Taming the Black Dog of the Northwest

Scare crow and a yellow moon. Pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town. King Harvest has surely come (The Band)

A cool wind is blowing, smooth and soft this morning in the Pacific Northwest. Brown, yellow, red, and orange leaves have blanketed my front yard. Glancing through my bedroom window I awaken to a dark fog. But it’s peaceful. Suddenly, I realize it’s here – my favorite season — filled with the hope and promise of “glad tidings of comfort and joy”–gatherings with family and friends, fires in the fireplace and gobs of rich, buttery food.

But for those of us living here in the Northwest, a feint shadow crouches patiently in the corner of our minds. It’s a dark invasive spirit that will soon fill the air, daring to press against anyone without ample courage or fortitude to buffet its cold, biting headwinds – the menacing double threat of depression and anxiety.

In the mental health profession this illness of chronic depression (often accompanied by cycles of anxiety) is referred to as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Winston Churchill called his depressive episodes the “Black Dog,” a gnawing predator that nipped at his ankles for most of his adult life. One famous journalist calls it “living in a cold, heavy rain-drenched suit.”

Whatever the medical community calls it — no matter how pervasive among populations of Seattle, Poulsbo, or Pittsburgh — it’s a menace that will threaten many of us this season, more likely around mid-December when the pressures, commitments and expectations of Christmas reach their peak.

My family doctor in Poulsbo – with whom I visit every 6 months to personally keep the Black Dog at bay — calls depression our society’s most pressing pandemic. He tells me that “70% of his patients suffer from one of these illnesses – or both at any given time.” Another doctor friend from Seattle confirms that “No fewer than 50% of Pacific Northwest adults are (or will be) on anti-anxiety or anti-depressant drugs sometime between November and April.”

But rather than dispense dire warnings of personal meltdowns, suicidal ideation or crippling isolation, I’ve got good news – news about the ways we can not only cope with the onslaught of seasonal, chronic or clinical depression – but stand tall while leaning into its most blusterous mental headwinds. And to be an advocate and encourager for our loved ones who may soon be prime targets of these invading spirits.

In the next few weeks I’m going to share a range of tips and tools to optimize your mental health. Think of it as a modest insurance policy to help you experience a bright and cheery holiday season.

I won’t spend time educating or spewing pop psychology sound bytes or advice on medication, diet or exercise (even though they’re important for emotional wellness), or even share proven behavioral therapy practices. Those tools, I believe, are best offered by licensed professionals.

Rather, my tips and tools are intended to be simple and sensible, understandable, and relatively easy to apply, one at a time – which can offer the glimmer of hope to get your mojo back.

“50% of Pacific Northwest adults will be on anti-anxiety or anti-depressant drugs sometime between November and April.”

Before we start, please know this — that my audience is you – a fellow sojourner seeking a personal path of mental and emotional wholeness in our confused, frenzied culture. But the audience is also me, so I’m writing to remind myself of the proven ways I’ve used these tips to help me be my best during Seattle’s doldrums winter — so that my inner man can exercise good, wholesome judgement and behavior that’ll bless my family, friends, and colleagues.

Easy Success To Start Your Day

Make Your Bed – In the words of my friend Tim Ferriss, when you ‘win the morning, you win the day.’ Making your bed makes you an instant success — first thing. It’s a small task but has more emotional benefits than you can imagine. If you doubt the value of making your bed in the morning, watch this 2-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgzLzbd-zT4

Make A Plan – Failing to plan your day is planning to fail your day. Take out a piece of paper, write a list of 5 or so things you’d like to accomplish today. Then rank them by priority or chronological order. If you spend more than 60 seconds on the list and prioritizing, it’s too much time. My list is always super simple, especially when I’m in a funk: some phone calls and emails, walk the dog, a meeting, preparing dinner, whatever. These small things may not seem like a big deal to accomplish, but when you’re in the clutches of a deep depression finishing even the most rudimentary task — like dusting your bedroom — seems akin to painting the next Mona Lisa.

Meditate – Connect with your Higher Power, whomever that is, in whatever way works for you. He/she is the One who will give you the strength, courage and mindfulness to make it through at least to the noon hour. Personally, my daily routine starts with 5 or 10 minutes of Bible reading (or similar spiritual content) followed by a few short minutes of prayer. Sometimes, when I have extra time, I’ll listen to soft classical music on King.FM or stream tunes from my favorite solo pianists Ed Kerr, Paul Cardall or David Lantz.

Remember the hilarious movie “What About Bob” that was so popular in the early 90s? In the movie Richard Dreyfuss’s character (a famous therapist) wrote a book called “Baby Steps.” Well, like the movie’s plot line, the concept of “baby steps” to begin your journey to emotional wellness is no laughing matter. To win the day you must begin engaging in simple, easy-repeat rituals. Baby steps. Once accomplished — first thing in the morning — you can tackle more arduous chores and responsibilities later in the day.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for more simple tips to tame depression including short daily walks, ongoing contact with your ESP (Emotional Support Partner) and doing a simple but profoundly fulfilling task…for a loved one.

I’ll leave you with a link to some great chill music I listened to this morning to start my day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0KulDJ09To

*Lead sentence phrase is taken from the poem “Christmas Eve”

This is the first blog post of Skipping Stones–The Personal Blog of Phil Herzog