‘Black Dog Trilogy,’ filmmaker Scott ray Becker’s story of depression, premieres

Scott ray Becker and his dad. (Photo provided by Scott ray Becker)

By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner

Winston Churchill called depression the “black dog”; it pursued him throughout his life. Scott ray Becker saw it too.

But Scott, a Portland filmmaker, did something rather extraordinary.

He looked back at the terrifying hound, and turned on his camera, capturing the experience of depression and the fight to recover, then turning it into three short films, “Black Dog Trilogy.”

“Black Dog Trilogy” will have its Portland premiere Thursday, Jan. 20, at the Northwest Film Center.

Anyone who’s seen the black dog themselves knows that depression can be paralyzing. It might be hard to get out of bed in the morning, let alone create a film project. How did he do it?

I talked with Scott ray Becker by phone — his middle name is spelled with a lower-case “R” — and asked about the film project, depression, and what he does to stay in recovery. I was also going to ask how he’s doing now. There was no need. You can hear from his voice that he’s enjoying life, and you’d never guess where he was when filming began.

It was 2003, Scott says, when two things happened: the second Gulf War started, and his depression became overwhelming.

None of the medications had helped, and he had tried just about every SSRI available (SSRIs are antidepressants that target serotonin, such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and Celexa). Finally, after talking at length with a doctor he trusted, he made the decision to try electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, also called “shock treatment”). Scott did not want to take the treatments in his hometown, however, so he went to Rogue Valley Medical Center.

A Ken Kesey Fan Gets ECT

I asked Scott if he was scared, or worried about memory loss.

Scott said that, in fact, he’s a huge Ken Kesey fan. He’s read everything Kesey wrote, and he’s very familiar with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“Like most people, I’d heard all the bad things, and I always had the image of Cuckoo’s Nest,” he says. “I was concerned about memory loss, and all the baggage we know — or think we know — about ECT.”

But Scott had not come to his decision lightly. He had worries, but he also had a great doctor, and they had spent time making sure it was the right decision for him.

So Scott checked into the hospital in Rogue Valley. “For some reason — it still amazes me! — I was able to bring my camera.”

“The camera was my witness,” he says. “It was a way to keep a journal. And if I did lose my memory, I would have something recorded.”

In the beginning of the film, we see Scott’s feet as he’s wheeled into the room where shocks will be administered (the camera was on Scott’s belly). And then — Scott himself still can’t quite believe it — he hands the camera to a nurse. While Scott is actually getting shocked, the nurse films everything.

After the Treatments

I asked Scott what happened after he started ECT.

“It helped,” says Scott. “It actually helped.” And, he added, “There was no memory loss — except for the memory problems that come with depression.”

The hospital stay was three weeks long; each week he received three ECT treatments, for a total of nine. It was toward the end of treatment when he really started to notice a difference.

Scott remembers, “Around that time, I realized that I was able to cry — and I hadn’t cried in months. Then, at some point, I began to smell things again.  But it wasn’t like, all of a sudden, reboot! –Which is what I’d always thought.”

Right then, Scott said to himself: “I’ve got to rebuild my life.”

He entered a treatment program, where he received structure and support, as well as skills to help him in recovery. It was there that he got the idea to do the film.

“It was how to tell the story,” he said. “It was how to use art to recover.”

Recovery Tools – Including the “38 Special”

While in treatment, Scott learned some simple ways to help keep the black dog at bay. Here are the basics:

  • Running: “I learned I needed to run every day — for 38 minutes. The important thing is daily exercise. You can walk, or you can go 19 minutes one way and 19 minutes coming back, whatever. But 38 minutes is the magic number. That’s when you’re getting the maximum amount of serotonin in your brain; even if you keep exercising, you’re not going to get any more. I still do it, every day, seven years later. I call it the ‘38 Special.’”
  • Volunteering: “I volunteer at Project Grow, and in San Francisco I helped with Creativity Explored. “
  • Friends: “Through Creativity Explored, I met Michael Bernard Loggins. He also has depression, and he’s developmentally disabled, but he’s brilliant — like a savant,” Scott said. The friendship with Michael became a powerful influence in his life and recovery. They helped each other through depressions, and they’ve developed a bond that’s changed both their lives.

Message of Hope

I asked Scott if he could say something to those who might be experiencing depression right now, perhaps wondering if it’s ever going to end.

Scott has found, “It always ends. Every one of my experiences — it ends.”

Sometimes it’s hard just to keep going, and not give up. Here’s how Scott deals with it:

“When I get depressed,” Scott said, “I take it on as a job — make sure I don’t hurt myself, and make sure I work on recovery, so that I do come out of it.”

Scott ray Becker has been to hell and back. He knows what it’s like.

And, he says, “There is joy on the other side.”

See the film:

Black Dog Trilogy – Portland Premiere
Also: “Old Town Diary,” a 15-minute film by Brian Lindstrom, and Q&A with the filmmakers
Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011, 7-9 p.m.
Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium (at Portland Art Museum)
1219 SW Park Avenue
Google Maps

Learn more about Scott ray Becker:

Black Dog Running  – see the film trailer here!
Scott ray Becker on IMDb.com
Black Dog Art Ensemble

Learn more about Michael Bernard Loggins:

A front page article about Michael in the SF Chronicle
Some of Michael’s sayings