student body seeing him or her. If you don’t want to take them in, they will become increasingly isolated and depression thrives on loneliness and isolation.

In the news not long ago, a story ran about a ten-year-old boy who committed suicide by shooting himself with his father’s gun. The note the little one left said he was “tired of being sad and then angry all the time” and he “just wanted to stop hurting.” Our world is way too fast in many ways. Children lose their naïveté much too soon these days while we adults have our own slate of marital problems, financial problems, sickness, job issues, and the list goes on. Some become like the little boy, sad, angry, hurting all the time, and before they know it, everything seems hopeless. It’s a sickening feeling . . . believe me, I know all too well.

So keep your eyes open. Connect with the people around you. Watch your colleagues. Never be afraid or ashamed to point out to someone something that concerns you. Sure, you may not be appreciated every time, but you also may never know that you helped drag a black dog away from someone’s throat. Finally, if the black dog is at your throat, remember that, covers of recent issues of School Library Journal aside, you don’t have an S on your chest and a red cape on your back. Please, don’t wait twenty years to seek help as I did. No one needs to fight the black dog alone.

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