Battling the Black Dragon

Photo by Sasha Freemind

I call clinical depression the Black Dragon because it is so powerful, dark, and often lethal. It whispers constantly in my ear:

“You’re a loser”

“You’re a burden to your family”

“No one loves you anymore”

“You’ll never get better”

“If you die then the pain will go away”

The Black Dragon relentlessly beat me down and I had neither the energy nor the heart to fight back. Suicide sounded tempting, a way out of the pain, that too would feel overwhelming.

To stay alive, I must adopt the spirit of a warrior to push back against the bully. If I am to prevail and the Black Dragon is kept at bay then I will need to acknowledge that I will be stalked the rest of my life. Like most bullies, the Black Dragon will move on to easier prey when confronted with courage.

I had my first bout of depression when I was 20 while attending university. As a result, I showed up on my parent’s doorstep, looked into their eyes and saw my fear, and grief reflected.

As the oldest son, the embodiment of my family’s hopes and dreams, I felt their disappointment yet they unconditionally supported my recovery. Many weeks and months were spent in my room fighting my illness in the darkness. Even with prescription drugs, it still took three years to resolve and no one told me I was still vulnerable to relapse.

Boy, did I relapse.

In the subsequent 16 good years, I got married, welcomed the birth of two daughters and set sales records at work. These years turned out to be my most productive.

However, I relapsed three times, the third and longest lasted 15 years triggered by a stressful job search in 2002. It came with the ever-present psychic pain that stole my sleep, my appetite, my hygiene, and rational thinking. In place of sleep, I simply stared at the ceiling with the sound of silence ringing in my ears. Suicide sometimes occurs when the sufferer appears to be recovering. However, it was the exhaustion that prevented the self-destructive plan. Extra vigilance by family, friends, and professionals is required during this tenuous phase of recovery.

My doctor tried 31 selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) and 10 monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI) to address the horrible psychic pain — some of the most powerful psychotropic drugs invented by big pharma to no avail. All I got were the side effects of dry mouth and lots of weight gain.

Eventually, I became very desperate. I missed my young daughters and my family terribly. I was prepared to risk everything. I was either going to regain my life or die trying. No more compromises.

My warrior spirit finally emerged ready to fight.

But do you know what set me on the path to healing? Something much more mundane.

Soon after that commitment to regain my life, I was whining to my wife about the state of our condo’s toilets. Fed up she said, “Here’s my credit card. You go buy new ones if they bother you so much.”

So, after years of isolation and seclusion, I took up her challenge, visited the local home improvement centre and negotiated for a pair of toilets with installation. Such a simple transaction restored my confidence to make deals and I have been coming back to life ever since. My problem-solving, verbal, and written communication skills returned better than ever. Later we laughed about it. When someone asks, “what do you attribute to your healing?” 

I just say, “toilets!”

I am left wondering why I survived when so many have faltered. Being a natural analytical, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery. Like so many disorders mine was rooted in early childhood. As a preschooler, I was a high energy gregarious kid, of Asian descent, who neither passed up a ladder to a rooftop, a farm implement to drive, nor a train locomotive to climb all to feed a rich fantasy life.

On a typical sunny day in Hanna AB — pop. 3,500 — I was patrolling for new adventures. I walked into a life-changing incident. Three white boys decided to throw stones at me. Being who I am, I returned fire while ducking behind a car for cover. Outnumbered I was accused of starting the incident and the damage to the car. 

Essentially with the town looking on, my father gave in to the racial and political pressure of the time, dispensing the most severe capital punishment that I ever experienced very publicly. The guilt, humiliation, and confusion forced this young boy to don a “brilliant disguise” by stuffing my emotions to never again be that truly carefree kid. I became the obedient, analytical, and stoic Asian that I felt my parents wanted. Throughout my life, my relatives always reminded me of my “bad” phase. In turn, this set up a complicated relationship with my father. I was filled with passive-aggressive tendencies as I also tried to please him. Unbeknownst at the time, all this internal conflict and self-doubt made me an easy prey for the Black Dragon. 

When a sufferer is refusing treatment while in total isolation, this is not a good sign. To prevent a funeral, the person needs an intervention. Even a simple act of gathering the sufferer’s closest friends & family together and reading their “love letters” to him can make an enormous difference.

At the time, the sufferer is in a state of anhedonia, a loss of the appreciation of the pleasures of life, so injecting some emotion and love into his compromised soul can go a long way. Having watched this technique used in substance abuse programs on TV, I immediately wished this was done for me in my darkest hours for it might have lessened my pain.

Clinical treatments, such as ECT, meds, surgery, and talk therapy can only buy time so the sufferer can find a way to fight his way back to life. Effective treatment requires intimate knowledge of the sufferer’s value system, fears, and life circumstances. It takes professionals months and years to extract the necessary information to provide effective treatment.

Where can a therapist gain quick access to critical personal history but the “family of origin.” The mental healthcare community must find a way to leverage this built-in patient database to deliver more effective treatment promptly. Otherwise, the system just becomes a human warehouse of depression victims.

Make no mistake, the road back from a major mental illness like clinical depression is neither simple, easy, nor quick. Even if all the right steps are taken then you still need a strong dose of luck. For me, it was possible to come back void of any addictions and prescriptions. In hindsight, two ingredients are essential for recovery.

First, the “warrior within” must be cultivated to fight for one’s life. Second, a strong sense of a life’s purpose like mine as a Black Dragon Crusader to help other sufferers. Seeking out fellow survivors for support will greatly help against relapse.

I hope that my testimony may, at the very least, take away the loneliness of battling the Black Dragon and help to remove some social stigma associated with depression. The great fear in youth is that someone can “weaponize” their affliction to negatively impact their life. No more for me!

As the new warriors heal, they need to purge from their lives the toxic people and toxic thinking that create barriers to recovery. Involvement by my family and friends providing timely insights into my history and character was critical throughout my recovery. Unfortunately, my father passed before he witnessed the emergence of the son I was meant to be.

As someone once destined to die before my time, I am happy to report that I now expect to die on time.