People who meet me generally remark on two things: my bubbly optimism and my proactive attitude to getting things done. Both very positive features and explain a bit about how I managed to get to where I am today. Yet, as my father often remarked, you should never judge a book by its cover.
I recently went to a talk by Professor Mike Slade who mentioned that “Exposure to recovery narratives can be transformative.” – the title quote for this blog. I am a mental health survivor and this is my recovery narrative, my story. I am a bit hesitant (and sometimes downright scared) of telling people my story for fear of the criticism and opinions of others (and how it will affect my future career and friendships), but the words quoted above have inspired me to start sharing. My story may offer hope to others struggling with their own internal demons.
I have good reason to fear how people view my black dog. At its worst, my black dog led to a mental breakdown that ended my academic career. At its best, the emotional instability – at one moment wildly optimistic and the next crying uncontrollably – made me a target for ridicule and censure throughout my life. Cry Baby. Fake. Liar. Putting on a front. Labels meant to hurt.
The opinion of others does matter. Especially when it comes to references. In my case, I am terribly sensitive to criticism, often mulling over what people say for months after the incident, feeding my black dog with negative comments. For most people, references are key to their next school position, job or scholarship; this is especially true in academia where references can make or break a career. This can be a significant challenge for someone with a black dog. What happens if someone frequently bursts into anger or, with seemingly little reason, often bursts into tears in the classroom or office. People who know of this behavior may judge you for it, making opinions of your character and suitability for different roles. This in turn can affect your references and thus your chances to succeed in life.
I learned at a very early age to hide my black dog from others. My solution to the almost constant stream of internal abuse and criticism was to throw myself into activities and make sure I was too exhausted, too distracted, to allow melancholia to enter my mind. I kept myself active until the moment when I was exhausted enough to fall asleep without worrying or stressing or even thinking. Thoughts were my nemesis. Hence the overly positive, highly energetic, proactive outward appearance. When my brother created superheros for each of my siblings, mine was called Cotton Candy. Sugar and constant activity kept the negative thoughts at bay.
I hope that every child suffering like I did can get help to conquer their internal demons. I was lucky to have counselling at various stages in my life, but it was not until I started antidepression medication and working with a mental health nurse on cognitive behavioral therapy two years ago that the sinister voices telling me that I am not good enough, will never be good enough, that it would just be easier to end it all, that I am not a good daughter, friend, student, etc. finally receded to a whisper. I owe my life and my happiness to the people who supported me, the family, the friends, the counselors, the nurses, the doctors (and perhaps also to the medication).
The first time that I can remember trying to kill myself, I was about 10. I put a pillow over my head and held it there thinking that all I had to do was stop breathing and the pain of living would end. But then came the guilt, the guilt added to the constant stream of negative thoughts in my head. I had a loving family, friends, safety, a home, food, a good school. I had no reason to be unhappy, to be depressed, to be stressed and worried and to cry all the time. Even worse, it was selfish of me to cause suffering to those around me by being unhappy in their presence, by telling them of my struggle with negative thoughts, by thinking of killing myself or by leaving them with the pain of remembering me if I did kill myself. I felt trapped by the love of others and the goodness of my life. I had no choice but to continue living. Thus, though the thought of killing myself was always in the back of my mind, the reality was that I had to live with this polarity of existence: a day filled with happiness and laughter and activity (always putting on a positive optimistic front to others) and, when I was not tired enough by the end of the day, evenings of crying myself to sleep and wishing I would not wake up in the morning.
Through all of this, I always held onto the hope that someday the negative thoughts would leave me alone. And now, finally, for almost a year, I have not thought of killing myself. I have conquered my internal demons and lived to tell the tale.
This blog is dedicated to all those who are living with a black dog and all those who did not live to tell their tale.