The Black Dog: Unless He's Had You By the Throat, You Don't Know the Lonely Battles and Exhaustion


The black dog is always hungry. Always lurking. If he catches you in repose he freezes you there and saps you of your will to move, and then he proceeds to ravage your body. No one who doesn’t know him can understand what it takes to fight him off, to rouse from your lethargy and carry on. Your brain knows what he is doing but your body betrays you and your will is often overwhelmed and paralysis ensues. It is a constant and never-ending struggle. No one knows the lonely battles, the effort, and the resulting fatigue that leaves you exhausted.

You can feed him caffeine, nicotine, sugar, or alcohol to hold him at bay. The best antidote is adrenaline. Deadlines, fear, galloping horses, exhausting exercise. Your greatest chance of losing control is repose and calm. You move or you die, or at least slip into an almost comatose lethargy that leads to paralysis. If you are lucky, you can kick into a manic phase before you are completely immobile. That phase can kick-start you to success in your chosen field, and if you are able to maintain it, it can take you far. But you can’t maintain it. The roller coaster climbs, but inevitably it dips into the trough. 

The frantic, over-the-top improvisations of Robin Williams—live ad-lib performances without a net—were an adrenaline-producing high that, while displaying his wonderful talents, were also self-medicating, artificially-induced manic episodes to hold the black dog at bay for at least a little while. But he could not maintain the adrenaline high all the time, though he tried more than most, thus his history of drug abuse.

The thing that usually keeps you alive is that when the black dog has you by the throat, you don’t have the will or the energy to end it. And when you are manic you are high on life. It is that area in between that is the most dangerous, when you are fighting through the paralysis but still retain the memory of the all-encompassing despair. You are filled with an overwhelming dread that it will come back to once again take you by the throat and make you wonder if you can stand the pain.

It is the fear of the black dog waiting to pounce when you least expect it that makes you consider whether the battle is worth it. There is no rhyme or reason. You awake some mornings happy. But other mornings you awake to a feeling of impending doom, knowing there is something out there coming at you that will destroy you. Your brain tells you you are being silly, and your body just convulses in dread and fear.

You know, like Robin Williams did, that there are people who recognize your worth. That there are people who love you. And it helps. It is all that gets you through, sometimes. But there are other times when none of it matters. The psychic pain is such that it drives out all other emotions, blots out logical thought.

If you are lucky, you can come out the other side. You learn to be watchful. When the black dog leaps you learn how to dodge. You avoid stress. You avoid the top of the roller coaster, lessening the fall into the trough. You learn defenses to keep yourself on an even keel, avoiding the highs and thus lessening the lows.

The worst times are when you are in the grip of post-traumatic stress and then the black dog piles on. It is despair times two. It accounts for my fellow veterans killing themselves at the rate of 20 a day across the Fruited Plain while the Veterans Administration dithers.

Robin Williams had money, he had doctors, he had family, he had rehab.

When a veteran is lying in bed in a rented room or a homeless shelter with no support system, is it any wonder many of them take the same out?

Robin Williams committing suicide shocks us. Well, maybe not all of us. Because we have had the black dog at our throat and we know the pain and we understand.

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