It’s time, I think, to introduce you to my own black dog. The more we haul these dogs out into the bright light of day, the more control we have over them. Obedience classes for black dogs. Muzzles on, choke chains checked, heel! Sit. Good dog. Except, of course, it doesn’t really work like that.
My beast first appeared at my heel when I was ten years old. My father died of lung cancer – at a time when death wasn’t discussed and counselling wasn’t offered – everyone (children included) were expected to take a deep breath, brush themselves down and get back on with life. My diary page has drawings of tears all down the margin, my writing very wobbly, slanting wildly down the page. ‘My dear Daddy is dead. Poor Mummy didn’t know how to tell me.’
I suppose we cried then. I suppose we comforted one other but I can’t remember any of that. What I can remember, clear as day, was being taken to see Born Free by a neighbour on the day of the funeral. I’d seen it a few weeks before but didn’t like to say anything and politely sat through it, watching the parched plains of Africa, sucking the salt off stale popcorn, cringing away from the neighbour’s kindness. Then I was sent on a coach trip to a safari park (more bloody lions) with some Sunday School kids and I can still see one organiser talking to another, glancing over at me, and muttering ‘Yes, she’s the one whose father died. No, don’t say anything to the children’. But of course it spread like wildfire. They avoided me like the plague, as if by associating with me their fathers might die too.
After that the black dog bit me hard. I developed asthma and would sit in my tiny damp bedroom, staring bleakly at a line of gonks that seemed to belong to another age, to another child. I went from being a bright, bolshy, even a bit pushy, girl to a silent shy ghost. I didn’t mention my father. I got by. I didn’t cry. Not until I was eighteen and at university and I met a girl whose father had died when she, too, had been ten. She spoke about it openly and frankly and that night, in my room, I drank half a bottle of gin and sobbed until I felt sick.
Those were the ‘don’t care’ years – when I would walk around the toughest areas of Manchester, deep in the night, figuring I would give Fate the chance to finish me off. Sometimes the whole world seemed so unreal I would cut my arm or face to feel something, anything – even pain is better than not existing.
I left college but the dog came with me back to London. However I found that, if you pushed yourself hard enough, if you worked hard, played hard, took the right amount of alcohol and the right drugs, you could pretty well kick it out of the way.
But it crept into my dreams. A dark shape, sometimes a dog, sometimes a cat-beast, sometimes just an amorphous shadow. A sick feeling would wash over me and I would just know it was waiting in the shadows, waiting to bite. I had one of those dreams a week or so ago. I was standing at the top of a flight of stone steps leading down into somewhere dark and frightening. I heard the tick-tack of claws clicking on stone and the familiar sinking feeling washed over me. Looking down I saw a small black dog climbing, slowly, in no hurry. It knew I wasn’t going anywhere. It’s always pointless to run. It drew level with me and grew, stretching up and out until it was the size of a Labrador. I could feel its breath on my hand, hear its breathing and then, oh so slowly, it took my hand in its mouth. I could feel the damp softness, so gentle as if my hand were a gamebird, perfectly retrieved. Then with a horrible sense of the inevitable, I felt its teeth sharpen and draw back and it bit, hard, deep, straight through the sinews, crunching the bones of my hand.
As many of you know, I suffered from post-natal depression after my son was born. In retrospect, I had pre-natal depression too – born of moving out into the middle of nowhere when I was pregnant, away from all chance of support. I was working furiously and did so up until a week before the birth. There were complications, I had an emergency section, then got an infection and ended up on a drip with a blood transfusion. Nonetheless I was back working a couple of weeks later. My doctor was pretty dismissive when I told him how low I felt: how I was barely sleeping; how I was so paralysed with anxiety that every time I left my baby I thought I’d come back to see the ambulance with lights flashing outside the house, Adrian’s face trying to form the words that my child had died. ‘Welcome to parenthood,’ he said cheerily. ‘You’ll get used to it.’
After nine months I diagnosed myself and asked a different doctor what she thought. She plonked me on Seroxat and, luckily, it helped. It pulled me out of the hole. I came off it after six months though as I was terrified of becoming addicted. Since then I have battled the dog with a mixture of herbs (Magnolia Rhodiola complex), exercise, positive self-talk and long lists of gratitude. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The last few months have been really hard – life has hit me on several sides at once and the dog has been having a field day.
However, I am noticing something interesting. A psychologist once told me that depression always hides other emotions. That it’s a kind of coping mechanism for when other emotions might overwhelm us. Of late, I’ve noticed that my black dog is being joined by other dogs, by a whole pack. There’s the red dog of anger and pure fury, snapping, snarling, biting back for once….. The yellow dog of fear, cowardly, cringing, sideways glancing. The blue dog of grief, of sudden sobbing tears, welling up like a huge wave threatening to break over my head. Anything can set it off. I was reading Cait’s blog a few days back and Halleluyah was playing. I felt a catch at the back of my throat and that was it. I howled for about an hour, great wracking sobs.
This is written, by the way, not for sympathy or even empathy. It’s written for me (because I can’t write about everything that is happening in my life but I figure I can still write about how I feel about it). It’s also written because I truly believe that keeping depression, and all forms of mental illness, hidden and secret only increases the taboo, the shame, and stops other people from seeking the help they need. My black dog is, like my real life dog, pretty badly behaved – but at least I can own it, stick a microchip on it and a name tag on its collar. What is known is always less frightening than the unknown. Just maybe, if I can own my anger, grief and fear, I won’t need that black dog so much.