The Black Dog’s away for a walk

I know this: that depression and its side-kick, anxiety, have been my life’s companions. Sometimes distracted and peripheral to the action – occasionally ardent and over-whelming, seductively and jealously hugging me to them. In all, more constant in their attentions than any lover I’ve ever had.

I know too, that the admission of this mental health condition has cost me in the past: unambiguous and automatic professional respect and regard; automatically granted trust; unhesitating endorsement. Prejudice borne of the fear of a mind’s imbalance results in an instant wary distancing; a reappraisal of your contribution and ability. You can see the shutters come down. And sense the filters that you’re being subjected to. Re-earn your place they say, silently, soundlessly, wordlessly weighing what they have re-thought you to be.

In December of last year there was a suicide too close to home. The violence of it recalling the suicide of an old colleague many years before. Both stepping out onto the same stretch of track and oblivion. Smashing air and blood and becoming history. Post-is. Become was.

Like the man whose house this was. Hanging from the rafters.

This is the emotional flat-world. One-dimensional. Offering only pain, suffering, sadness. Imagine the dark island that floats on that flat, dark surface. An island of shame and guilt and regret and self-hate. And then place yourself on that island. In chains. In the darkness. Unable to turn your head for fear of what might be behind or to the side of you.

My son, unreflectingly, said It’s a selfish thing to do.

But, in that world death is welcome and makes greater sense than continuing to breath.

Last week, during a party-gathering here in this house I said, to a stranger who had reached out, disclosed his pain: But you know that these are only thoughts. It’s just our mind does this to us. These feelings are not founded in any reality we – or anyone who loves us – would recognise. This fear is not true.

 And in those few words I failed him. Doubting the integrity of his own mind – what he didn’t need was more reason to doubt. Though his own deep dark prejudice prevents him from taking any medication that may help. I should be able to fight this he said. As much sense as an insulin-dependant diabetic believing they can cure themselves by thinking themselves well…

I don’t know why we were ‘given’ depression and anxiety and the rest. Or why some of us are more given to it than others. It’s old as the ages – older than our ability to document its ravages. An imbalance of the humours; marriage of melas and khole = melancholia. Hippocrates and Galen and Avicenna. observing the afflicted and evolving a typology of despairing torpidity. It’s in the spiritual sloth the acedia or accedie  that seeks to describe the flight form the world – the not caring even that one does not care… A mortal sin – that sees the sufferer folded into the foul darkness of Satan himself… Funny to read that the Tsarist Russian cure for any wealthy noblewoman sufferer of acedia and depression was to put her to work in a peasant woman’s hut – the physical exercise being judged an essential cure… compare that with the invocations to walking, running exercise that any depressed person nowadays meets as a matter of cliche.

I have survived the early days’ temptation to stop breathing. I’ve accepted the black dog as integral to me. I’ve found a way to co-exist with occasional obliterating despair. The voice crying to me all things pass still able to be heard through the thick muffling blanket.

I have been lucky. There’s been long periods of respite. And it’s that which allows me to admit – yes, controversially – the following:

that sometimes I am thankful I’ve suffered bouts of depression and anxiety. Though I understand that key to this appreciation is bouts.

I often wonder if I’d have been so ready to acknowledge vulnerability or my need for others if I hadn’t been levelled by the illness. It’s granted me a greater tolerance for individual foibles and difference. Arguably sharpened a sense of what matters to me. Taught me to appreciate the joy in my life, whenever and wherever it blossoms.

Maybe – you say – these things would have come to me without the black dog?

And there’s the rub. I’ll never know. So allow me this: to take what good I can from an illness that I can’t shake off. To find and shape some value from that blight. To keep on going.


This Lucky Life

Mother India Cafe was queued round the block. Hesitation with the brakes. Where to go now? Quick disappointed rethink and we arranged to meet in the carpark behind Hillhead Underground. The Ashton Lane Ashoka was full too. The Ubiquitous Chip was a no-go for last minute dawdlers. The louche allure of the Lane lit a sudden flare of happiness. We were a laughing lot and for a moment we were sharing this single heart.

The regular busker was playing his soul out on an astonishing, metal Gretsch. The phosphorescent lights bouncing off the silvered brass of its muscular body. Ana was consumed by admiration and envy. But she reached to drop money in soul boy’s guitar case.

We wandered onto Byres Road. ‘Marsala Twist’ said Ana. In fact she had been saying that since we passed Mother India and was pissed off that nobody ever seemed to listen to her. The Twist looked full too – but I’d forgotten about its upstairs room and that’s where we ended up.

It was a good meal. Not because the food was the best we’d ever tasted – though it was fine and tasty enough. More because we got to sit as a family, to share stories and to laugh and slag one another.

Only one missing was Evan – but he’s inherited the Phillips family weak digestion and is still to learn that a night of heavy drinking will knock his stomach flat out. Lew on the other hand – well, he’d apparently been ‘the drunkest person at ‘Deep” (travelling nightclub with regular DJs) – but he’s got a stomach of iron and ate his  bodyweight in curry without blinking (I still cannot work out how he maintains the slim muscular physique and bright eyes on his diet of hard work and heavy partying…).

We had 4 hours of relaxed laughing and joking and serious eyed story-telling. This is the consolation of ageing and growing up: that when we get together there is so much to share and to tell. And for the time we’re together we’re back in that family space where we’re fighting for space to be heard and words are a torrential mess; a wonderful wall of sound.

The roads were quiet on the way home. Ana nodded off in the back. Jamie – who’d had a ‘mince and tatties’ curry (Marsala’s nod to Glaswegian cuisine) – silently texted his great girlfriend Erin.

R and I exchanged the odd ‘that’s where that accident was during the week’ or ‘we’ll need to do a food shop tomorrow’ and ‘you got a busy work week ahead’… already moving onto the everydayness.

I know, now, after years of a relentless pointless pursuit of happiness, that if you’re lucky, very lucky, this is life. That you have this comfort of blood and history and love. A community. A sense of belonging. People who care – and even care enough to get angry.

I am lucky.