Dancing With the Black Dog: A Survivor's Guide to Depression

Dancing With the Black Dog: A Survivor's Guide to Depression

Dancing With the Black Dog: A Survivor's Guide to Depression

The "Black Dog" is an old metaphor for depression; the book is based on my experience - explaining how I've occasionally been able to turn the darkness into dancing - with the hopes that my journey will provide some points of light and rhythm to help other victims of the Black Dog dance their own dance of life.

As a lifelong survivor of clinical depression, I have experienced pretty much every possible symptom - suicidal ideation and attempts, involuntary psychiatric hold under California's famed 5150 statute, years spent on anti-depressants, all kinds of therapy (both voluntary and court-ordered), lost jobs, broken relationships... you name it, I've been there.

This book is a collection of survival tips I've developed over the years.

Divided into two parts: Principles - the general theories of depression I've developed to give story to my struggles, and Choices - dozens of different strategies and tricks to keep the black dog at bay - or at least survivable.

A graduate of both the UCLA producing and screenwriting programs, Calix Lewis Reneau is an amazing writer who, as an ardent connoisseur of story, understands the critical elements that constitute a superior screenplay. While he respects the rules of the game, he is bold to take risks that expose the fury and frailty of humanity, seeing past the obvious to reveal the complex dimensions in his characters and to elevate his commercial stories with depth and vision.

Both amiable and professional, with a keen perception and respect for the lens, Calix joyfully works with the vision of the director, producers and actors. Calix creates projects that regularly attract top Hollywood talent who choose to work with him repeatedly.

In a word: Calix delivers.

In addition to his screenwriting, Calix has been successful in many different writing genres and media. He is the author of nearly 100 nationally-published articles, an award-winning songwriter, top-selling greeting card writer, and the author of five books.

In the last three years, Calix has produced over 30 original projects, including shorts, iPhone apps, animation, sitcom pilots, talk shows, and three feature films and video games.

Dancing With the Black Dog: A Survivor's Guide to Depression
Author: Calix Lewis Reneau

Interview with Calix Lewis Reneau

Question: Can you tell us about Dancing With the Black Dog: A Survivor's Guide to Depression?

Calix Lewis Reneau: Dancing with the Black Dog is my memoir of my lifelong journey with depression and what I've learned through surviving it. It is a resource for people who suffer from depression and who live with people who suffer from depression. It's also an entertaining, easy book to read by design – we depressed people find it difficult to focus on things that might help us, so I wrote it to be as effortless and engaging a read as I possibly could. Each chapter is only two pages long, for example (there are over 100 of them) so that it can be digested in small bites.

The book is divided into two parts: Principles and Choices. I originally began writing the book as simply a list of coping and survival mechanisms I've developed or discovered or explored over the years. As the idea grew into the possibility of a book to help others, I expanded each technique into a simple explanation of what and why and how – the Choices, simple actions we can take in the daily dance with the Black Dog to turn his ugliness into triumph. Or, as King David wrote in Psalm 30, turning mourning into dancing (he also had a lot of experience with depression.)

As I laid out these Choices, I realized that I had developed a certain set of understandings that underpinned these ideas. The opening chapters of the book – the Principles – explain these ideas, so the reader will have in-hand not just of a bunch of random things to do when fighting depression or helping someone else fight depression, but more fundamentally have an understanding how the disease works and why taking these steps can work.

Finally, the tricky little secret about the book is this:
It's not just for dealing with depression.
It's about taking control of your life back from your emotions and your presumptions and your beliefs and your stories and choosing from your highest self the life you want to live and the person you want to be. Everyone I know can be happier, more fulfilled and more satisfied with life in learning these techniques (as people who don't suffer from depression but who have read my book regularly tell me!)

Question: Why was it important to you, to write Dancing With the Black Dog: A Survivor's Guide to Depression?

Calix Lewis Reneau: I don't know exactly when depression began to be a major factor in my life. I was regularly emotionally despondent to the point of suicidal ideation (including some very weak half-hearted attempts at carrying the impulse out) when I was in high school. As I aged into my 40s, I realized I had been living with this disorder, this disease, for neigh on three decades; something about that seemed kind of, well, triumphant and noteworthy to me, actually.

Except for a few periods in my life, there's not a week that goes by that most days I'm not pushing back the pain in my mind, facing suicidal impulses, the cotton and aching behind my eyes that is the physical component for me all too often, all of the horrors of this brokenness.

When I thought about how I've coped and survived all these years, it seemed to me that one reason might be so I could develop these principles, and try out all these choices, and use this odd inclination I have to punch the keyboard and make words appear – and share it all with others who have similar journeys, hoping to help them.

In a very real sense, it helps me rewrite my own story: it gives another meaning to my life's journey, another set of value.

It's important to me that what I've lived and learned be of help to others.

Question: What do you hope readers take away from Dancing With the Black Dog: A Survivor's Guide to Depression?

Calix Lewis Reneau: I'm going to cheat and just quote my own introduction from the book:

'You are not alone. I live in this world of pain and depression alongside you, and I write to give you hope. I envision several ways in which this will be useful to you:

'First and foremost I'm letting you know that you're not alone. I've worked hard to write this book as honestly and straightforwardly as I know how. I hope that in these pages you can get a sense that I understand your pain – that I live your pain with you – on some level.

'Second, I wrote this to introduce you to some ideas, some techniques, some tricks that I've picked up over the years that have helped me survive the disease of depression. I haven't always done a good job of it; indeed, I've usually done a horrible job – except for one key fact:

'I have survived, and at times flourished. And you can, too.

'Third, I pray I can give you some hope that it is worth surviving the hell that is the Black Dog. I will tell you without hesitation or shame that there are still times far too often in my life when I feel like it's not worth it. I regularly find myself back in the place I want to let the Black Dog guide me to ripping out my own throat and slipping away into that blackness. But I always find hope. You must, too.

'Fourth, this book is designed to be an in-the-moment resource. It's arranged for intentional use: when you find yourself going through a spell where you're battered by the Black Dog and interested in doing something, just flip this book open to a random page and 'Just Do It."

'Fifth, I want to introduce you to two possibilities in your life you might not have considered for taming the Black Dog: the power of 'story" and the power of 'choice." Both of them are in your hands right now, but the Black Dog doesn't want you to know that you, not he, makes those decisions.

'Finally, I want to let you know that you are not alone.

'I know; I said that already. But I also know it's impossible to believe anyone knows or cares when the Black Dog is in the room. What you know for sure is that you are alone. That no one understands. And knowing that this is a false story, and that love exists, that hope is possible, that others are reaching out, makes it all the more damning to live with.

'So choose a new story.
'And dance with the Black Dog."

Question: Can you talk us through your coping mechanisms?

Calix Lewis Reneau: One of the examples I use in explaining this is the power of sunlight.

Studies have established that sunlight entering your eyes unfiltered will combat depression. There is a chemical reaction that happens in your brain when you step outside and open your eyes to the day, unshielded by sunglasses or windows or pulled curtains.

Now, this isn't a sudden fix-all. You aren't likely to completely chase away the Black Dog simply by doing a little sunbathing. But the objective fact is that exposing your eyes to sunlight does help. That change may be miniscule, it may be fleeting, it may be imperceptible – but it is a fact that it happens.

So a lot of mornings, especially when I'm having trouble getting motivated to participate in life, I make myself go outside and sit on my front stoop and just look. Open my eyes to the day. Spend five minutes watching the world, trying to not gaze into the shadows or close my eyes or look away.

I know that this isn't going to cure me or make me feel all better. But I also know that in doing it, I'm accomplishing two things:

First, I'm getting that probably miniscule, likely fleeting and certainly imperceptible improvement in my brain chemistry from the sunlight hitting my eyes.

More importantly, I also know that this specific act is a Choice against depression, and that too improves my brain – specifically, physically, chemically. The power of thought is measurable, even if that improvement from the Choice is likewise miniscule, fleeting and imperceptible.

For those five minutes, I am Choosing to be healthy, not letting the Black Dog make choices for me.

Sometimes I am furious about that; I'm angry at the stupidity of thinking that such a Choice could make any difference, angry that my head hurts from the sunlight and I know I'm depressed and unhappy and why would I do such a thing?

And this gets to a core principle of dancing with the Black Dog: I choose to believe and behave as if my highest self (which I believe to be my spiritual self) is in charge, not my messed-up emotions, not my old intellectual stories I tell myself about what's useful and useless, not my habits and comforts.

I've decided from my 'good brain" (in those moments when I can think most clearly) that I am going to make the best Choices I can every moment, regardless of how I feel about it – and I define what those Choices look like, and then follow the plan. Sometimes the Black Dog wins and I stay in bed; but every time I Choose sit on my front stoop and let Mr. Sun do his tiny bit of healing, my highest self gets a little more in control.

I don't think 'coping mechanism" is a phrase I would use for this approach of Story/Choice, though… 'coping" sounds conciliatory, it feels like a bargain with the devil. I don't know if it's healthy to have a militaristic approach to this, which is why I called the book 'dancing" rather than 'wrestling." But even in a dance one partner leads and the other follows, and if nothing else, every choice is a choice for my higher self to lead, not capitulate.

This too is just a story I made up, but it's one that works for me.

Question: What advice do you have for those who have recently been diagnosed with depression?

Calix Lewis Reneau: Don't become your diagnosis.

It's very easy to become a label. A diagnosis such as 'depression" helps to identify a set of conditions you're dealing with in order to develop a set of responses such that your life goes more in the direction you want it to.

As human beings, we create labels because we want to have a sense of control and identity. We label ourselves and others for the primary reason of connection to the group, of wanting to feel normal and like the rest of the human race. Even those ugly labels which are pejorative, hurtful and controlling exist primarily so that everyone can have a sense of identity.

But the problem becomes when the label is defining rather than informative.

I adopted the old and fairly obscure metaphor of the Black Dog to discuss the symptoms and treatment of depression because it helps me to compartmentalize things, but it's no more true than the label some doctor put on you to call you 'depressed."

You're a complex, amazing person, full of contradictions and beauty. Don't let a label box that in. The set of symptoms that lead to a diagnosis of depression are real and should be addressed; they might be temporary (as they are for most) or they might be life-besetting (as they are for me and others – hopefully not you!) but they do not define who you are.

You define who you are: now it's up to you if you want to define yourself from the bottom up (starting with emotions you can't understand or control or predict) or from the top down – from your highest self, from your self that aspires to what you know to be best and pure and lovely and worthy.

Even if the Black Dog has you convinced that this 'higher self" stuff is pure garbage and nonsense, is he really offering you anything that you want instead? Really? When you've followed those impulses, have they led you to a better life, to any success, or even to any less pain?

If not, may I humbly suggest that the Black Dog is a liar and you should stop letting him lead the dance…

Question: What advice do you have for family and friends of those with depression?

Calix Lewis Reneau: Understand that this is a very complicated illness, and treatment, management and healing are equally complex. Fortunately, for most people depression is relatively short-term (months, not years) and usually has some set of triggers. But short-term or lifelong, if you love someone with depression then you have a very hard road ahead of you. Some things you can do are:

Love unconditionally – the person, not necessarily some of the behavioural choices.
Listen without judgment.
Don't try to change their story about what's going on; you can't do that from the outside.
Insofar as possible, provoke basic healthy choices – bring the healthiest possible food and drink around, encourage as much physical activity as they'll endure, and get them some sunlight.
Know that everything changes. Something may work today that doesn't work tomorrow, and vice-versa.
Be patient.
Don't turn them into their diagnosis; don't define them by their depression.
Seek professional guidance – from doctors, clergy and therapists.
You can't fix this for them from the outside. Even with all of the external things that can help (medicines, doctors, treatments, interventions, therapies, etc.) ultimately depression is a brain-thing, and it can only be addressed individually from within.
Your job is to constantly, gently, incessantly an humbly support their best Choices as they learn to dance.
(…and reading Dancing with the Black Dog: A Survivor's Guide to Depression can help out some, too… maybe not as much as sunlight, but it will help!)

Interview by Brooke Hunter