The Black was back.
Not real black, but that was how he had come to think of it, feel it, experience it. But what blackness was... the absence of all light; the absence of all color. When he was 10 or 11, he went on a field trip to a large cave where the guide had the class stand in a massive rock room, hundreds of feet below ground, and told them they were about to experience absolute darkness. Then he cut the lights. It was a darkness so black, so deep, so intense it actually made his eyes hurt. For thirty seconds they stood in the blackened room, not a giggle or a word or even a shuffle of feet from three dozen fifth graders struck dumb! No sound but the trickle of water falling down the walls. The thirty seconds felt like a day as their senses were assaulted by nothingness until finally, and with great relief, the lights came back on.
That was why he thought of it as The Black; life without light and without color, yet assaulting his senses. But he now knew The Black was just his name for what the shrinks and social workers called depression. The Black had come and gone for years, visiting for a few days or weeks before retreating to its den until next time. For awhile he called it burnout but it was not quite really burnout either. Then The Black starting getting blacker, deeper, and more menacing.
Seventeen years on the Job. Seventeen very good years in patrol, narcotics, the burglary task force, financial crimes and then back to patrol as a sergeant. He had seen a lot of depressed people in seventeen years - listened to them, counseled them, arrested them, sent them for psych evaluations - and for a long time thought them somehow weak and pathetic. He had been to the funerals of four coworkers who had succumbed to their own depressions, opting out with a bullet. He publicly hung his head in grief but privately he scorned them for their weakness.
Now he felt like such a hypocrite, staring at the pistol on the table next to him as his wife slept upstairs without knowing of his plan, finally understanding why, knowing a sadness without reason that hurt so intensely. He could no longer take The Black. He had to escape it, to do this thing he could no longer put off.
Now sobbing and shaking with fear of the unknown to come, he pressed it against his ear, shocked at how heavy it felt in his hand, and tried to compose himself as the tears flowed. He was petrified this was going to hurt - he knew it would - but it could not possibly hurt worse than The Black. He had run out of choices. He had to do this. He pressed harder, waiting, waiting... then:
911, what is your emergency? 911, what is... Sir? Kurt? Kurt, is that you? Kurt, talk to me, what is it Kurt?
Sherri... Hi, Sherri, it's Kurt. Sherri, please, send someone. Sherri, I need help...
Depression hurts. Sometimes, depression kills.
Understand, the type of depression we are talking about is not merely a case of the blues, being down in the dumps, or experiencing normal sadness one would expect due to circumstantial events. It is normal to be sad, even depressed for awhile, if you have suffered a loss, experienced a major disappointment, or find yourself facing something unpleasant. The type of depression we are talking about is the kind that takes hold of someone mentally, emotionally and physically, to the point it impacts nearly every aspect of their life. It is the type that becomes their dominant emotional state, even when there is no apparent reason to feel sad or depressed. It is the type that, unlike simple sadness that will soon pass, persists to smother hope, leave its sufferer despairing of things ever getting better, and in the worst cases decide that not living at all is far better than living without hope. It is the cruel type that can come and go, unbidden and unexpected, to throw someone to the mat and hold them down for a few days or weeks or months, only to slip away as quickly as it arrived with no idea of when to expect the next bout.
Major Depression (also known as major depressive disorder, clinical depression or unipolar depression) is a serious, chronic, often debilitating, and frequently even deadly, disease. It is also one of our most common serious illnesses. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that in any given year some 15 million American adults, or about five to eight percent of the adult American population, will suffer from major depression. Consider also that there are other types of serious depressive disorders, such as bipolar disorder, dysthymia (chronic low-grade depression often lasting for months or years), and adjustment disorders with depressed mood, and the number of depression sufferers grow by millions more. Children and adolescents are certainly not immune either, as more and more enter treatment at ever younger ages diagnosed with depression.
Because depression and other depressive disorders are so common (who has not come face-to-face with depression in themselves, a family member, a coworker, or a close friend at some point?) and the devastation they wreak so significant, understanding of depression as a disease of the brain is greater than ever before.
Police officers have a front row seat to the world of depression and its effects: think of the despondent subject calls, the suicides, the mental health transports, the domestics, and the myriad other calls you routinely go to. Although there are still vocal and determined opponents of the disease model holding to the vestigial belief that someone who complains of depression is lazy, of weak character and constitution, a malingerer, or even demon-possessed, far more people now see depressive disorders for the serious and debilitating problems they are.
Ironically, few of us give much thought to the most remarkably complex and important organ in our bodies - the brain. We understand the brain is crucial as it relates to keeping the heart pumping and the eyes seeing and the nerves sensing, but it is as if we somehow separate the idea of our mind - the manifestation of our consciousness - from the organ from which it springs.
The truth is, the mind and all its processes of experiencing, analyzing, feeling, and thinking simply cannot be separated from the brain. Our consciousness, and its relative health, is a product of a stunningly complex, delicately balanced, and often fragile biochemical stew. Add any number of external variables that we know can act on that delicate balance, such as stress, trauma, health problems, and the unique genetic markers each of us carries (some of which can lie dormant for decades before popping up to raise a bit of havoc), and is it any wonder the delicate balance is so often upended?
As with many diseases, there is no are easy answer to the question of What causes depression? The simplest and most easily articulated answer is that it is caused by a chemical imbalance of some sort. In the brain are neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, that relay electrical signals between cell receptors and are necessary for healthy emotional functioning. If there is an imbalance or dysfunction in these neurotransmitters depression can result. The problem is, as each individual is unique so is each individual's chemical balance unique; personal habits, relative health, diet, life events, genetics, temperament, etc can all play a role in depression. In reality, that is the case with many non-mental illnesses, too. How can one person develop heart disease or cancer to cut short a relatively healthy life while his neighbor pushes the century mark on a diet rich in cigarettes and bourbon?
Major depression is a serious, sometimes tragic, disease from which no one - not even a cop - is immune. As the police, it is easy to see the effects of depression on the people you respond to. You respond based on training, policy, and experience. Will you be able to see it so clearly if it hits a colleague, a friend, or even yourself? Will you know what to do then? In our coming articles we are going to dig deeper into the topic of depression among the police. We hope you will join us as we explore this serious issue.