My Black Dog Story - The Start!
I'm writing a book. An autobiographical self-help book. I have battled with mental health issues for most of my life. This means that I've got first hand experience as to what people are going through when they're suffering from Mental Health Issues. It also means that because I'm likely to have been there and done that, I can also help any clients who suffer from a similar plight. What follows is an exclusive extract from the book, in what I hope will tempt you to want to read more. But I also hope that by sharing my story you can take some comfort in knowing you're not alone.
Attributed to Winston Churchill the phrase “The Black Dog” is used to describe a melancholic feeling. A feeling of depression. Despair. Despondency. Desolation. Dejection. The Black Dog behaves like the Hound Of The Baskervilles. It stands in front of you salivating as the inevitable expectation drips from its fangs. Its eyes appear to be glowing a demonic red as it stares you out and makes you feel extremely uncomfortable. You too are filled with inevitable expectation as it’s standing there. You try to brace yourself but you know that it’s going to be strong and painful. It pounces and hurtles towards you. Viciously gripping you, its prey, and refusing to let go. It’s huge white, razor-sharp incisors become embedded deep into your soul. No matter how hard you try to shake it, its grip gets tighter. You can’t run from it as its strength holds you back. It remains with you for a time. Days, weeks, months…longer.
A kindly physician gives you some medicine to tame the beast. You feel the grip loosening. You run away…free at last. Until the next time. You know that there will be a next time. There always is. You can always feel The Black Dog at your heels, but for now he’s under control. All it takes is just one small thing to trigger the almost Jekyll and Hyde like transformation. When you least expect it. When you least want it. Dripping fangs. Red Eyes. Indescribable pain. Unrelenting grip. And so it goes on. And on. And on. And on.
This was my life for a VERY long time. I’d always had some form of mental issue. When I was a toddler I’d get very upset and bang my head on the concrete floor. I was sensitive at primary school. I was bullied in junior school. In secondary school it got worse. In my adult life it was like being on a rollercoaster without the safety harness on.
My first memory of actually being depressed though was while in secondary school. At the age of 15 one of my best school friends took his own life. This was the first time I’d experienced death. It was numbing. I can remember the day I found out very clearly. I arrived and the school flag was flying at half-mast. The mayor, who was a governor of the school, had passed away a couple of weeks previously. I assumed that was why the flag was in this position. In registration that morning my tutor, Mrs N., asked what class Liam H. was in. When I told her it was 3W, she took a deep and shaky breath in. We go to assembly and the usual stuff happens. It was the first day back after half-term. For me half-term was spent on a French exchange trip. Liam, was on the same trip but we’d decided to make the most of the time and stayed with separate families. We’d meet up in Paris take in the sites and enjoy each other’s company. Laughing and joking and inevitably taking the piss out of our French families…who were in truth - lovely!
On the coach trip back to the UK, so we could get some sleep (it was a night time journey) we sat in different seats, me in front of Liam. I dozed off. Some time later, I was awoken bye the sound of crying and someone talking. It was Liam. Who was in tears and tracing the veins in his wrists. A school chum, Kris J., was sat next to him - trying to console him. Liam was on his way home to his grandparents and didn’t want to be going. Eventually Kris moved away and I went to sit with Liam. We talked. He didn’t want to go to his grandparents because he felt they didn’t love him. He hated being there and he hated the school as well. When we finally arrived back in school my lift home was there and Liam said to me, “Thank you Chris, you’re the best friend I’ve had.” I got back home and thought no more of it.
So there are I am sat in assembly and the headmaster starts saying “When someone dies, it’s always very sad. But when it’s someone so young it’s tragic. Liam H. died on 28th October following an accident on his bike.” There was a stunned hush throughout the hall. Everything from that moment on was like listening to something with cotton wool in your ears. The assembly files out but I just sit there. Too shocked to move. I must have moved eventually but the rest of that day at school is a blur. The school offered no form of counselling (this was 1991) and there seemed to be little empathy from anywhere.
I used to get a lift in with a friend of the family. When I got home I told Mum what had happened. She hugged me and said “He seemed like such a nice boy.” I don’t remember how my sister reacted, if at all. Things started to go down hill from there. The impending visit from The Black Dog was looming closer (not that I knew what it was at the time of course). I attended the funeral and Liam’s roommate, Richard, from boarding school was there. Richard and I got on well but I have to be honest, the funeral was very upsetting but not for the reason you may be thinking.
Liam was a boarder and of course you don’t get a room to yourself, unless you’re a bad person! Liam shared his room with Richard and of course they formed a friendship. They used to go out sometimes into town at the weekend. Occasionally Richard with come home to mine for exeat, but Liam would only every come for the day or afternoon. The reason for this is because he’d spend most of his weekend volunteering at the local veterinary surgeons. On one particular afternoon he came round to clean my dog’s teeth. Well, he put the toothpaste on the brush and Tara (a gorgeous Cavalier King Charles) would just chew it!
Anyway, back to the funeral. Due to the fact that Liam and Richard shared a room, Richard got special dispensation at the funeral. He got given a trinket to remember Liam by and sat with the family. I sat alone, at the back. I got nothing. His family didn’t know me. I’m sure that he’d have spoken about me but because I wasn’t in boarding school with him I didn’t matter. Can you see where my thought process was going with all this? It’s not that I expected or even wanted a souvenir, but I wanted to be known by his family. Some time after the funeral we held a memorial service at school. I was asked if I’d do the eulogy, so I did. I have no recollection of Richard doing anything. It was the first time I’d ever done anything like this and little did I realise that in years to come I’d eulogise at my grandparent’s funerals. After the service, while waiting for my lift home, a very handsome lad playfully hit me on the arm and said that I’d done very well. That was the first time I experienced unrequited love.
So, from the age 15 onwards my life was in turmoil. I felt misunderstood by family and teachers. I broke down at the drop of a hat. The bullying had abated for a short time, but in the new term started up again with vengeance. It was almost like they were making up for lost time in the previous half term. One particular occasion they shoved me onto the concrete floor of the sports hall, threw the high jump mats on top of me (these were really thick foam mats probably about 9 or 10 inches thick) and then proceeded to jump on them, with me underneath and my head banging on the floor. The teachers did nothing about it and all that matron did was tell me to go outside and watch PE (which was the lesson that followed this incident). The torments I got from the bullies because I was standing, or most likely sitting as I had a form of concussion, didn’t exactly help.
I threatened to run away from home when I was about 16 or 17. I’d packed a bag and mum found it. Asking me what it was for I shouted “Because I’m leaving. I’ve had enough…” I can’t remember how it was resolved but needless to say I didn’t run away from home. I was accused of being on drugs. I wasn’t. Interestingly when I was on drugs - no one noticed (that wasn’t until I was 19 or 20). The realisation throughout all of this though was that I never went to the doctor about it until I was was 21 or so. So for 6 years I was battling with mental health problems but no-one knew what was happening. It caused a lot of upset. A lot of fights (not physical). And it must have made my poor mum’s life a living hell. She had no idea what was happening to me and she dealt with it the best way she could. I just threw it all back in her face because she didn’t understand me. But here’s the thing…did I actually talk to her about it? Sadly not.
You see back then mental health wasn’t a thing that was talked about. It was almost like it was something to be ashamed of. It was bad enough coming out as gay at the age of 18. But adding more shit to the storm, well I wasn’t about to do that! My dad used to (jokingly) say that I was so secretive I didn’t even let my dick know when I was having a piss. The trouble is though that the one time I did try to talk to them about a problem at school it was thrown back in my face.
I was probably 16. Every Thursday afternoon we would have activities. This was a triple lesson of Combined Cadet Force (CCF), Sailing, Cross-Country Running and numerous other activities that I can’t actually remember. I chose sailing - never being one for sport or Army type stuff. The thing with sailing was that in meant leaving the school half-way through the lunchtime. I’d told the head of music that I had sailing and so couldn’t have my piano lesson during lunch as I was leaving for sailing every Thursday at 1245. He either forgot, ignored it, or couldn’t be bothered to action the information. So every so often my piano lesson would be in lunchtime and I’d miss the minibus to the boating lake. Therefore, I’d spend my afternoon in the music house practising my guitar, or piano.
On one occasion I was with a mate, Stuart, who was showing me some chords on the guitar and we were just making music together. In comes the head of music and says “Anderson, what are you doing?” “Practising my guitar with Stuart, sir.” “You’re messing around.” “I’m not sir, I’m practising with Stuart.” The teacher then comes over and standing behind me proceeds to smack me round the head with every word he says…”I have told you not to mess around.” He leaves. Stuart is seeing red and asks if I’m okay. Amidst tears I say yes. I probably swore a lot as well and stated a vengeful hatred for that teacher.
That evening we’re in the supermarket car park and I decide to tell dad what happened. Rather than give me the support that I thought I deserved he took the side of the teacher and agreed that I had been messing around. I got upset. Dad shouted. I got even more upset and so it went on.
I want to say now at this juncture that I do not blame my parents in any way, shape, or form. I was a difficult, but often lovely, child/teenager, who had issues and struggled to find his way in a confusing world. The relationship I have with my parents now, and have had for the past 15-20 years, is amazing! We are so close and we communicate! More on that a lot later in the book.
I finally plucked up the courage to go to the doctor, or mum may have taken me - I can’t remember. There had been a number of traumatic instances in the run up to this decision but these are not to be shared in this book…if anywhere at all. The Dr. was friendly and actually listened to me. He put me on antidepressants, which seems to be the go to solution. He asked to see me again in a few weeks. I duly returned, and he said to keep going with the medication. Every few weeks I’d go back and “report in” and he’d tell me to keep taking them. Years later, he tells me I’m better and to stop taking the medication.
Now Prozac is a very powerful drug and it did indeed make me feel better. However, as with any form of medication, going cold turkey is going to have a severe impact. The first week was fine but the second week the old bastard of a Black Dog was flashing its ugly red eyes at me and took a hold. One evening on my way from work, I was so depressed that I tried to find as many different ways of crashing my motorbike (well it was a Honda CG125 - so not exactly powerful) as I possibly could. Needless to say that I didn’t succeed, this book isn’t being written by a ghost writer!
I go back to the doctor told what happened, and back on meds I go. Not Prozac this time - can’t remember what though. This is the clunky dance that I tried to master for several years to come. Eventually though some counselling was offered. This was to try and tackle a very specific issue. I resisted talking about it as much as I should have and ended up talking about other issues. The counsellor to his credit was very supportive but I wasn’t ready to deal with that particular problem. This was always the case actually. Whenever I had counselling I would always obsess on one area. Usually the recurring theme of unrequited love. I’d had relationships but they all cheated on me and as of 2020 I’ve been single for 18 years. I’m not going to go into the details as that’s not what this book is about. Needless to say though, something wasn’t right. The Black Dog was still gnashing away at my heals. People couldn’t understand what I was going through and counsellors tried their best to help me. Friendships became strained and suicide attempts came and failed.
In 2015 I made a decision. I’d had enough of being on medication. I was feeling like a zombie all the time and this was affecting my creativity. I wasn’t able to act effectively, play music effectively or even communicate my moods effectively. I needed to get back to feeling human again. I needed to be in control again. I weened myself off my medication. I started with one every other day, then three a week, then two a week, the one a month until finally in November 2015 I became medication free.
This book picks up from that amazing day and takes you on the journey I’ve been on to become the person I am today. A medication free, stable, happy person. There have of course been bumps along the way and I’ll share with you those situations. After all I have tamed my Black Dog, not eradicated it. But my hope for this book, even if just one person buys it, is that I can help you tame your Black Dog. Whatever the guise it may take.