Last week I wrote a post on a subject I haven't broached in a while as I found myself pursued by my old Nemesis, the Black Dog. After a nice long spell free from it's hounding, it was something of a shock to feel those old feelings again. But after years of dealing with that mutt's harassment, I was in a much better place than I once was to get it back under control again.
I'm talking about Depression, if you haven't figured it out. It dogged me for years (ha, see what I did there?).
In recent times I've been symptom-free, partly helped by anti-depressants, which deal with the chemical side, and partly helped by regular visits to my awesome counselor, Jane - or as I prefer to think of her, my life coach. With this two-pronged plan I've been making steady progress at dealing with stuff, getting stronger, finding my voice - and the Black Dog was nowhere to be seen.
But I knew it was still lurking in the background somewhere, waiting for it's opportunity to pounce. It was tied up, sure, and under control, but I was under no illusions that I was done with that Mutt for good. It's a vulnerability I have, like a dodgy knee that plays up in cold weather. If I don't stay vigilant, if I let things get on top of me, if pressure starts to build and I'm not careful, then look out - the Black Dog will slip his chain and start roaming free again.
(It helps me to personify the Depression as a Black Dog, prowling. It may seem odd to you, but it works for me).
Over the many (many) years I've spent dealing with the black dog, I've learnt a few things. I'm not the quivering mess I once was, in the face of the Mutt. I know I can beat it and I'm not afraid of it's bite anymore because I know how to act quickly and get it under control before things get out of hand. At the first sign of it's loathsome growl, I am on alert and the call goes out:
We have a situation: The Mutt is free, he's off his chain. Beware! Alert all systems. Move to DEFCON 4.
So here's what I do (and what I did in the last week) to get the Black Dog back under control again.
The Dog is Loose
Firstly, I recognise it early.
No ploughing ahead, being stoic and ignoring the early warning signs.
I am alert to that first growl.
When I find myself snapping at everyone, when I freak out over someone moving my camera cord, when the little things are tipping me over the edge... that's enough to know I'm in danger of the Dog.
So first of all I acknowledge it to myself, and from then on I become very deliberate about taking care of myself.
Next, I have to communicate to those closest to me about what's happening.
That means, tell my husband, "I think that black dog is loose, I need your support".
Tell my kids, "I'm not in a great place right now, I need to be by myself. I might be snappy and grumpy so you might want to keep your distance for a while."
It's really important to let those closest to us know where we're at before we do too much damage and alienate those around us by our freak-outs. Once they know we're in a bad way, they can be more understanding and supportive and not take our struggle as personally.
At the same time I have to remove as much external pressure as I can. Cancel some things. Postpone stuff. (If you're working, take a day off; if you have preschoolers call a kind friend or neighbour and ask for help - you can return the favour when you're back on your feet). Turn off social media. Put the phone on silent.
I go into crisis mode which means (a) being kind to myself (b) releasing myself from expectations and (c) "cocooning" for a day.
Dive into the Wave
Those feelings of depression and anxiety are like a big wave looming - if you just stand there thinking you are strong enough to withstand it, it will barrel into you, swamp you and throw you to the ground; you'll be cut and scraped as it dumps you on the bottom. You'll be swallowing water, choking, disoriented and bruised. People have been known to drown. Letting it swamp you is not a good idea.
You have to lean into it. Duck dive under it. See it coming and dive right into it. Yes, you'll be under water for a few seconds, but you'll come through it quicker, and none the worse for wear.
After recognising the wave is coming (or that the Dog is loose), I "cocoon".
I need to feel safe, nestled, burrowed in.
So I give myself a day to Just Be.
You might think it's wallowing, but to me, this is diving under the wave.
I'm being deliberate. I see this coming. I know what I need. I need to cocoon.
I make whatever calls I need to make to free my time and give myself a day with no pressure.
Then I make my nest a nice place to be.
I make my bed, maybe put on fresh sheets and I clear the benchtops of dirty dishes. Looking at mess and dirty dishes is depressing in itself. I spend a little time clearing up and think of it as part of my treatment (I am making my nest nice for a day of cocooning).
It might take me half an hour to straighten some things and make my home a nice place to be, but taking that time is worth it.
I remind myself I'm not wallowing, I'm cocooning. This is part of my therapy. I'm being kind to myself, giving myself time and space to replenish. I'm diving into the wave.
Then I snuggle into my freshly made bed with a book, a cup of tea, some toast. Maybe I light a lavender soy candle for the calming influence, maybe I follow the sun around the house and lie on different kids' beds and couches so I am warmed by the sun.
My husband knows I am cocooning so he expects nothing from me. The kids know I need peace, so they don't nag or ask me to do stuff they can do themselves (hardly at all); they might even come in bringing cups of tea or just offer a kiss to let me know I am loved.
I try not to let myself have more than one day cocooning. It will take me longer than that to get the Dog completely under control, but I don't want cocooning to turn to wallowing. I am being kind to myself (and in doing so I am lulling the black dog into a false sense of security). I am under the wave but I am not being crushed by it. I'm coming through it.
Snow on the Roof
After my day cocooning it is important that I push myself back up to the surface. I need to see some other humans, preferably the positive, encouraging types and first port of call is my counselor (it just so happened that the day after I realised the Dog was loose was my regular fortnightly appointment).
My counselor, Jane, helped me identify what had led up to my "overwhelm" - how did the Dog get loose?
This time there was nothing dramatic, but a build up of lots of little things. I described it like a build up of snow on my mental and emotional roof - until the weight of it all got to the point where just one little thing (a lost camera cord) brought the whole weight of it crashing through.
What were those little things? It was important to talk about it and figure it out (so next time maybe I can avoid the same situation).
It was just the usual worries about kids, decisions that needed to be made and juggling stuff that needed to be done, but underlying it all was anxiety about taking a job I'd been asked to apply for. On the surface of it all, it sounded perfect. A School Librarian job at an Intermediate School. Like, really! For me, could there be a job more perfect?
But the problem was the hours. Twenty-five hours a week. It was just too much. I was starting to stress about how I'd cope/do everything and I hadn't even handed in my CV yet.
After talking it over with Jane I realised I needed to say no to the job. It's just not the right time for me to work that many hours. I felt immediate relief. Decision made.
Jane also gave me four large sheets of paper and told me to write down all the things I was juggling, one sheet for each child, plus one for me. I offloaded all the things I was carrying in my brain onto those four sheets and immediately felt lighter.
Since then I've been working through the sheets, crossing things off. Such a simple thing, but it's made such a difference.
After talking with Jane and figuring out how the Dog got loose and after allowing myself that one day to cocoon, I have stayed in the mindset of "being kind to myself" but have kept working through the sheets, eliminating things that had built up in my mind, clearing away the weight, so to speak.
- spent time with positive friends
- went op shopping with my cousin
- wrote a blog post about where I was at but then stayed away from social media for the week
- stayed out of bed but read in the sun when I got the chance
- coloured the grey roots that were getting me down (look better = feel better)
- kept the weekend clear of social engagements (no dinner guests)
- tried to keep the benches (mostly) clear of dirty dishes
- said "yes" to my girl having a sleepover at her friend's house (soooo much quieter with only two kids)
- had a meltdown at the petrol station on the way to rugby so rang hubby and got him to pray for me which helped a lot
Now, I think we have almost got the Black Dog chained back up. I know I'm still a little fragile (I can tell because I'm still a bit snappy and sensitive to noise) but each day is getting better. I'm getting better and faster at getting that mutt under control when he gets loose.
I hope this was helpful to someone out there.
(Remember, you are not alone).
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