How I’ve learnt to slay the black dog: a heroine’s tale.
How I’ve learnt to slay the black dog: a heroine’s tale.
Here’s a home truth you won’t hear from many health and wellness professionals – we’re not perfect. Your life coach, personal trainer, massage therapist, naturopath, yoga teacher, nutritionist, psychologist, meditation guide… guess what? They all have their own health problems, they don’t always make the best choices for themselves and they don’t always respond to life’s challenges with composed, zen-like, self-assurance.
If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m working up the courage here to admit this: I don’t always operate at my bright and shining best.
Yep. I feel really, really shit sometimes. And when I’m right down there in the thick of it, my mind runs crazy circles around me, telling me all about how worthless and crap I am, how unlovable I am, how ugly, fat and hopeless I am, and how nothing lies before me but a successive series of future failures… it’s a dark, depressing and frightening shit-hole that I occasionally fall into.
The thing about life is that, if you’re lucky, you gain a little bit of wisdom along the way. I’m definitely no guru and enlightenment is many lifetimes away for me. But I’ve learnt a few things here and there, and one of them is how to get myself out of the dark, messy, mind-spaces before anyone gets hurt i.e. myself.
How do these dark spaces get so bad in the first place? Well, everyone’s story is different but for me, it started early on in the game. I cried a lot in primary school. I had difficulty relating to other kids. I spent lunchtimes on my own – often crying. Sometimes I’d manage to find a kindred spirit. A little buddy to be best friends with but something would always eventually go array, and I’d be on my own again.
I was also bullied. I’m not talking about being a little bit picked on or teased. I’m talking about being out rightly ostracised and publicly humiliated on a daily basis.
First there was a girl in my final year of primary school that started out as my best friend but after a bff break-up, became my worst enemy. She was one of those spunky, funny, popular types and I was nowhere near sassy enough to stand up to her. I took so many sick days with phantom tummy pains that eventually they became real, and fairly constant. One day I returned to school after a day off, to discover that my teacher had re-arranged all the tables in the classroom, so that the boys all sat together on a big table on one side of the room and the girls did the same on the other. Except that my former bff, turned nemesis, had galvanised unanimous support for her campaign for my exclusion, and there was no seat for me on the girls’ table. I spent a whole term sitting on a small table in the corner of classroom, by myself.
The adults in my life assured me that things would get better in high school. “Kids mature then”, they said. “You’re pretty”, they said. “The older boys will like you”, they said. “You’ll be fine”.
They were wrong.
I did get one boy’s attention, and it was ruthless. He would take his seat directly behind me in class just to call me fat.
In front of everyone.
All the time.
He got the other boys to join in too, kids that he also bullied. They were even more tyrannical because as long as the attention was on me, he wasn’t bullying them.
One day I was forced to run back and forth in front of everyone doing the beep fitness test. My bully sat at the end of the line I was running, along with his minions, and started a super-encouraging, repetitive cheer, “Fatty, fatty, fatty… look at that blubber fly!” Once I forgot to bring my sport uniform to class and was told that I wasn’t allowed to join in without it. Punishment was rubbish duty. The choice was easy. From then on, while everyone else was playing sport, I was picking up rubbish.
Actually, I wasn’t fat. I wasn’t ugly. I wasn’t dim-witted or slow. But I was horribly insecure and depressed, things weren’t great at home, and kids sniff out the weakest link in a matter of milliseconds. Somewhere along the line he started calling me, “Dana Diarrhoea”. I hated this the most. I never had a public-poo incident or any other reason for him to be calling me this but for me, it was the ultimate humiliation. Now not only did everyone think I was fat, I was gross as well.
Again, the adults gave me advice, “Just ignore him”, they said. “Stand up for yourself and fight back”, they said. “He probably just likes you”, they said. “Boys tease you when they like you”.
Yeah, really feeling the love.
By this stage I was fairly skilled at disappearing into my internal world and ignoring what was going on around me but it’s pretty difficult for this to suffice as a coping strategy when you’re faced with the same humiliations day in, day out. I tried bullying back. Typical to prototype, this guy wasn’t the brightest and when he fudged the answer of an equation during a math class, I seized the moment to turn around in my chair and berate his stupidity. He went red in the face and was quiet.
Finally, one point to Dana.
But his flushed-faced shame didn’t last long and his tormenting increased with a vengeance. My come backs of “you’re so dumb and stupid”, were drowned out with his tirade of abuse about how fat and gross I was. No one cares about how smart a boy is, or isn’t, when you’re thirteen but they do care if a girl is labeled as fat and gross.
Checkmate, to my bully.
The final show down was, again, when I returned to school after a day off (a reoccurring theme for me, no surprises there) and my bully, as usual, took his seat behind me.
“Where were you yesterday?”
“None of your business”
“Probably couldn’t come because you’re too fat to get inside the classroom”
“I am inside the classroom. You’re so stupid”
My bully continually kicks the back of my chair.
“You’re fat. You’re fat. You’re fat, fatty, fatty, fat! You’re fat. You’re fat…”
My two friends sit beside me, heads down, silent. I wish my teacher would stop this but his head is down and he is silent too. Something is dying inside of me because I just can’t take it anymore.
I burst into tears – big, uncontrollable, gasping for air, chest-heaving tears.
I stand up and turn around to face him.
“YOU ARE SUCH A FUCKING ARSEHOLE”
This kid. He was leaning back in his chair, grinning at me. He was enjoying the moment; seeing me break. I stormed out of the classroom, chest tight, breathing too fast, stomach cramping. I walked straight out of the school and never went back.
My parent’s house was about a forty minute walk away from my high school and beside our street, there was a train track. I spent a long time sitting beside it, crying, thinking about what it might feel like if I let one of those passing trains hit me.
It’s not that I wanted death so much. I just wanted the helpless feeling to go away and suicide is a kind of way of feeling as though you are taking control of a situation that you think you are helpless in. I have a choice. I can make this stop. I don’t have to live through this if I don’t want to.
Psychologists have this condition they call ‘learned helplessness’. They verified this in the usual way of torturing animals, children and vulnerable people. Don’t judge them. Psychologists are just regular, wounded people too – trying to figure stuff out. Much like my bully who was probably as confused, sad and angry as I was. He just directed his anger outwards, where as I directed it inwards, against myself. And anger turned inward becomes, yep, you guessed it – depression.
Anyway, back to the animal torture. Psychologists placed some dogs inside a container that had two parts separated by a low barrier. On one side was a floor that delivered electric shocks, and on the other was a normal, shock-free floor. What they found was that the dogs that were previously subjected to electric shocks, wouldn’t jump the small barrier to safety, they couldn’t escape. While the dogs that hadn’t experienced the shocks before, could easily find their way out and jump over the low barrier to safety.
People are like this too. When you’ve experienced helplessness, when you’ve felt as though there is nothing you can do to get out of a harmful situation, it becomes a learned behavioural response to stressful/harmful situations. You feel like there is no way out even though there might be, you get stuck.
This is especially true when you experience these situations early on in life, while your brain is growing and a part of the future of who you will become, is being shaped. It’s a neurological thing. Your brain develops a pattern of thinking that runs around in neurological, self-prophesying loops. Where synapses fire and wire together, and tell one another the same story over and over again; you are trapped, there is nothing you can do to change this situation, there is no way out of this, you are helpless, helpless, helpless…
In the end of those hours sitting beside the train tracks, I chose to continue walking home because I thought about how upset my parents would be if I died. I thought about how it would make my mother feel and I carried on home.
It was a fragile existence.
The thing is, that as an adult I know that I’m not actually in this situation anymore. I know that I have choices and can get myself out of situations that aren’t healthy for me but our emotions are not rational paradigms and our memories of the past, whether we recognise it or not, play a big part in constructing our present reality. Our minds unconsciously craft our future and our bodies remember what we dare not speak.
So every now and then, when I find myself in a stressful situation, I start to feel overwhelmed and that helpless feeling comes creeping back, those dark thoughts start twisting around my head again.
That’s when I know that I have to craft a new story for myself. A story where I get to be the heroine. I draw my sword. I become the strongest girl in the world. I slay the beast. I save myself.
Here’s how I do it:
1. I know that the only person that can really take care of me, is me, and I trust myself to be able to do that.
I’m lucky, I have many great friends and family around that care about me and I’m not diminishing the sanctity of that support but at the end of the day, it’s me who has to live life with myself and it’s me who is responsible for the inner-dialogue that I have with myself.
The worst thing about feeling bad, is feeling bad about yourself, for feeling bad. When I attach to my emotional state and see it as a reflection of my value, of my worth as a person, it makes everything so much worse. So I cut myself some slack. I accept what I’m feeling and I trust myself to be kind, to myself. I’ve noticed this: the quicker I relax about whatever it is I’m feeling, the quicker it passes.
I’ve also noticed this: my ability to trust in life is in direct proportion to my ability to trust myself.
Naïve optimism doesn’t work for me but trusting in myself does because I start to see that whatever life throws my way, I will be ok. Not because I am ‘strong’ but because I am kind – to myself.
2. I get myself an education, about myself.
I dig deep, I think about what’s beyond the surface, about what I might really be feeling. Sometimes we mislabel uncomfortable emotions, like grief, anger, pain and loneliness, as depression because we actually have no idea what’s going on with ourselves. So I found myself a good Psychologist. I dedicated myself to the journey and I didn’t stop to think twice about what anyone else might have to say about that. It’s become the thing I’m most proud of in life and it’s where I draw courage from when I need it; my ability to turn away from what anyone else might think or say, and face myself because I know what is important to me and what isn’t.
There is great dignity in getting to know how your own mind works, make time for it. If the first person you talk to isn’t any good, it’s not you – it’s them. They are probably more confused about what they’re doing than you are. Keep looking. There are great teachers and helpers out there; you just have to find them.
3. I move my body.
I went to my first yoga class at fifteen. I discovered how strong I am and how still my mind can be. I took up long-distance running at twenty-four. I discovered how determined, disciplined and focused I am. I started bending, stretching and sweating at Bikram Yoga at twenty-seven. I discovered how much anger and grief was bound up in my hips, in my stomach and in my thighs. I started to let it go. I began practicing Qi Gong at thirty. I learnt that I could change old patterns of moving and holding tension. I started dancing regularly at thirty-two. I woke up to how much joy there is inside of me and how big my capacity to express it is.
4. I get creative.
I’ve been writing journals and stories and poetry for as long as I can remember. At first, it was a way to purge and escape. As a teenager I wrote like my life depended on it, because it did. As an adult, my writing has become one of the most meaningful ways that I connect with others. It allows me to express myself, and share with people in a way that I can’t always do verbally. It helps me to make sense of myself, and the world I live in.
5. I’ve learnt to be still
Sometimes there’s nothing else we can do but be silent and alone with ourselves. I say alone with ourselves because you can be alone but not really be present with yourself. You can fill the space with lots of things, like television or the internet, so that you’re not really with yourself at all.
I’ve learnt to meditate. I’ve learnt to be quiet in a healthy way. I practice mindfulness and I’m not afraid of solitude. It’s where all the best growth comes from. I’ve learnt to focus my attention on just being still because sometimes, when I’m feeling low, all I need is a little bit of space to get back on board with myself.
6. I’ve realised that, sometimes, feeling depressed is normal.
I haven’t met a person yet that never felt sad, isolated and confused. Of course, some people feel this in a more exacerbated way than others and that’s not healthy but we also categorise emotions into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and then tend to only want the good stuff. Everyone wants happiness and joy but what would we ever learn about life if we never experienced the opposite?
Also, some of the most talented, complex and interesting people I know, feel like misfits. Our culture loves to enforce all sorts of restrictive norms about lifestyle, health, beauty, economic and social status but the reality is that most of us don’t fit so neatly into that, which leaves us feeling as though we’re never quite ‘good’ enough or ‘normal’ enough. If you fall even further outside of the dominant norm, if you’re unique, if you think and feel outside the square, then there will be fewer people around for you to connect with in a way that is meaningful to you.
Of course, that’s depressing. But I’ve realised this: I don’t care about fitting in with the ‘norm’ anymore. Because that idea of being ‘normal’ is a constructed mythology and I’m happy not to buy into it. I like that I have fewer but more meaningful relationships with others. I like that I live with adventure and soul, and that I’m not afraid to go my own way. There’s no script. I’m not trying to get anywhere or impress anyone. I’m just doing what’s best for me, right here and now, and sharing that with others. I’m not trying to ‘belong’ anywhere. I just am.
7. Not only might it be ‘normal’ but I will go as far to say this, depression can be good for you
Nothing great is born without a struggle. So I work with myself, not against myself. I don’t mind the dark times so much because I look forward to what will be waiting for me on the other side. And I trust myself; the other side always comes.
So when the dark tunnel approaches, I draw my sword. I enter boldly. I slay the beast that awaits me in the darkness, and I emerge again into daylight – victorious, glorious and sometimes, a little bit wiser.
Dana Meads is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She also currently studies Psychology at the University of Melbourne. Dana is especially interested in how our thoughts affect our physiology and vice versa. Contact Dana here.