When the black dog barks

I began writing this piece a few months ago. It started like this:

"There are days when I forget I have a mental illness. Days when I leap out of bed in the morning with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. Days when swallowing a handful of psychiatric meds is as anodyne as popping vitamins. Days when pulsating energy and vitality radiate throughout my being, propelling me forward with a fearless sense of optimism and hope. 

But the black dog of depression is always there, sitting on his haunches in the distance even if I can’t see him. The beast stands watch, ready to disrupt my equilibrium and remind me that I am fragile and vulnerable to the chemical imbalance in my brain."

And then I found out that Sally Brampton died and I stopped writing.

Sally was the founding editor of ELLE UK, custodian of an agony aunt column for the Sunday Times and author of several books. She suffered from severe depression for over 20 years and wrote a candid memoir about her illness and recovery titled Shoot the Damn Dog. In her book, Sally paints an unflinching depiction of living with depression including numerous stays in a psychiatric hospital.

I devoured Sally’s memoir after I was released from my own admission to a psych hospital eight years ago. I spent five weeks there being treated for a crippling episode of depression, a time when I lost my mind and the well to live. During depression’s blackness, suicide became an alluring escape but I fought back against its ready convenience. In those tenuous days after my discharge when I could barely put one foot in front of the other let alone contemplate a return to life as I knew it, Sally’s book was a godsend. It filled me with hope that I could rebuild and live a meaningful and purposeful life. In the intervening years, I have often returned to her book as I can see traces of my continued experience of mental illness and recovery reflected in her story.

And then I found out Sally Brampton took her life and I stopped writing.

The news of Sally’s suicide on Twitter smacked me in the gut like a sucker punch to the solar plexus. Each successive tweet delivered another blow until I was winded, unable to breathe, My pulse raced, sweat dripped from my face and the thumping of my heart pounded in my ears. All I could hear was the sing song voice in my head, “It could’ve been you. It could’ve been you. It could still be you.”

My psychiatrist describes my depression as being in remission. After sustained periods of wellness, I forget about the remission until something like the news of Sally’s suicide disrupts my recovery. When I learned of her death, I could feel the black dog starting to circle as the grey fog slowly seeped into the crevices of my mind, paralysing all lucid thought. I was gripped by an unassailable feeling that I wouldn’t be here next year. The black dog was going to triumph in my fight to stay well.

In those moments it is easy to spiral downwards and succumb to the despair and hopelessness. The media described Sally’s suicide a terrible reminder about the fragility of life and recovery.  But for me, it was a stark reminder of the fragility of my life and my recovery. When the black dog barks, what I fear most is not that he will claim my mind but that he will destroy every ounce of hope.

In managing my mental illness, I have come to accept that psychiatrists and medication are a necessary part of my life. But it is hope that sustains me – hope that I will stay well; hope that I will see the sun rise once more; hope that I will fight the black dog when he attacks and call on others to help keep him at bay. Despite the fog, I found enough strength to reach out to a friend and so halted the spiral into the murky abyss of depression through the healing power of human connection. And as I reached out, I was reminded of Emily Dickinson who wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all.