For as long as I can remember I have wanted a dog. Not a sorry excuse for a dog that could be mistaken for a rat, but a proper dog: One that I could wrestle with, play with, and then have climb up next to me on the sofa for a cuddle; One that would be strong enough to protect my family, but gentle enough to let children play with him; One that I could take for a walk and then have him curl up under my desk when I work.
There’s a story involving year 8 and my parents which I could go into, but near on 20 years later, it’s still a sore point… And 9 years into marriage (ish…) I have petitioned Suzanne (let’s use that word instead of moaning or begging…) to the point where I have a firm promise of “Maybe one day” I can get a dog. I’m thinking I’ve only got another 12 years of “petitioning” to go…
But what many people don’t know is that I already have my own dog...
Normally he’s well behaved and sits and sleeps quietly somewhere out of the way, but a others he comes to the fore. He’s a special dog. He’s always black, but he changes size depending on what’s woken him up.
More often than not he’s one of those dogs like I’ve never wanted… like an ugly annoying chihuahua or ratty jack russell… He’s small and yappy and ensures that my headache is at the fore. Those days I’m not myself, not that I’d let anyone see that. I put on the face and I continue the way I think I’m supposed to in public, until I remember to give the rat a swift kick so it realises that my ankles aren’t for biting.
On the days the little dog makes an appearance, I haven’t noticed any triggers. When he emerges in a bigger, darker form, that’s when I’ve noticed the patterns.
When certain things happen he is a lot bigger and looming and there’s no avoiding him. At those times he plays rough and it seems like there’s no winning. No matter how hard I fight him, he’s always stronger. That swift kick that worked so well with the little yappy thing is completely ineffectual.
It’s like that time when I was about 11 and I was playing a wide game with my youth group, running through the meadows carrying a ball or a bottle or something that was worth points in the game, when I found myself running towards a German Shepherd. It obviously thought I was playing with it, and charged me. At the last second before we collided I used my slender frame and cat-like agility (both long gone) to side step the hound and carry on running. What I didn’t count for was the fact that if the dog was really wanting to play, he wouldn’t keep running. In fact, he did a one-eighty pretty quickly, leapt towards his prize (me), teeth first, and bit right through my t-shirt, trousers and boxer shorts as he wrestled me to the ground. I remember trying to kick him off, and it took a number of attempts to even make contact, let alone find the spot that meant he would release me (all while his owners looked on and laughed, but that’s another point…).
I was left broken, scared, lost, confused. It took me years to be able to go near an Alsatian again.
When that big, black, dog starts bearing down on me I feel the same: broken, scared, lost, confused. To mix analogies, the power of the dog is like the power of the Dementors in Harry Potter: It sucks all life out of me, and there’s no motivation to do the things I love, I lose the ability to focus, and the willingness to try to focus, I shut down and can’t communicate, I can’t concentrate on anything…
Apparently JK Rowling’s black dog was the inspiration for her Dementors: "absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.”
You’ll have got this far and hopefully realised that I’m not actually talking about a dog. I’m talking about the other “D” word… But I don’t like using it.
I know I’m not the only one, and I’ve tried to write this post a number of times over the last few years, but it never seems to happen! I know that there are others out there who struggle in public and in private.
Maybe it’s because I don’t see my symptoms in as real a way as I see other people’s. I know some of you reading have shared your stories, and inspired me with your battles, and mine feels somehow different, and I don’t want my affliction to be considered as important as yours.
Maybe it’s because I’ve never had it diagnosed. There was a stage in my teenage years when I was on a tiny dose of anti-depressants because there was a school of thought that it would ease my perpetual headache, but I’ve never sought professional help regarding my issues. If I saw someone who could help (which is a good thing to do, by the way) then they might identify it and label it, but I haven’t found myself seeing a doctor.
So whether it’s denial, some twisted sense of trying to prioritise my neighbour while belittling my issues, or something else, I don’t know… What I do know is that it is real for me, and it’s my “Black Dog.”
This last couple of weeks the big black dog has been creeping up on me pretty stealthily, to the point where yesterday I had to acknowledge that something was wrong.
Yesterday we woke up to no water in our house. It was an early start, and I don’t do well with early starts, so I was grumpy, but that’s not unusual at 6 in the morning. As the day went on we decided that it’d be best if Suzanne and the kids went to her parents house until the water pipe thawed out and we had water again. So I drove them from Hucknall to Derby. En route we had to pick up chips for tea, so I parked up outside the chippy and spent some time de-icing the windscreen washers. As I was about to jump back in my car, the car in front of me, which had been there the entire time, started reversing, and I watched as he reversed straight into my car with an almighty crack.
A “normal” Marc response would be to get excitable (look up “Livid” in the dictionary) and have proper words with the idiot driver who blatantly decided his mirrors were just for decoration.
Yesterday’s response was nonchalance and apathy towards the situation (shared by the other driver who didn’t even bother to get out of his car! Another thing that should have wound me up!). I looked at the bit of my car he’d hit, and I confirmed that all the damage was to his plastic tyre cover on the back of his toy 4x4, shrugged my shoulders, and sent him on his way.
What’s that all about?!?! (Unless I should be reading the situation as though the Holy Spirit is instilling me with more of his fruit of Patience, and Self-Control… In which case, “Praise the Lord!”)
THAT is when I really knew something was wrong.
I had intended to get on to my triggers, but I’ve already written a lot, so I’ll have to save them for another day. To finish off today though, here’s how I deal with my black dog.
NOTE: This is how I have tried to fight it. There are other ways, and there are better ways. If you need professional help, then please be brave and get it!
Step one: Find some space.
As I write this “The Beast from the East” is raging outside, and I’m just back from an hour’s aimless walk in the snow. It was what I needed. It cleared my head a lot, and I just let the cold air run through me… As I walked and caught Pokémon*, what I’m typing started mulling through my head, and I know I have to write it now before my head gets blocked up again.
(*I’m desperate to tell you I prayed and meditated and listened to God, but not this time. I’ve been reading books about “contemplative” and “presence-centered" youth ministry, which revolve around making sure that I am in the presence of Jesus enough to bring young people into the presence of Jesus, and normally I’d say I’m there or there abouts, but not this week. Today my motivation for getting out and walking was to try and hatch a couple of eggs, catch new pokémon, and in turn blow out the cobwebs.)
The space I needed wasn’t just to be alone, because the reality is that I can do that in my office. The space was about literally being somewhere open, somewhere away from the majority of distractions, leaving behind the computer and my iPad and all those things my head was too fuzzy to think about doing properly. I had taken a book with me, but it didn’t seem right to sit anywhere and open it, so I walked, slowly.
And as I find space, I begin to be honest with myself. I bring it to the fore and wrestle with intent.
Where could you go to find space?
What could your motivation be to actually go?
Step two: Confession.
This is it… Now I’ve confessed to myself to the fact I’m struggling, this is my confession to you… I’m telling you that I’m struggling. I’m telling you that it’s happening, and therefore it is becoming a target. I know that I can’t ignore it if other people know about it. I’ve made it tangible and fightable.
(I’m also very aware that Suzanne and others may well have picked up on something being wrong before me, and looking back, she has tried to make me aware of it…)
In the past there have been a few trusted individuals who got the brunt of the weight of my disclosure. and they have been invaluable. In fact, I fully expect that they will be among the first to read this and be in touch. But this time I want to do it differently and I want to wrestle in public: It needs to be real so that others, maybe even you, know it’s ok to fight.
Some of you will be relieved to know that you’re not the only one: That’s the real reason for sharing.
If you are the sort, you’ll consider praying for me, or thinking good thoughts. Some may try and tell me to go to the doctors. Some may drop me a message… I believe that your prayers will help, but this isn’t me looking for sympathy. I’m also unlikely to go to the doctors, but that’s my problem (one of many).
Confession in and of itself really is good for the soul, and to coin a phrase: the first step to dealing with your problems is to acknowledge that you have a problem.
This isn’t about going into every detail at this pint, but admitting to someone that you know you’re struggling. They may already know if they know you.
Who could that person be?
Step three: Rediscover the little things.
I said that the joy goes, and for me I lose the ability and willingness to do the things I love.
I never really rekindled my passion for films after a previous bout.
I haven’t been on any adventures with my camera since I lost that joy.
But tonight I’m going to the pub, and I will sit and drink a pint in the company of a friend. I won’t be drinking to drown my sorrows, I won’t be using alcohol as an answer, but I will be using the company and the laughter to ease my way back into who I want to be (not that my friend knows that he’s being used yet…).
Tomorrow, when they come back from the in-laws, I will hold my kids and my wife close. I’ll remember the joy of their company and aim to be less annoyed with the little things you focus on when you’re not in the right frame of mind. There is joy in my family.
Before that, I will try and rediscover the joy of sleeping, using the fact that they are sleeping elsewhere to help my recovery!
Other joys will follow. I might not come out of it completely unscathed or as I was, but I will be me.
Step four: Share the big things.
Alongside rediscovering these little things, I will need to talk about the big things. I’ll need to let Suzanne in to what’s going on in my head, let her listen, let her help me, which may just be by listening.
There may be others who come in to that process too. In the past it’s been friends, colleagues and young people who have played a part in that process of rebuilding and helping me dump the things that are holding me back.
This bit’s difficult but essential. In the past I’ve tried to skip it, or I’ve stopped at step three, and pretended that because I’ve got some of my joy back that I’m all ok, but it crumbles pretty quick. This bit is about being vulnerable, trying to air the darkest places, to flush them out and flood my mind with light again. Even the honesty of not knowing how deep it goes, of the real roots of the fears or feelings, of the anxiety or the pain is a good place to start.
Do you know who that person or those people would be for you?
Step five: Rediscover God.
Don’t get me wrong: God is still there. I’m not doubting him, his love for me, my calling, my life. I can’t really find the words to describe it properly, but this step needs to be here. It can’t be earlier, as hard as I try, because it’s not that simple. He isn’t the quick fix to every sorrow: He is the lasting fix, and the ultimate joy, but not necessarily what is needed in the immediate.
It’s no good me trying to pray sooner, or people telling me that God’s got it sorted, because I know that deep down, I just can’t see it. I know that in each of the steps, when I’m playing Pokémon Go to clear my head and motivate me, when I’m rediscovering the little things one at a time, when I pour out the sorrows, He is still in it all, and He is working and speaking, and maybe I am hearing Him, but it’s only at this point that I can re-focus on Him properly, that the major release comes, that the black dog loosens his grip enough to give me hope.
This will likely involve music, whether it’s intended to be worship music or what I would call “Accidental Worship,” but I’m going to keep my ears open and let my heart re-discover worship at the right time.
Ultimately this is about remembering that I am loved, and I am created to love Him in return and to love others.
Maybe you don’t care about God. Maybe this is a step you don’t think you need. Maybe there’s part of you that thinks God is to blame. I want to say that those feelings are ok. But I want to give you something to think about, paraphrasing a scene from “The Shack”, where Papa and Mack are looking at a blue bird in a tree.
Papa tells Mack that birds were created to fly, in the same way that humanity is made to be loved. If you clip a bird’s wings, it still looks like a bird, but it isn’t free to fly. If you forget that you are loved, if you let your “wings” be clipped by pain, and that is left unresolved, then you forget what you were created for.
While God isn’t the quick fix for depression (there, I said it!), there is undoubtedly part of us that desires to know we are loved, and I believe with my whole heart that God is supremely able to love us. The difficulty comes in letting ourselves be loved. It might be that taking the risked to be aware of his love is the thing that un-clips our wings and sets you free to be what you were created for, in spite of the suffering.
Step six: Make the plan that needs to be made.
And it’s in the presence of God, having re-discovered His faithfulness that I can work out the way forwards.
This time round I already have the starters of that plan, and tomorrow it will become clearer (though there’ll be a long way to go). They key is I won’t be planning alone, I will do so with man and God to combat the loss of joy and rediscover my passions.
This is the part where the Patronus gets willed, and the Dementors are chased away for the time being… Wouldn’t it be ironic if my Patronus was a dog… Hmm…
For me, I know the trigger for the sadness in my soul, the exhaustion of my passion, the lethargy in my life, and I know there is a physical plan that can be made.
You might not be so lucky… But maybe the plan that comes out of your wrestling is a way to wrestle better in the future, so you become quicker at recognising the signs, and more adept at getting back up again.
The real challenge in all of this is that I know that it will happen again. There’s no known record of Dementors being killed, only kept at bay. I know that I can make my way through these six steps only to be bitten again at an unknown future date.
But as much as that sucks, that’s life. And I will live it!
Next time I find some courage, I’ll perhaps share the triggers that I’ve identified historically and presently. I know that I’m not the only one who has these triggers, so again, it might be helpful to others if I share, but we’re already way over the 3,000 word count…
Remarcable is one man blogging about Youth Work, Theology, Family, Life and those other random things that come to mind.