I’ve been waffling about posting this blog because it’s still hard to admit my disease. Then, I ran into Mort, a Vietnam vet, on the greenway. He also suffers from depression, and he was having a bad day. When I told him about my disease, his face changed. For the next twenty minutes, he told me how thankful he was to find someone who understood. For the next week, we walked together every day. That’s why I finally decided to post this. Because I want everyone who feels like Mort to know they aren’t alone.
A Dog, a Mob Boss, and a Bloody Blue Ribbon
I went through my third episode of clinical depression six years ago. That spring the only company I craved was my six-pound dog Miss Annie and Tony Soprano, a fictional TV character. I wouldn’t have survived without either of them.
I was diagnosed with depression almost twenty years ago. For two decades, I took all the precautions. I exercised religiously, slept seven hours nightly, and swallowed antidepressants daily. And then, I made the foolish decision to quit my meds at the same time I left a fifteen-year career. I quit taking the antidepressants because of allergy season. The antihistamines made me shaky, and the antidepressants made it worse. I rationalized I hadn’t relapsed in years. I rationalized I’d be safe to go without medicine for a few months. Wrong answer.
During the worst of it, I spent twenty hours a day in bed, only I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t sleep because the enormous weight of nothingness crushed my ribcage until breathing was a chore. Blinds shaded my bedroom in the gray tones of a cloudy evening. If I inched up the blinds, I could see the multiple green hues of spring, but they’d been closed for months. It was winter inside our house, frigid, desolate, dark.
In my serotonin-deficient brain, I felt like a shell, empty inside, weightless. I smelled like greasy hair. My house was filthy too. Dog hair collected in tufts, toppled up and down the hallway, as though they were tumbleweeds blowing across an abandoned Texas town. Anyone who has suffered from clinical depression knows how hard it is to describe the immobility of depression, the immobility of the mind and the body. But my dog understood, and Annie never left my side, not once. And she never asked me to explain.
Miss Annie didn’t care that I smelled like body odor or randomly broke down sobbing. She’d been my best friend for thirteen years, my first dog, the reason for my love of all animals. Ironically, Annie and I were opposites. She was a priss, and I’m a tomboy. She was a purebred Yorkshire terrier. I prefer mutts. I like walking in the rain. Annie walked in the rain if I held an umbrella over her head. But none of our differences mattered. If anything, they made us two halves of a whole.
The only solid, definable part of my life during the depression was Annie’s six-pound weight. She curled into a ball against my hip, hair as soft as velvet. I’d run my pinky across her little wet nose, a nose shaped like an anchor, as though some cosmic force interceded when dogs were designed. At the darkest times, the times when I didn’t know if wanted to wake up ever again, when I planned my suicide down to the exact minute I’d swallow the pills, she kept me anchored to the here and now. There were even moments when I ruled out suicide simply because no one else could take care of Annie like me. She was so much a part of me that in some region of my mind, I believed if I died, she would too. As though we only existed because of each other.
My feelings about Tony Soprano had more complicated roots. The Sopranos is a crime drama that first aired from 1999-2007. It’s based on an Italian New Jersey mobster called Tony Soprano. During that spring, I played all six seasons, one after another from dusk until dawn. Sometimes, I didn’t even watch, just listened. As much as I needed Annie’s weight, I needed Tony’s voice. A large part of my obsession stemmed from the fact Tony also suffers from clinical depression. It runs in his fictional family as predictably as it runs through my real one.
In the second season, during the episode “Isabella,” Tony confides to his psychiatrist, “Getting stabbed in the ribs is painful. This shit…I don’t feel nothing, nothing. Dead. Empty. Everything I touch turns to shit. I’m not a husband to my wife, not a father to my kids, not a friend to my friends. I’m nothing.” Tony Soprano held a mirror to my brain.
But his mental state wasn’t the only reason I clung to him back then. I also needed Tony because my inner little girl needed a father. I wanted someone to protect me because I was scared and sick, and I wanted that person to be a mob boss. Tony is a cheating, murdering, lying, thieving narcissist, but he loves his daughter Meadow, unconditionally. In the last season of The Sopranos, a mobster from a rival family confronts Tony’s daughter in a restaurant, says she has cream on her lip. He caresses her cheek. Meadow tells her father about Coco’s threatening behavior later over their kitchen table.
I watched the episode “The Second Coming” a hundred times. Each time I couldn’t tear my eyes off Tony’s face as he processes Meadow’s story. His rage is palpable. It’s so powerful he can’t sit still. He has to act, has to punish the man who violated his daughter. In the next scene, Tony storms through the restaurant, knocks Coco to the ground, then kicks his teeth out against the tile floor. His message is clear: nobody fucks with Meadow Soprano.
From my earliest memories, my father was the anti-Tony, the antagonist of my nightmares. When I was nine years old, our barn-cat Josie, longhaired and orange, had a litter of kittens. My younger sister and I were each allowed one. I tied a pink ribbon around a kitten I named Taffy and a blue string around one my sister called Coco. Both cats looked like miniature versions of their mother, but their personalities were vastly different. Taffy napped or cuddled twenty-two hours a day, while Coco ransacked the barn.
I spent afternoons sitting on a hay bale while Taffy purred away on my chest and Coco played with my hair ribbons. Pink, blue, yellow, purple, and orange ribbons littered the floor. The fabric wasn’t thin or shiny but hefty, made of a cotton-wool blend, as though it’d been knitted. Coco shredded most of them, and the remains spread like silly string across the planked floor. They were the same kind I used for their collars.
One afternoon, my father was grabbing some garden tools out of the barn. The ribbons annoyed him, and he started shoving them in a garbage bag. Coco must have thought he came to play because he swatted my father’s hand and sliced his skin deep enough to draw blood. Looking back, parts of me knew Coco was doomed when I saw the look of rage that crossed my father’s face. Parts of me will always blame myself for what happened next.
That night a shotgun blast pierced the evening. The ringing afterwards sounded as loud as the blast. I raced downstairs, frantic, but my mother, bent over her checkbook at the kitchen table, acted as though nothing happened. The windows reflected her perfectly coiffed curly hair, gold bracelets glimmering from her wrists. She looked so normal, so calm I questioned whether I had heard the gunshot or not.
“Your father shot a skunk, that’s all,” she said.
Two days after the gunshot, I found Coco’s collar. At first the ribbon blended with the dead leaves. Dried blood colored it a similar bark brown. I reached for it, sure but unsure, wanting to know yet screaming against it. The ribbon was stiff, crusty, but there was no denying it was Coco’s collar.
In retrospect, my need to protect the defenseless started with finding Coco’s collar. My idealism didn’t coalesce until years later, until I met Miss Annie and realized the depth of an animal’s personality, but that was the moment when speaking for the voiceless became my life’s goal. If I had acted, if I had hid Coco in my closet or taken him to a neighbor’s shed, if I hadn’t egged him on or left the ribbons scattered across the floor, maybe he would have lived. In a way, every time I save an animal, I’m giving back to that little girl who will always blame herself for her father’s mistakes. For me, my depression, rescuing animals, and my obsession with a mob boss are entwined with that bloody ribbon. It’s where all three of them began.
It’s been six years since my last (and hopefully final) bout of depression. I’d been ill for months, bed-ridden for two. The doctor said I’d been low for so long that the antidepressants would take time to build up my serotonin levels. I returned to civilization as though through snowdrifts, but I returned. Miss Annie stuck with me every step of the way, her tiny paws pitter-pattering behind me, her eyes a constant reminder I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t unloved. Three months after I recovered, I started fostering dogs for ICHBA. I named all the homeless mutts after Soprano characters.
Please, please, please if you are feeling depressed or suicidal reach out to someone. You are soooooooooo not alone!!!!
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK )