I’ve been reading other people’s blogs about dealing with depression lately, and I have found it helpful. While lying awake in the middle of last night, I thought that maybe I would try blogging about my experiences, both as a therapeutic exercise, and in case it is of help to someone else, or perhaps assists someone with no personal experience in having a better understanding of the condition.
Someone talking to me about it on Twitter the other day used the phrase “the black dog.” On reading this, most people would probably, as I did, think of Winston Churchill, as he famously used this metaphor to refer to his condition of mental distress. I found an interesting article by Megan McKinlay (http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/McKinlay.pdf) on the history of this metaphor; she notes that several 18th century figures, including Samuel Johnson, the author Hester Thrale, and James Boswell, also used this phrase. McKinlay sees links with “the menacing connotations of the black dog” which had “been established well before this point, via the folklore of Britain and Europe, the influence of Greek and Roman mythologies, and a growing body of literature in which black dogs featured as harbingers of death, or emissaries of the Devil.” (The Omen, anyone?)
This has set me thinking on how I conceptualise my own mental health problems. I have two distinct, but inter-connected, issues: clinical anxiety, and clinical depression. Lying there last night, I asked myself: how do I see them? What qualities do they have? I see the have some dog-like qualities – tenacity, and the definite habit of following me around and getting underfoot – but overall I see them more as more amorphous than that. “Beast” is a good word for them. My dictionary (Chambers) defines a beast as: “an irrational animal, as opposed to man… anything beastly… brutish.” Merriam-Webster adds, “something formidably difficult to control or deal with”; while thefreedictionary.com suggests it is “animal nature as opposed to intellect or spirit.” Beast is an ambiguous word, suggesting a quadruped but not specifying type and having mostrous qualities, but with the ability to love Beauty after all and put her interests first. When the furry alien in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time searches through Meg Murray’s mind for human words that might describe her, she finds “you think of such odd words about me! Thing and monster! Monster, what a horrid sort of word. I really do not think I am a monster. Beast. That will do. Aunt Beast.” This is a Tale of Two Beasts.
The Little Beast, Anxiety, came first, and he still does. He runs around my ankles, nipping at them, so that I in turn keep going on and on even when I am past the point of exhaustion. He runs up my body and twines himself around my neck, whispering things into my ear, malicicious little thoughts that generally start, “What if…?” What if that letter you didn’t read properly was really important? What if, because you didn’t read and respond to it, someone complains about you? What if it counts as misconduct? What if you GET THE SACK? Partner going on a trip? What if his plane crashes? Think you might have left the hair straighteners switched on? What if the house burns down?
When the Little Beast gets going, it’s hard to rest. Sleep becomes difficult because as soon as I lie down, there he is, by my ear again. His words get into my dreams, so that when I do sleep, the people and situations I’ve been worrying about get replayed again and again and I wake up with surge of adrenaline. Sometimes I become so exhausted and so flooded with stress hormones that I enter a state of blind panic. I find it impossible to eat, or throw up after I have eaten; my heart races and my breathing becomes fast and shallow; I get so dizzy and disoriented that sometimes I literally cannot see properly.
After a while of living with Little Beast, I become very depleted – not surprising. Being unable to relax or sleep well will do that to a person. Also, his constant, insidious whispers make me start to lose confidence in myself and in my abilities. And that is the moment that the Big Beast has been waiting for. Where the Little Beast is sinuous and quick, the Big Beast is dark, massive, lumbering, something like a hug dog – a Newfoundland, maybe? – and something like a bear, but blurred round the edges and too big see properly.
The Big Beast is slow. He wants to hibernate, and he wants to take me with him. He likes to be underground, he likes the dark, dark thoughts and dark, dead things. The Big Beast breathes his fetid breath into my face, and I start to slow down. My thought processes become woolly; it starts off with forgetting important to complete tasks, showing up at the wrong time or place for meetings, leaving personal belongings in the supermarket or on the train or in the ladies’ loo. My mind gets slower, and I begin to have trouble concentrating on a book or a film. I get more and more tired, until just like the Big Beast, I want to sleep all the time. Exercise feels like something I heard about once and thought was a good idea in theory. I stop going out, because it feels like too much of a struggle, both to get myself phsyically there, and because as I turn more and more inwards, I find it incredibly difficult to interact even with dear friends.
The Big Beast doesn’t have a catchphrase like the Little Beast. He doesn’t need one. Once he is following me around, the miasma that comes from his breath and his coat somehow enters me, and I know with horrid certainty that the world is an awful place. I also realise that I’ve been kidding myself when I thought I was making a passable job at any aspect of my life; far from being “good enough”, I now understand that I am a terrible parent, partner, boss, employee and human being. The times when I felt well are revealed to be minor interludes, as Big Beast silently reminds me that this, this is the real deal, and is pretty much all I have to look forward to for the rest of my life. Once this is what you believe, it would be illogical not to wish that you weren’t around. Big Beast is most content when I’ve come round to his way of thinking, when my social circle and activities dwindle, when I start to feel I have nothing of interest to say. Right now, things could be worse, but I do feel that my life and I are getting smaller and smaller. Since no matter how small I get, I can’t make myself disappear, I’m on the watch for Big Beast’s next trick – he’ll start reminding me how cosy and dark it is underground, how peaceful and restful, and wouldn’t I like to be with him there for ever and ever? With no more pain, and no more suffering?
My challenge is how to live my life without listening to the Beasts. The more of a grip they get, the harder it is to get my thinking into line and remember that they are not telling me the truth. The Little Beast has done his work well over the past 6 months; now it’s just me and the Big Beast.