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Walks with my Black Dog
Posted by rufcjoe87
13th Jul 2017

Below are some excerpts from my mental health blog which can be found at https://walkswithmyblackdog.wordpress.com/
and is updated regularly

I remember it vividly. The day it all came to a head. But first – an introduction

The black dog had been with me for a while – a good few years, but he had lain dormant. Rearing his head from time to time to be fed, petted, noticed. But then he would go back to sleep.

I had noticed him stirring, waking up, for longer and longer at a time. It starts with the sleep for me. Not going to bed until 4am on a work night. Waking up at 7am, so tired to the point of being ill. Working as hard as humanly possible to try and keep the dog at bay, then going home exhausted, shouting at people I love and just being hell to live with. Then – back to bed at 4am – and on we go.

“That’s not depression – life’s just too short to sleep.” One of the many things depression does is convince you of the absolute concrete certainty that black is white, and that depression is not responsible for anything. This is you, mate. This is all you – you’re a grown man of 28 – you decide when you go to bed not a metaphorical dog that lives in your brain. “I’m too rock and roll to sleep” I don’t think that even needs explaining.

And depression is clever, isn’t it, because those physical symptoms – lethargy, feeling sick, no motivation, feeling like you can’t move – more on these later – well, they are just symptoms of a lack of sleep aren’t they? So no, you don’t need to get help, you just need to sleep – but I’m not going to let you do that…that would be too easy.

So you go to the doctors (make sure you go to the doctors – you are NOT wasting their time and medication is NOT a bad thing – more on this later – and they prescribe you fluoxetine. Prozac by any other name. And you take it….and…nothing. The next day – nothing…And then after a week or so suddenly you feel – worse. Much much worse. Well, here’s the joke ladies and gentlemen, have a look at the side effects on anti depressants and you will find – well, the symptoms of depression. Excellent. So am I more depressed or are the tablets trying to sap any remaining willpower?

So is it the depression and you need to up the dosage – or the tablets and you need to come off? Well – here’s the thing – the tablets take two weeks to come out of your system – so you’re basically stuck. For at least a month until you can work it all out.

Oh and food – don’t worry about it – you don’t need that. I was surviving on one large bag of M &Ms and 2 cans of coke a day – interspersed with sugared tea. I normally don’t have sugar in my tea but convinced this would stop me from dying. I was here in body but not in mind. Losing weight, losing sleep, losing my mind.

Luckily I had managed to do one thing many don’t do – told people, and this was to eventually save my life (more on this later). I was lucky – my family and friends were supportive and my colleagues at the time, despite having no knowledge of depression, we’re absolutely wonderful to me. Work was one of the places I felt I still had a degree of sanity and arguably these were my most productive months. But alas – that doggie is a trickster, as we shall see.

My behaviour became increasingly erratic, no sleep, no proper food, I retreated into my shell. I was angry all the time, snappy, miserable.

During this time my girlfriend and I decided to go on holiday – to the place I loved most in the world Cornwall. Getting away from it all might help. How wrong were we. I was a nightmare. I couldn’t focus. I spent all week on my phone to friends. I snapped at my girlfriend, at my family. I didn’t rat or sleep. One day – I think it was the Wednesday – I had to be physically lifted out of bed. The symptoms can be physical too. I was a mess. I felt that nothing I could do I wanted to do. I can’t convey how trapped that makes you feel. Even pointing your face at the TV…nothing. Numb, empty. My favourite songs would make me cry. The offers of assistance would make me angry. I was deliberately and subconsciously driving everyone away

This is thanks to the black dog – convincing you that you are such a failure you should make everyone leave you so you can say – ‘see – I told you so’ they all leave eventually, but luckily, they wouldn’t.

So back we came and I went back to work, and apart from one day off sick leave – I could not get out of bed at all and I decided I needed to be anywhere else – more on that later – I was doing ok.

Then on Tuesday 20th September 2016. It happened. I discovered rock bottom had a basement.
Now you have the background to my illness (read ‘Drowning’ if not) this post is to tell you about what is arguably, so far, the worst night of my life. Tuesday 20th September 2016. A date I’ll never forget.

The night before was a normal night. At this time normal for me meant drinking a bottle of wine a night straight from the bottle (remember I’m a rock and roll front man for a band so this is fine, this is cool). I still remember, that evening, laying on the floor of my lounge, on the thick, grey rug, looking up at the ceiling spinning. “My Backwards Walk” by Frightened Rabbit was playing (it seems when I am truly miserable, only miserable songs will do – if you know, you know), the ceiling was spinning and for the first time in a long time I felt …happy. It last for approximately ten seconds and I thought – her, it’s going to be okay.

The day in question (your honour – I am indeed judge, jury an executioner, with no small hint of perjury from the black dog himself) I actually went to work. I look back now and almost chuckle at this. I went to work and worked, fairly well, at least on the outside, though by this point my colleagues were pretty good at spotting when I was not okay.

Later that evening I lay alone on the sofa. Now a quick word about the sofa is important here. When you have depression and/or anxiety, you always have one safe place. It may be a room, a house, a beach, my sofa was mine. It’s the only place I wanted to be so hours and hours I would curl up on it.

I had music playing in my headphones far too loud and i was crying. Not crying, sobbing. Visceral, guttural sobs. I couldn’t stand feeling like this anymore. As the depression took hold of me further and further things I enjoyed became un-enjoyable. The band I was in, no thanks, work, nope, playing guitar (which had lasted a while) not interested, what’s the point? Finally the last thing I enjoyed was staying up late and watching TV. Re runs of Fry and Laurie (I have no idea). I could point my face at the TV and forget. Oh and endless reruns of Frasier. But that evening even they weren’t funny. I remember thinking, If nothing else is ever going to be enjoyable again, how can I exist. I cannot tell you how trapped I felt, literally nothing I could ever do will stop me feeling like this.

And then. A thought.

A simple thought that was the clearest thought I’d had in weeks. The clarity of it was like a cool drink on a hot day or that first breath that fills your lungs after swimming underwater. (I would later learn how better to deal with these thoughts through mindfulness but that is for another post).

The thought: ‘Joe, you’ve tried, and failed, the only logical way to stop feeling like this is to stop feeling altogether.’

It broke down further (and I actually used this phrase to my counsellor) ‘Existence is pain – there for no existence is no pain’ Simple.

And it that moment nothing else made sense and I could think of nothing else.

The black dog was sat on my chest, pinning me to the sofa, giving me the answer. Thank you pup! Finally! Why didn’t you tell me before.

I had a choice then. I either took my own life – and I knew clearly how I was going to do it – the thought of the kitchen knife cutting into my skin was something I saw so clearly in my own minds eye I was later surprised I had no marks on my skin – or I told someone.

Given I am sat here writing this I am sure you can guess what happened. I told someone. I shouted my girlfriend who was in bed and she came downstairs. I remember thinking ‘she is going to be so, so upset when I tell her’ and the dog went ‘so don’t – send her back to bed and just do it.’ But there was a part of Joe still in there – and he managed to get a message through the black treacle to the surface ‘She will be upset when you tell her but more upset when she finds you dead.’

So I told her. Simply. Pretty much as I described above. I even asked her to go and fetch me the knife – that was my sense of humour at the time. She held me, we cried and then she called my Uncle who was my unofficial counsellor at the time while I was on the NHS list. She called my dad who was on holiday in Bournemouth at the time, and my Mom who lives in Cornwall. This was 3am and I begged her not to but she did the right thing.

She sat with me in the chair, never slept, she watched me and she cried, and I cried.

Then the sun came up and people came round, and I didn’t want them round. I love them dearly, the extended family, and they meant well, and they did the right thing but I wanted to be left alone in my pit on the sofa. But they came round and looked after my girlfriend while she looked after me and that was important because I have no doubt living with someone with the black dog is so, so hard.

She near enough carried me to the doctor, who looked scared, prescribed me with a weeks worth of sleeping pills and said, wait for the waiting list, oh and don’t let him be alone.

Thus began 2 weeks of being looked after and never left alone, the knives and pills being hidden and various other things, which is for the next post – which will focus on the recovery, the shoots of which began that day.

Safe to say if it wasn’t for my girlfriend I wouldn’t be here and I cannot thank her enough for that, and also the actions of many people.

If you recognise even one of the symptoms or if any of this seems at all familiar. Talk. There is no shame in talking, telling someone, anyone. Talking saved my life. That’s not dramatic, it saved my life. Talk. Get help. I did, and I’m still here because of it.

Yesterday was one of those days. This for me means one of those days where a point comes that I physically cannot move, and the thought of even going up stairs to my office is akin to climbing Mount Everest.

I got home from a meeting at about 1pm. I had work to do in the afternoon. I sat on the sofa to check my messages and I literally (and yes I don’t use that word lightly) could not move. The thought of even getting up to take off my coat was insurmountable.

However far along the recovery process you are, these days will come, and often, seemingly, without warning. But therein lies the rub, there is always warning, and this is why you need to make friends with your black dog, hear me out.

Not to bore you with science but your body evolved the brain, to look after your body and to help make sense of how you experience the world. Depression is your brains (and therefore your bodies) defence mechanism.

To borrow an analogy from a good friend, and mentor of mine, your body goes “hang on, he’s doing too much here, we need a break” and you start to feel tired, under the weather. So what you do is keep going. Push through it – society has told us it is bad to appear weak. Have another coffee, stay up later, go to work earlier. All those things you enjoy doing – running, music, painting, don’t do those, you need to work harder.

So the body goes “hang on, this is getting worse – we’re gonna have to shut down” – much like a computer with too many windows open. So the brain goes “ok, I’ll shut it down” and here comes your black dog.

In ‘cavemen times’ (apologies to the historians amongst you) depression was a survival mechanism. It kept you at the back of the cave while others went out to hunt – so you didn’t get killed. It was once I had learned this I stopped feeling weak or useless for having it. It was my bodies way of telling me something,

When my Uncle, who helped counsel me when I first had this bad, he told me something I will never forget. He said “make friends with your black dog, invite him in, sit him down, have a pint, listen to him, he is trying to tell you something.”

Of course, to me, then, I just wanted rid of it. I wanted it gone at all costs. The day before this advice I had wanted to kill myself, so it must be nonsense.

But now it makes sense. What my black dog is telling me is how much I can and can’t do before I need to stop. Before last September, I could do lots. I had a full time job which spilled over out of office hours. I refereed twice a week. I ran a business. I was in a band. I went to the cinema twice a week. I went to bed at 2am and got up at 7am.

Yes, all things I enjoy, all good things – but still ‘too much’. Anything that is not you in your safe place (that sofa I told you about), counts as ‘muchness’. The irony being you will start to enjoy those things less and less.

Over the last six months – I quit my job, left the band and reduced reffing to once a week. I go to the cinema rarely. No I run my business and work from home, and I read alot, and I write alot, and I listen to music everyday. All things I can do from, or near my safe space.

Generally I have a good routine and, other than worrying about how a six a side football business will pay my mortgage I can manage. I can stop when I need to.

Then you get a day like yesterday. My first thought is to feel annoyed. I’ve given lots up, got a good routine, why is my black dog still showing up, what does he want?

Then I remembered the advice, and I sat and listened to him and he told me: “Joe, you’re doing too much again”

I can hear you all saying “too much – you sit around at home all day”. But ‘much’ is relative. Recently the business has been expanding, so there has been more work than normal. My bedtime has been creeping back nearer to 2am, there are, as always, money worries. Refereeing has finished and, despite best intentions, exercise has stopped. This had gone unchecked for a week or so, so my black dog has popped up to tell me. So I gave him a fuss and said ‘good boy’ – trust me when you get to that stage you can be in control more than not) and I sat on the sofa. All afternoon. I watched an episode of ‘Billions’ – it took me 2 and a half hours (when my black dog is here my concentration is less than normal). I read. I meditated. I sat in silence, I put some vinyl on, and I had a cuddle with my guinea pigs. But all from the sofa.

This morning I feel better. This is why I’m glad, instead of pushing through, instead of thinking – ‘god what would dad (my business partner) think of me doing nothing all day?’ (for the record I know for a fact dad wouldn’t mind and like everyone in my family values my mental health over anything else – that thought was purely in my own depression riddled mind – dad if you’re reading – I know its cool). Instead of thinking – “there are people working 12 hours a day and I can’t manage 3”. I sat on the sofa. Put the TV on and rested, I didn’t feel guilty or weak.

So it is important to know your limits, accept them, and not be ashamed of them. Also to listen to your black dog. But the trick is knowing what bits to listen to, cause he can be a sly one, and you always have to watch him, but at the heart, in a weird way, the only way he knows how, he is trying to help.
As mentioned before, once the black dog is with you, it is with you forever. I am not saying this to scare you or take away hope. The trick is not necessarily recovery, but managing it. I touched in my last post on knowing limits, listening and understanding your black dog.

Sometimes despite your best efforts you will relapse. It may be for a day, a week or a month but it will happen. It’s a fact. The road to recovery – or should I say, management, is not a smooth, straight line. It has ups and downs. The first one is the worst. That first bad day after the first shoots of recovery. Because you have usually made progress, measurable progress that you can feel and see. Then here comes the relapse. Remember dogs like to play fetch, and here he is bringing you back the stick to beat you with. So obviously the first thing to think is “I’m no better, all that hard work for nothing, I’ll never be free.” But when the fog clears, notice and have a look around. I guarantee, your good days will be more frequent. Your bad days will not last as long or be as bad. That in itself is a sign of recovery.

This week I have had a bad week. It’s been a busy, stressful week with the business and as such my black dog showed up. As I mentioned before I have been faced with a lot of my triggers this week. My dog usually lets one, maybe even two go but when faced with many she will come out and give me a nudge with her wet nose and demand attention, and as many of you will know, dogs, black or otherwise, will not give up until they get that attention.

There was an evening this week I felt lower than I have in some time (I have had bad days/few days before but this was different). I got scared. Because some of those dark thoughts and feelings came back. I am fortunate enough to have found mindfulness meditation and find it an incredibly powerful tool for dealing with thoughts. I took a step back, viewed them as purely thoughts and worked out what the issue was. I will talk in more detail about mindfulness in another post – as it deserves one on it’s own.

In my talks with both my counsellor and my uncle in the first months of recovery, both commented on how well I was embracing the methods and techniques and I was proud and happy of course. They both said, however, that the key is to keep them up when you are feeling good. It is so easy to embrace recovery methods when you feel bad, then when you feel ‘ok’ again, think “well, I am ok, so why do I need them” then you stop and guess what happens…there is the dog again.

So sitting there this week I realised – I had let nearly everything slip. I wasn’t meditating daily. My diet was awful. I was getting no exercise. I wasn’t taking time for me to read or watch TV or listen to music, and I was doing too much. I was also not getting enough sleep.

Everything I had stopped which mainly led to my black dog arriving, and that I had done to keep her away, I had stopped again. Doesn’t take a neuro scientist to work out what the issue was.

So I went back to my ‘recovery toolbox’ (more of that in another blog) and went back to basics. I started meditating. I took some time for me to listen to some vinyl and watch TV. I tried to eat better and drink more. The results aren’t and never will be immediate but the fog has started to lift again and I can feel myself improving. The stresses and strains of the business and life in general are still there and they always will be. The important thing here in any recovery is not necessarily ridding yourself of them but how you deal with them. Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.

So relapse will happen. It will be awful, but never AS awful, and usually there is a reason for it. If you have techniques that help, never stop doing them, even if you feel amazing – keep doing the things that you did to get you there. If the things you did helped you improve your mental health – why would you stop doing them. So keep going.

Look after yourself, always, your black dog is always there, and she’s on your side, but keep her happy, or she’ll let you know.
One of the first instincts when you come to terms with the fact that you have depression (note – language is important here – you are not depressed – this suggest it defines and consumes you – you have depression) is searching for the answers; “Why me, what caused it, why do I have it?”

This pattern can take us in circles and produce no real results. Of course for some it’s a particular event, the loss of a loved one, an accident, stress at work etc. However for most, it’s a culmination of lots of things and no particular ‘answer’ is the key.

The best thing you can do is focus on recovery. Spending valuable time and energy (the latter is in very short supply for those of us who suffer from depression) on looking backwards, on looking for blame is unhelpful. Look forwards. Focus on recovery

If you broke your leg playing football – which would help you heal quicker – the doctors, the recovery exercises, the casts -or lamenting about playing the game in the first place?

That is not to say be flippant about the causes – as I’ve mentioned before these are important – stress at work, for example, doing too much, these can be remedied, but get on that road to recovery first. You may often find in the early stages your mind is so clouded you cannot think clearly anyway, so wait until your recovery progresses before looking too hard.

I spent a lot of time searching for answers – often being sure I had found it only later to realise I hadn’t. Even when I thought I’d found it it didn’t really help long term. All the counselling/recovery/exercises I have done have all been about moving forward. Learning your limits and moving forwards.

Know this also – there is no wrong answer. If you do realise the answer – and it’s something that shocks you – “i always thought I could deal with that kind of thing” don’t be ashamed, don’t be guilty – listen to your body, listen to your black dog, and cut it down or out if you can. Don’t fight it. Depression is not a battle – though it feels it at times – it’s an alarm call, a warning sign. If you fight it, it will most likely win, if you listen to it, work with it, and look forwards, you will definitely ‘win.’

Look forward and keep going forward. Every journey starts with a single step.Looking back to last September when I was at my worst to where I am now – a long way from being recovered but noticeable better – it’s incredible the distance I have come. It’s important to recognise and acknowledge that. Last September this seemed impossible, but baby steps got me here. Keep going.

When I was bad, and I mean at my worst, I was introduced to the idea of self care and everything that it entails. Each element equally important, together forming a programme of self care which would help my recovery from, or at least management of, depression.

Some are general and the same for everyone. Some are very personal, and I will share more details of mine and why they are important, you will no doubt note which is which.

At first I was surprised (and sceptical) to learn that recovery wasn’t just medication and counselling (though this was a part of it – more on these in separate blogs), but also things I could do myself. I didn’t think they would be effective, but I was so desperate to get better, to not feel like this anymore, that I would have literally tried anything, and I mean anything. What did I have to lose?

There are many studies on the subject but the general consensus to live a relatively content, depression free live is that you need these 5 things:

A meditative practice
A Mediterranean diet
Regular exercise
Socialise often
Learn new skills regularly
These are not a guarantee of course but a good framework to build your self care around. None of which I practised, with the exception of socialising regularly with friends.

Since my very dark days last September my own self care programme (through trial and error) consists of the following: 

- Daily mindfulness meditation
- Daily walks
- Reading
- Writing (a poem, song, book, anything creative)
- Keeping a detailed journal
- Eating healthier
- Sleeping more
- Learning about and training to become a counsellor
- Other, smaller things, like, time on the sofa watching tv, listening to music, doing things that nourish me
During the first months of recovery I was almost religious with the above list, and those activities both in turn and alone helped me feel better. Noticeably better. Then I stopped.

When you have a physical injury, such as breaking your leg for example, mostly, the course of treatment has an end point (medication, physiotherapy etc) at which you are declared ‘better’. Depression is not like this. You never ‘recover’. You learn to manage it, you get better, you learn to shrink the black dog and notice the signs early. By this token the ‘treatments’ must continue indefinitely.

Over the last month or so, due to work, and, if I am being honest, complacency, I mindlessly abandoned that list. Over the last few weeks I have had noticeably more ‘bad’ days, noticeably tireder and less able to function as I had been during my recovery. My state of mind overall has been poor. I have been considering this over the last few days and I realised quickly why, I had abandoned my program of self care.

If you are doing something which achieves positive results, to continue achieving positive results, continue doing the thing. Makes sense. But it’s also easy to think “I feel ok now, I don’t need to meditate (big one for me) or I can live without this, that or the other from the list”. Well, you simply can’t.

The more you ‘drop’ from your list, the more likely you are to slip back, or at least slow your progress.

I have decided from to get back to my self care program. Every thing on my list, daily. There is simply no excuse to not do each one every day, even on the busiest of days, given the importance of each task and the list as a whole.

Some people I have spoken to on this have expressed that they can feel selfish. For example, taking 10 minutes to mediate when chores need doing or relatives need attention. Sitting reading for 30 minutes when you know you have meals to prepare or a friends night out to visit. These are all understandable thoughts, but remember, it is not selfish to self care. If you had broken your leg and you were 10 minutes late to meet a friend due to phyiso, or you had to excuse yourself to take tablets, nobody would mind, or protest. Mental health self care is just as, if not more, important.

So make up your own list, think about it, try it out and stick to it, daily. Remember, also, it is just as important to self care on good days as it is on bad days or you will soon notice a difference. I shall be starting it again and continuing indefinitely. I have learned the important lesson.

Self care is not selfish.

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