They say a man’s best friend is his dog, growing up I had canine companions through my entire childhood and at age 13 I met my fathers black dog. It was a rather startling revelation to discover that someone who was always so together, so driven, so inspirational and so assured suffered from depression. This was not the first time his black dog had came of its leash, I discovered that it had happened twice before too. In my later teen years I witnessed close friends experience battles with their own inner black dogs, as they battled internalised variations of depression. Then at age 21 I found myself lost in a foreign bleak abyss of anxiety and depression too.
We’re raised to be men of strength, groomed to provide for those we love and encouraged to be competitive and driven to succeed and continue to succeed. Some of us strive for material gains, others aim to have more than our fellow neighbour has and most of us are determined to struggle less than our parents did. Our accomplishments can be measured by our parent’s expectations, they can be imposed upon us by society too, but for most men the biggest critic of our worth, our accomplishments and our failures is ourselves.
You won’t wake up one morning and find yourself being spooned by depression, once you realise you are in fact suffering from a type of depression it won’t be cured with one simple tablet either and it certainly won’t be eliminated from your life by hardening up. Yet it does take a man to admit that he is depressed, that he isn’t himself and that he needs the support of friends, family, colleagues and medical professionals, to get past this period of darkness.
Depression is something that grows organically; it can sprout from financial troubles, increased professional pressures and unfamiliar changes that we encounter in our personal lives. Sometimes it’s our inability to say no professionally that is the catalyst for the foreground of our mental burnout. On the flip-side our inability to process a break up, recent rejection, new changes or failures can also result in increased anxiety and self doubt too. But more often than not depression and men’s mental health is a consequence of our own inability to voice how we are really feeling to those that we love, due to our own stubborn pride.
There is no vaccination you can give a child at birth to prevent them from suffering from mental illness. No one therapeutic regime, prescription or type of psychology can be prescribed to cure every type of mental illness either. Because whether you’re suffering from depression, anxiety, a manic period, psychosis, schizophrenia or any other mental illness; ultimately there is only one prescription that will change your mindset, give you the courage to believe that you can move past the now and assist you to regain your sense of well being, and that remedy is you. Yet although every male who has survived a mental illness and every man who may find themselves on a hiatus with their own black dog in the future, will go on a unique journey of their own when overcoming a mental illness. There are remedial Band-Aids that we can apply to our own, our lovers and our brothers psyche, to assist one another in finding a new found balance and the inspiration to survive and thrive beyond mental illness and ultimately remain well.
Band-Aid #1: Over indulging in work to avoid the problem won’t help!
As men one of the most significant elements of being is our workplace, it is in this environment that we succeed, this milieu is where we make money to provide for those we love and it is at our desk, within our tool belt and underneath our uniform that our identity is reflected to the world. Yet it is also within this space that many of us can loose our bearings and hide to avoid accepting and understanding what is really going on inside our head. Whether it’s finances that are keeping us up at night, whether our home life doesn’t feel the same as it once was or we’ve been hurt and don’t know how to deal with life beyond this pain. Our workplace can all too easily become our cave, a cave where we will begin digging a hole in the ground and burying our heads in it, to avoid the problems that are outside of our control. Ultimately though no matter how many hours we put in, no matter how many projects we undertake to distract our mind and no matter how important our bank balance may seem, we will collapse mentally, physically and emotionally. This is why we have to take timeout to leave our work place, to do things that fuel our well being and allow us to process what is really going in our life and how we can move past the now to find a better tomorrow, without loosing all that we know by breaking our back in the isolated den of our workplace.
Band-Aid #2: Invincible egos and big fuck off balls bravado aren’t appealing!
Sometimes mental illness isn’t immediately apparent in a depressive form and the beginning of our journey to rediscovering wellness will start with us feeling elevated, highly confident and extremely energised or creative. This newfound energy and positivity can initially feel intoxicating, yet the cracks in this invigorating bravado will eventually begin to show. We’ll say inappropriate things that our old self wouldn’t usually say, we’ll offend those we love and respect, and eventually this assured superman cape we’ve began to become accustomed to, will collide with the kryptonite of our mindscape. When you fall from an over-heightened state of grandeur it can feel like you’ve face planted head first into the pavement post falling from a twenty-storey sky scrapper. The impact is that sudden, that severe and that unexpected. As for the feeling when you’re back walking on the same common ground as everyone else, well it’s a pretty dark, depressing and terrifying place to be. But what we can take from this fall from grace is the insight to know that when our well-being seems too elevated, when we feel like an invincible super hero and when our ego is towering above our integrity, there is actually something wrong with us and it’s safer for everyone we love and our own wellness, to begin taking the necessary steps needed to slow down and erect a safety net to break our fall.
Band-Aid #3: Waking up and getting through the day is enough for now!
When you’re in it, when everything seems dark, when the you that you once knew can no can no longer be found, no matter how long you search for it, it’s terrifying. You’ll avoid social situations that you once would thrive in, you’ll get anxious making a simple checkout transaction and under the covers of your sheets will seem like a much safer haven than the world outside of your home. You’ll spend much of your waking life sleeping; your appetite for food and all that usually would fulfil you and inspire you will be gone. You’ll doubt everything, your reason for being, your ability to complete the simplest tasks and your capacity to interact with others. Yet what’s important when you’re here is to remember that for now just waking up and getting through the day is enough for now! You don’t have to socialize if you don’t want too, you don’t need to complete every task that you normally would either, but you do need to accept that everyday that you do a little more, every time you choose to get up out of bed and walk down the street and each time you accomplish completing the most menial task, you are one step ahead of where you were yesterday. From just waking up and surviving the day, attending a dinner with friends and completing five things on a to do list you’re restoring yourself and recovering internally, this may take weeks, it may take months. But eventually from just doing what you can do, you won’t have to force yourself anymore and you’ll find yourself instinctively breathing, moving and living the pace of life that you were once accustomed too.
Band –Aid #4: Your mates will be able to help you!
Depression, anxiety and mental illness is a lonely destination to take up residence in. We don’t feel like us, so we assume that our friends, family and workmates will judge us or won’t like the person we are right in this moment. So we avoid communication, we don’t talk about how we are feeling and what we are experiencing and we choose to only have internal conversations about the now with ourselves. When we know things don’t feel right, when we know we might be approaching another breakdown and that our black dog may be about to come off it’s leash, we’ll do everything humanly possible to not let those we love and respect get a whiff of our fleeting self. But what we as men have to understand is that masculinity isn’t defined by our strength, it’s showcased by our ability to express ourselves and say I need help. Your mates and your family will be able to help you, but you have to voice how you’re feeling and ask them to help you before things will get better. This isn’t easy and it takes a lot of courage to share with a Mo-Bro or Mo-Sista, but once you have told one, two or everyone of your fold, they will be there for you. After all you’re in their life because they love you, appreciate you and want you to be a part of their world. And if you’re lucky enough they’ll go above and beyond like my Mo-Bro’s and Mo-Sisters did many years ago, having meetings to discuss how to keep you safe, visiting you for hot chocolates and biscuits and continuing to invite you to every social event, even though they know you’re probably going to decline the invite again.
Band-Aid #5: It’s a breakthrough not a breakdown!
Mental illness is and will always be a relatively taboo subject, the thought of referencing it, as something we’ve survived with pride is a rather emasculating thought for many of us and more often than not the most judgmental person towards accepting our inner black dog will be ourselves. Whether you choose to disclose your history of mental illness with others or not is entirely up to you, however what is important is that you remember the importance of being well and staying well. Overcoming a breakdown, depression and any other mental illness is a significant achievement and while feeling well feels so amazing that forgetting about your black dog seems like a much better alternative than dwelling on it, you do need to take time to reflect and understand your warning signs, your stressors and how you can prevent letting your black dog come off its leash. No matter how open you are about your experience, you will know in yourself that you’re a wiser person since this journey, you will probably be a lot more aware of your limitations and have a greater understanding of your need to maintain a balanced lifestyle. Just remember what your triggers are, think about the unusual behavior you demonstrated before your black dog came off its leash and be mindful of what can set you off, what forms of escapism prevent your black dog from running rampant and who you can go to for support, if you think your dog is on the verge of escaping from his leash again.
Mental illness is a journey that many men will have to undertake, it’s an unexpected destination to find ourselves at and the headlights to guide us back towards wellness are difficult to see, let alone follow. But if we share our experience, if we take something from it and find a better version of ourselves from rediscovering the person we once were, it will positively define every stride we continue to take. Don’t live your life fearing the black dogs return, but don’t be ashamed of it either, because it may be your experience with mental illness that will assist one of your fellow brothers to overcome their own black dog coming off its leash.
My black dog came off its leash in 2006 and I have been well for six years now, I am also a 5th year MoBro and continue to participate in Movember to ensure that more brothers, fathers, grandfathers and males in Australasia voice their health concerns and support each other by talking more about their health, particularly their mental health and well being.
To show your support for Men’s health please visit my MoSpace below!
Written by Samuel Elliot Snowden