Taking the Black Dog for a walk

Happy New Year! How was your Christmas? Ours was pretty darn textbook, actually. It kicked off with an excellent panto  – Dick Whittington in Woking – with dear friends, and DH heroically finishing decorating our elegant grey dining room just before the big day. We spent Christmas Eve singing carols in the open air in Shere village with family and friends. Christmas day, with my mummy and daddy joining us for the first time, was relaxed, and happy, and foody, and excellent-spoily-presenty and champagney. Boxing day, hosted in aforementioned dining room, was a perfect family occasion: table extended and groaning with delicious cold cuts and pies, cousins playing beautifully together, siblings, parents and in-laws chatting, drinking and laughing. Then me and the kiddies had the requisite virus for a full five days (boo hiss), until New Year’s Eve, when we all decamped to the Runnymede hotel and spa in Egham for a 24 hour minibreak with my sis and our smalls and olds. Swimming, sauna, steam room, new short dress that was probably not designed for a 39 year old, bubbles, great food, dancing with 70 year olds to Rihanna. Tears at midnight after DH mentioned that two years ago on New Year’s Eve I was having my third chemo. More spa action with horrendous I-am-possibly-not-sober-yet hangover. Classic stuff.

Pure joy!
Pure joy!

And then the holidays are over, and it’s back to earth with a bump. Reality bites. Back to work. Back to the hectic school run. For me, I have to say, this was BLISS. I love our children more than ever; now they are 6 and 4 they are delightful company: funny, sweet, clever, creative and pretty well-behaved most of the time. But I’ve always been honest about full-time motherhood not being my forte, and some days I find the utter lack of peace and quiet and space to even think in the school holidays quite* (*very)  stressful. Spending the first day of term – an inset day – having a Family Day at Ikea (I know, WTF was I thinking?) was not my best decision ever; we all basically fell out quite spectacularly. The kiddies were desperate to go back to school on Tuesday (they love it, even more this term as our wonderful head and deputy and their creative team of teachers have turned the whole place into a magical Narnia-fairytale-nursery-rhyme mash up. You even have to go through huge ‘wardrobe doors’ and a row of fur coats into a sparkly winter forest to get past the entrance hall. Sensational.) And I was very glad to be back in my office. Utter silence. Me and a huge pile of documents to edit. Earl Grey. No need to speak to anyone or worry about meeting anyone else’s needs for five and a half hours. Like I said, a little bit of heaven, if you’re me.

So why the ‘Black Dog’ of the title, if life is so good at the moment? For once, thank goodness, it’s not my black dog  (read Mr Chartwell for one of the most beautiful, funny, surreal vignettes about depression. It’s got an actual massive black dog in it). But I do know from experience that January isn’t always a ‘new start’ in a positive way, if you do have a big dark-haired canine slobbering all over you.

It’s no secret that I am, shall we say, prone to depression. I have come to the conclusion that, certainly before the diagnosis of breast cancer, I was just one of those people who was anxious, depressed, or panicky for much of my life since about the age of 14. Cognitive behavioural therapy eventually knocked the panic attacks on the head, and the rather good Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors – SSRIs, aka the Prozac type of anti-depressant – sorted out the two bouts of ‘normal’ and one bout of post-natal depression. I probably should also have been on them after DS was born and failed to digest properly or sleep for 18 months, in retrospect. And while now, post-facing-up-to-my-own-mortality-and-vowing-to-end-suffering-etc, I am honestly more contented and cheerful than ever, I still get the odd black dog day, which is probably mostly down to the mind-bending powers of the breasty-lump-preventing Tamoxifen I am 18 months into a five year prescription of.

Christmas dinner in the new dining room.
Christmas dinner in the new dining room.

So I get many aspects of the broad umbrella condition known as depression. I get not wanting to be labelled. I get not wanting to give it a name. I get not wanting to be seen as crazy. I get not wanting to been seen as not coping, or not in control, or ill. I get not wanting everyone to know you’ve been diagnosed. I get being reluctant to go on anti-depressants. I get the hell of the first few weeks of the drugs, and the trickiness and fear of coming off them again. I get being pissed off when people who love you assume that if you are just plain angry or upset or down or exhausted, then you must need medication again to moderate your feelings or behaviour. And I also get that the drugs don’t always work. That you may need a different little pill at a different dose, or to try a completely different treatment or approach, before you truly start feeling normal again and your brain chemistry gently resets itself. That you may also need some kind of therapy or counselling, for the treatment to be most effective. That even if you are ‘well’, you will have good days and very, very bad days. That alcohol and anti-depressants don’t really work. That no-one else can fix you, however much they love you.

I’m really looking forward to 2013, anticipating fun and adventures and laughter and lovely times with family and friends, including mine and DH’s 40th birthdays. But I’ve been depressed in January before, and I remember it felt like a whole burdensome, impossible year of numbness and going through the motions was ahead of me. It felt like another year that I couldn’t even imagine getting through. Making positive plans and decisions was incredibly hard, especially when I was pretending to everyone that I was fine, as I did for long periods of time. It sometimes felt, quite acutely, like maybe if I removed myself from the framework of my life – a different university, a different boyfriend or husband (or no-one at all, just precious solitude), a different home, no children, different friends, a different country, a different job – then somehow I would be released from the trap I was in. Maybe then I would be OK. Be happy, even. Feel better. Maybe my relationships were bad, and if I wasn’t in them anymore, I would be myself again. Maybe it was my employer’s fault, and if I went freelance (as I did, resigning on a whim in 2001 without consulting my new husband because I couldn’t take another day of panic attacks) then I would be absolutely fine. I very much was not. I thought I had had a moment of absolute clarity. But I really was in a crazy place from where no major decisions should be taken. In my very, very darkest days, I might even have considered that it would be better all round if I simply didn’t exist (I know! A world without Pinchy! What a terrible thought!).

But one thing I have learned over the past 25 years of coping with a whole smorgasbord of depression and anxiety is that the solution is never, ever outside me. It’s all in my head. Changing major structural and emotional elements of my life will not alleviate my symptoms, or turn me into a cheerful, happy-go-lucky person. Running away from the people who love me, and spreading the suffering further, won’t make life easier, or more fun, or less like wading through porridge. Checking out won’t turn my dampened feelings up again, or release the need, however it presents itself, for oblivion. Because, to paraphrase something extraordinarily insightful that philosopher Alain de Botton once said in a book on travel, the trouble with going away is that you take yourself with you. Even if you’ve never been depressed, you’ll understand this if you’ve ever booked a dream holiday, thought about its lush tropicalness and spa treatments and views and swimming pools for months, and then been let down when the reality was  filled with as many marital disagreements, over-tired and exhausting children, and general drudge as spending a week at home. People who move to the other side of the world and then slowly realise they haven’t actually achieved the mythical ‘new start with quality time together as a family’ know this. We are all still ourselves, whatever the location. You’ll still be you in your next job, your next relationship, your next home. And if you is depressed, to a greater or lesser extent, that ain’t gonna change. You are, in effect, merely taking the black dog for a walk.

Happiness is always, and forever, and only, available within ourselves. It’s a terribly simple thing, but tantalisingly difficult to achieve. My wise mummy often says that being happy all the time is impossible (and probably another sort of madness), but we can all find moments of joy. And the massive secret is, it’s only you blocking your capacity for joy – no-one else has that power over you. Whatever other people do or say or feel, or don’t do or say or feel, is irrelevant. After the drugs and/or therapy have done their initial job of resetting the thermostat, sooner or later you need to start looking inside to achieve any sort of inner peace, contentment, and a sense of joy.

A very onesie Christmas...
A very onesie Christmas…

The three things I’ve found most effective are basically the opposite of running away. They are about meeting myself, treating myself  gently and with love, and appreciating all the infinite good in my life:

1. I express gratitude. I count my blessings. If I’ve had a particularly bad day, in my head before I go to sleep I list all the small things I am grateful for that day, from being given a cuddle, to finding a parking space, nabbing a bargain, a friendly email, someone who made me laugh, or a good meal.

2. I try to be in the moment. I make a conscious effort to become mindful. Whatever I am doing, I do it with all my focus. I try to honour the people I am with, the work I am doing, the journey I am on, with my absolute attention. This might mean getting off Twitter and actually playing with the children or watching the movie with them, or slowing down, stopping multi-tasking, and doing one thing really well. It might mean, on a more micro level, when I am feeling particularly strung out or detached, focusing on each of my senses in turn. What can I hear? What can I see? What can I feel in my body? What can I taste? Because when it comes down to it, I am just a woman, sitting, standing, breathing. All the rest is storytelling, and some of the stories we tell ourselves about what our life is like only increase our pain and suffering.

3. I am learning to love myself. Many of us don’t even like ourselves. I say ”I love and approve of myself” to my reflection or just  mutter it under my breath, many times a day. This was surprisingly hard to start with. I felt tearful, and resistant, and silly, and started coughing, and yawning. But I kept at it. It really, really helps. I guess because if you are OK with yourself, it’s much easier to see an abundance of love, joy and other good things every day; we find in the world that which we project out into it.

And these are not just tricks to get me through bad times. They can turn an average, normal day into a pretty wonderful one too. The difference is all in my mind, you see. It’s my firm intention that 2013 will be packed to the rafters with all good things, and so it will be. I know I’ll have good days and bad days, but I also know when I look back at 2013 on New Year’s Eve, every experience and feeling I have had will be all down to me, and no-one else. And why wouldn’t I choose a Happy New Year?



  1. Wow! Powerrful words as always, Maja. I’ve decided to try and train my mind to be happy this year too! Isobel bought me a happiness calendar for Xmas (what was she trying to tell me?) with positive thoughts to start every day. My favourite so far is from Samuel Johnson that says: “Clear your MIND of can’t!”.

  2. Gratitude – yep! Works every time when the black dog tries to lick your face.
    And gratitude enables living in the moment which enables loving ourselves.
    Wise words as always, Dorothy 🙂
    Your honesty, love and openness is a joy and has gone onto my gratitude list for today.

  3. Thank you. I’ve been thinking I’m the only one with these fears, panic attacks and feelings and the deep desire to run away to somewhere else or ‘ostrich’ it all with my head in the ground hoping it will all just ‘go away’. I’m choosing smiling and gratitude. Smiling, proper smiling and laughing with those muscles that makle the jaw ache, and gratitude for the small things (and big when around!) as you have so brilliantly put are going to be my aims for this year. I want to make 2013 my year and by golly I will.

    • Go for it darling girl. Choose joy, express gratitude, share the love, be kind, smile, laugh, breathe. Life simply does not need to be an angry, anxious struggle and I only wish I’d been able to learn that lesson without the prompting of a major health crisis! I know 2013 will be your year – keep in touch OK? Much love xxx

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