Dear Black Dog,
We used to hang out a lot. Remember? Yeah, that’s right, back in my early twenties when I was wearing my poo-goggles on a bit of a full-time basis. In the beginning, we’d sit paralysed on the couch at my parents place together for hours. Me staring into space, with a mind that was simultaneously racing and empty. You would sit on my lap. Or was it my entire being?
One thing is for sure, you were a crushing son of a bitch.
I’m trying to remember how it was that you came to arrive in my life. There are a number of events and triggers; like a bad heart break or two. Like being misled by mentors and having my wide-eyed youthful trust bruised blue. There was the burn-out from studying, working and volunteering as a youth leader. A disconnection with my passion for performance and writing. Oh, and the tsunami of cognitive dissonance with my faith, followed by the alarming rate at which my friendships dropped away when I expressed anything about it.
Really, when I think about it, your presence was a formative part of my early adulthood.
I’m also trying to remember how it was I got you to leave my life. You were around for a while. Years actually. Sometimes it seemed like you had disappeared, but then, when I wasn’t really looking, something would happen, and you would appear. I tried a lot of things to get you to leave. You weren’t exactly welcome. I read books about you and therapy helped some. I wasn’t interested in anti-black dog drugs. I wanted to work you out. I sat with you. I looked deep into the pit of your hopeless tar eyes and attempted to make friends with you. What was it you were trying to tell me? Was I on the wrong path? What was the right path?
When the answers came in the form of your black fog breath, I began to make a series of drastic decisions to move you out. I quit university, left church leadership and took up a full-time job – but you stuck around. I decided to test my faith by taking it to an extreme; I found a crazy missionary lady, travelled to Burma with her and smuggled Bibles – turns out I was smuggling Black Dog in my bags as well. Trying a new tact, I quit church, started studying Social Work, moved out of home and found some open minded friends. Still, you were there – to the point where I couldn’t even write an essay. You had set up camp in my mind.
So, I had to quit that course. Hoping to ‘experience’ a course worth of essays, instead of writing them, I picked up a job working in a Detoxification Unit with drug addicts and criminals; the homeless and the helpless. Exposing myself on a daily basis to a number of your larger relatives, you seemed like a puppy. Having had you around made me more compassionate and gave me a depth, a humility and an understanding I may not otherwise have had. This job provided perspective of sorts. It made me feel important. At the tender age of 21, it seemed like a solution; to bury my black dog with other people’s bigger meaner black dogs. Yes. Finally. A way forward.
Seeing as this strategy was working so well, I stepped it up by dating a co-worker. He had a beast of a Black Dog, and, being that he blocked it out with marijuana and alcohol, I made it my mission to focus all of my attention upon dealing with it, ignoring that you were right there feeding off of the angst.
And so began my lessons on the pitfalls of playing the ‘Rescuer’ and ‘Wounded Healer’. Four and a half tumultuous years and an unplanned pregnancy later, I sat in a field on the first birthday of my first child, alone, watched a sunset and realised I could never be responsible for someone else’s black dog. And, I realised I still had one of my own. You had grown, but so had I.
This was a pivotal moment.
Today I heard someone talk about choices as being like steering a ship. I like to think of the Spirit of Tasmania, as I can hear it honk every night from my house. If you steer that ship just one degree differently, nothing much will change in the next two days, but over the course of 2-5 years, you will be on a completely different trajectory. You will not end up in Launceston, you will potentially wind up somewhere much more perilous, like Antarctica… or possibly somewhere much milder, like, oh, I don’t know, Vanuatu. This shift in perception did exactly that for my life.
Armed with sobering fragments of truth, I made some more drastic decisions. Some of those choices meant I had to painfully learn the same lessons again. Such is the nature of one rehabilitating from any pattern of escape from their demon… I mean dog. However, mostly, they were good decisions. The decisions to go on alone as a parent and to complete a double degree in Education and the Arts were foundational. Five years and what felt like several hundred thousand hurdles later, I graduated from that marathon chapter of my life. I met and married a wonderful man, got a job and fell in an exhausted heap.
Here’s the thing though, last night, my husband plucked a short black hair off of my tear stained pyjama sleeve and, despite the fact that I have a beautiful family, great work and I’m not living in a caravan in some God-for-saken suburb in the Boganisphere of Melbourne (as I may well have if I didn’t shift that degree), I realised you’ve caught up with me.
I stopped running, you see. I removed all the distractions and now I can see we’re still rather attached.
So I know you’re here, buddy. But, guess what? I’m bigger than you and I have faith in something even bigger than me. That’s the order of things. With our eyes wide open, we are going to figure out why it was you came in the first place. We are going to stop trying to bury you in tasks and achievements. We are going to find that passion and sense of purpose I lost a long way back, together.
Acknowledging pats from,
P.s. I am going to share this letter, because it has helped so much for me to write it. Hopefully it comforts someone else out there. Let’s face it, most of the time we only provide the highlights reel.
*** Many thanks to the very talented illustrator, Matthew Johnstone and the following sources for providing the poignant imagery in this post: Black Dog Institute, Journeys with the Black Dog: Inspirational Stories of Bringing the Black Dog to Heel, I Had a Black Dog and Living with a Black Dog.