Dealing with the black dog

Rookwood, Going Postal
“Marvin, the Paranoid Android, Monash University, Melbourne” by Jonathon Walker is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Contrary to popular belief, there seems to be some dispute as to exactly what Sir Winston Churchill was referring to when he mentioned being plagued by his infamous “Black dog”. Some say depression, some say manic depression, some say it was a euphemism for a bad mood. I firmly take the traditional view, for depression is a serious personal challenge, often exhibited in creative and distinctly individual characters, of which genre I count both myself, many sufferers of depression, and indeed Churchill himself. Having battled incessantly with this four legged creature, which does not gently nuzzle you, nor lick your face, I can vouch for not only the tenacity of the beast, but the level of destruction in can wreak in the individual life. For not only does it cast a gloomy shadow over the casualty, but frequently their family and friends as well.

We will get to the argument about what causes depression in a while, but I would like to set the scene beforehand. I suspect that I have lost four souls known to me through suicide, and although only two of them demonstrated the “Classic” pathology that the general public would consider to be a precursor to such a violent end, the other two were very clearly, troubled individuals. Suicide is still such a taboo subject that many coroners will do their level best to enter a verdict of misadventure if at all possible, especially if younger victims are involved. Often in cases where alcohol or drug abuse is involved, the lines are so blurred that it is difficult to establish mens rea, the state of mind, immediately prior to the death of the victim. So on that basis, having lost far too many to suicide, and personally having leant far too dangerously close to the abyss, I hope I can help others understand the dynamics and offer some enlightenment as to how to help individuals in such dire straits. In these perilous days, it is essential we look out for each other, and go that extra mile both for our own good and the benefit of others.

Despite being rejected by the Samaritans on political correctness terms, I have been blessed in being able to help a number of friends and relatives who were unfortunate enough to reach the hellish crossroad of self destruction. For some people it will be one time visit, and once they have restored sufficient internal equilibrium and strength, they will pick themselves up and never return to this dark valley again. Others, like myself, have to be constantly on the alert for the personal internal warning signs and take corrective action. What is absolutely vital is not to delay once you understand you are on a downward slide, you desperately need to take corrective action and that frequently may mean enlisting the help of others, changing your medication or dramatically changing your lifestyle, if necessary. You do not want to sit and stew in your own juices, be in a poisonous environment, nor withdraw from life to the point that all you can see is your own vista. Like a soundproof echo chamber, this will reinforce your self hatred to a deafening volume.

There is an old truism that those who talk about suicide rarely commit it, and while I broadly agree with that sentiment, I would be wary of ignoring such red flags. The individual may be crying wolf, but such manipulative behaviour, while not a genuine cry for help, clearly demonstrates something is not right. I have been guilty of this occasionally in the past, and on a scale of 1 to 10, and where 10 is that I have the hosepipe, whiskey and car keys ready, I was probably floating around 7 or 8. Every person is different, and if the person has a clear pathology of poisonous relationships and manipulating people to get their own way (something that I am utterly hopeless at), it may, and I very tenuously repeat, may, just be emotional blackmail. On the other hand, they might be quite serious. Which is exactly why any such behaviour at the very least demands attention, and that is the reason the argument carries on as to whether or not those who commit suicide are the most selfish of individuals. Having been there and seen both sides of the coin, I would respectfully suggest that to deliberately kill oneself takes enormous courage, whereas the Devil has no doubt claimed many imposters who thought they could push the envelope for some sympathy. The key is the character of the individual, if they are an emotional sink, always wanting to be the centre of attention, perpetually needy, they are probably more screwed up in a different sense than your classic dog bite victim. We all know the type, they think the universe revolves around them and suck the living daylights (emotionally) out of everyone they encounter.

Shortly after leaving school, I lost my best friend to suicide. A manic depressive, an incredibly intelligent and talented guy, his family, quite naturally, were totally devastated. What had brought us both together was the brutal damage the typical education system inflicts on young souls, where the vicious machine grinds on to remove any trace of individuality, skill or creativity in a never ending quest to turn out a bland morass acceptable to the employment market or whatever. Both of us extensively bullied as our faces and minds didn’t fit, we coalesced around the two things that made some sense to us at the time. Music and cannabis. In those days a spliff was a mellow chill out, not the hyper-charged mind altering substance around today. I will never forget the joy on my friends face when I gave him the last of my stash as he was struggling even then, his only comfort dealing with such a complex and misunderstood condition being a smoke and a few tins of beer. At the time, I was fortunate enough to have a job, unlike him. His parents, naturally, did not approve of this and I was considered a “Bad influence”, despite the fact I was the only person he really shared and opened up to. Many a delightful hour was spent listening to music, discussing philosophy and the meaning of life, two children so much older than their years, having been forced to grow up far too fast and realise that the world is not an idyllic and happy place, despite all the peddled bullshit that says to the contrary. We were as close, if not closer, than brothers. I miss him so. My only regret is his, that he didn’t reach out to me before he took that fateful turn at the crossroads. He knew I would have chopped off my left arm to save him, and that is probably why he didn’t.

Those that are serious about suicide rarely talk about it in depth. I have a friend who had everything planned for a specific date and I was sworn to secrecy. I can only vouch for his sincerity as I know the exact circumstances, and the fact that they are not an emotional sink. It took a bottle of scotch to tease the truth out of him, and left me in an invidious position. I had a counter plan in hand, which ultimately would have meant that I would have had to betray that confidence, but thankfully matters got sorted out before that point. I know for a fact he would have done it, he had been tested beyond the understanding of most people and was at his wits end. Thankfully, life has now dealt him a better set of cards and he is in a much better position. I shared my predicament with my wife, and she thought it was extremely selfish of him to put me in that position. I considered it an honour, as I got a deeper insight into not only the soul of my friend, but the whole mechanism of despair. For shortly after his crisis, I was to be similarly tested.

I don’t know what stopped me, certainly it wasn’t me. I had just come out of my GP’s surgery after a routine appointment, I can’t remember for what exactly, but it wasn’t a mental health issue, probably a routine check-up. I remember standing there, hearing a vehicle turn the corner proceeding in the same direction I had started to walk. In the few steps I made forward, I realised the vehicle was a few feet behind me. I made the conscious decision to jump to my right, and if I had been successful, you would not be reading this today. Time slowed down, and something stopped me. I don’t know what, for it wasn’t me. For a another clear time in my life, a “Supernatural” intervention changed the universe I lived in. A brief moment passed, and so did a fully laden local authority bin lorry. What was truly spooky about the whole episode was that I was attempting to expose widespread corruption in that particular council at the time. Make of that what you will. It also goes without saying, don’t try this at home.

Had I left home that morning contemplating suicide? No. Was the GP’s appointment bad news? Not particularly. Was I severely depressed at the time? Definitely. Stressed? Off the scale. Suicidal? Consciously, no. Subconsciously, clearly. Did I realise that before the event? No. It is only by the grace of God I write these words. Was I selfish at that point? Possibly. It would have devastated my family and friends, but in all honestly I had had enough of life at this point, didn’t have the strength to go on and it would have come as no huge surprise to my long suffering wife, who as a glass half full individual, pulls her hair out at my glass half empty viewpoint. Looking back, I realise how pointless my death would have been. It would have not proved anything, other than everyone has their limits and you have to be so careful that you don’t push too far. I learned on a very personal level that life is precious and the consequences for others surrounding such a rash decision. It took months of counselling to reach that point though.

So how do we deal with this dark and damndable mongrel? Once again, I can only refer you to my own experience. On a personal level you need to accept that you are only human, and while it is admirable having a stiff upper lip, running on emotional empty long term is not a good thing. Putting a brave face on things is the first of many lies, especially when you are dying inside. This is particularly relevant for men, as all the traditional social constructs are being destroyed. Going to the pub with a good mate and having a beer or ten is a great way of sorting things out, provided of course you are both responsible enough to be drunk and not disorderly. Alcohol destroys the inhibitions, and many a truth has emerged over a pint that would not have otherwise. Some in the medical profession would frown on this, saying alcohol is a depressant. I remember one intervention I had with a community psychiatric nurse who interrogated me on the music I listened to. The fact that I had dialled 999 saying that I was close to topping myself was met with a very harsh “Your problem” attitude by the medical profession, which didn’t help much. The fact that a poor woman discovered me pretty much in the foetal position bawling my eyes out around the side of our local Tesco the day before should have been a big clue. I was extremely close to having, if not indeed experiencing, what was traditionally classed as a nervous breakdown. I should have read the warning signs then, but didn’t. My alcohol consumption at that point was bordering on stratospheric, but I will swear on the bible, in court if necessary, it was the Prozac that messed me up. Cannabis doesn’t mess with your mind anywhere near like that stuff. While I understand there is evidence of correlation between schizophrenia and blow, I would love to see the the same extensive study applied to Prozac. I was capable of just about anything on that drug, and my loss of conscience grated intolerably with me. The booze took that edge off, with a corresponding descent into madness. So point one in this lesson, pharmaceuticals don’t necessarily tame this beast, although they do help relieve the pain to some extent. In the absence of old fashioned cannabis, these days I am restricted to good old fashioned red wine. I haven’t had a joint in a long time, but in my eyes it is much less dangerous than alcohol and by a long shot far more therapeutic.

On a human level, the only long term solution to muzzle the beast is on multiple levels. Drugs, like alcohol, cannabis or anti-depressants etc. can never be the only solution. There are those that are convinced that depression is only a chemical problem, and with the latest generation of anti-depressants, “We” can solve the problem. Believe that, and I will direct you to a large brown, steaming pile in a field somewhere. Yes, you can mess with the chemistry of the brain, but you are omitting the most obvious fact staring you in the face. To date, I have not met a truly depressed individual who doesn’t have something to be depressed about. I’m not talking about the moaners, those that pull that card out the stack to gain attention or a few brownie points. I’m talking about some of the most decent, loving people who are struggling to maintain a brave face and keep going. Then one day they have just had enough. Their silence is not weakness, it is very simple. Nobody was willing to love, unconditionally, without judgement, as to where they were at, and share their personal burden. In short, they have a broken heart. One not listened to, heard, or indeed understood. No chemical will fix that, the booze and drugs are just the anaesthetic. Yet love, understanding, time and acceptance always will. Which is why if you ask any psychiatrist or counsellor if there is enough resources to fix our “Mental health crisis” the answer will always be a resounding “No”.

A lot of the problem is a personal fracturing of world-view. Society expects so much from people, often more than is realistic to achieve. We are so goal and performance orientated that the genuine, softer attributes like creativity, insight, innocence and just a real smile, are dismissed with a wave of the hand or the flash of a credit card. Want to change the world? Take a broken soul, and lead them away from those crossroads. Remove the crust of lies together. You will be surprised what you will learn about yourself, and if you are fortunate, you may meet a few angels along the way. I’m really thankful that I didn’t make it to the big old USA. There are days I realise if there was a gun in my closet, I would happily take it out and blow my brains away. Not because I’m selfish, or that I want to leave a mess behind for some poor soul to clean up. Simply, because I want the madness fleeing before my eyes to end, this endless panoply of cruelty we inflict upon one another. I realise now such thoughts are effectively vanity, narcissism, that as truly mature individuals we need to accept our weakness and the weakness of others. We are all broken to one degree or another, and until we all recognise and accept that fact, we are truly screwed. The only way to deal with someone in such a situation is love, acceptance and understanding. Maybe medication, maybe not. It takes a lot of patience and time, but it can be done. The start on this long journey demands personal honesty from both parties, be they white knight or damsel.

I’ve come to terms with my demons though, I seriously doubt I could write these words had I not. Suicide is off the menu for me. More profoundly though, those that are the most broken inside quite possibly have the strongest qualifications for leadership, as they understand. They get it. Not only that, but they have survived to tell the tale. Like the example of Churchill, we need to step up to the plate and send a strong message. We need feel once more the arms of love surrounding us, telling us that the danger’s past and we need not fear the icy blast again.

Footnote: It goes without saying if you are struggling, or indeed know someone who is, we only strengthen the lie if we carry on in silence in either in front or behind the dark veil. Please do not be as stubborn as the author and carry on regardless in your own strength. You can only travel so far down that path. There are those that truly understand, and many more that are willingly to help. The hardest step is admitting you can no longer walk the road alone.

Genesis Undertow [Music]
Genesis Undertow [Lyrics]

© Rookwood 2020