Published On Jun 10, 2016
The Black Dog
A mother details her internal struggles during her son's battle with clinical depression
Seated in my psychologist’s office, waiting for my appointment, I spot him: A tall, large-boned twentysomething, in T-shirt and running shorts, his big feet splayed in flip-flops.
Pale and unshaven he slouches, his eyes half-closed. On either side of him perch his two mothers. One keeps up a one-sided conversation with him; the other nods anxiously. He replies in monosyllables or not at all.
I look away, not wanting to invade their sorrow and fear. Two summers ago I was in the same situation, on those same chairs. I sat with my son, Noah, trying desperately to engage him as he slouched beside me with a blank face and his hands dangling limply at his sides.
Clinical depression had taken over my sunny lively child and replaced him with a dark figure, one who spent most of his days in bed. I had never dreamed that either of my boys might face the problems that I had. In my youth I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which put me through mild manic upswings and then serious depressive downswings. It took me years to find the right doctors, then the right diagnosis, then the right medications. If this was going to be my son’s journey as well, I longed to make it easier.
It was in the spring of his junior year of college that I heard the first signs, the telltale sadness in his voice on the phone.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
There was a hesitation. Finally he said, “No. I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
He’d had some pretty awful triggers. An internship stipend had failed to come through, and then there was a bad love affair. His rock band had broken up. Over the next few weeks I promised that these sorrows would pass, and that the pain of a lost love could take months to dissolve. But even as I reassured him, my fears multiplied.
He wasn’t new to therapy, but I single-mindedly vetted the field until I found someone who specialized in his life stage, transitioning into adulthood. A psychiatrist got him started on antidepressants. At the start, nothing seemed to take. The pills made him sleepy, and Noah worried about them. “I don’t want to depend on drugs,” he said.
Conversations remained monosyllabic. At dinner and lunch, he shoveled food into his mouth, not pausing to taste a thing. Fearful of letting my son drive, I took him to all of his doctor appointments. One particular afternoon, waiting for him to finish a session in this very office, his psychiatrist asked me to join them.
“Noah tells me that he’s been thinking of hurting himself,” the doctor said. For a moment, the breath just left my body. “I don’t want to put him in the hospital,” he said. “But I need you to keep a watch on him.”
Numb, I drove Noah to another health complex for an emergency
psychologist appointment with his talk therapist, while I sat in the parking lot. I wept, then texted yet another therapist friend in Texas. As I read her reassuring words to “hang in there” I wondered how many hands—those of family members, medical professionals, friends—it would take to pull him back from the brink. Had I done the right things? Did I know what I was doing?
When he finally emerged, he reached across the seat for my hand. “Don’t worry, Mom. Things will be fine.”
As I watched the desperate mothers across from me, I wanted to say: Stay. Keep with it. Don’t give up. It’s been two years since our frightening summer, and if things aren’t perfect, they’re better. Much better. Even though there are tearful nights, my son has beaten back the black dog and stepped into the light.
Walk with him, I wanted to say. Talk to him. Even when he doesn’t want to talk to you; even when he’s most distant. Tell him if this drug doesn’t work, another will. Or maybe, another after that.
Remind him that there is something on the other side.