Okay, I can’t avoid acknowledging him any longer, there is a little black dog following me around. He’s been hanging about for the past few months. He’s not so big; I’ve seen others much bigger. Years ago one of his kind came and sat on me and I couldn’t get out of bed for six weeks. This little guy has nothing on that monster, but he’s here and I know better than to keep trying to ignore or avoid him. How do I know this is a black dog and not just the shadow from a passing cloud? It’s not just the tears that come out of nowhere, or the sense of being overwhelmed by the smallest thing. It’s also the fact that I no longer find enjoyment in things that I usually love, like running, doing yoga, or even reading. It’s also the ridiculous depths to which my self-esteem has plummeted, poor J only has to wake up a little grouchy and I’m convinced he doesn’t love me any more. The disrupted sleep is a clue, as is my inability to make even the simplest decision (J: “So do you want to watch The West Wing or do you want to check your emails?” Me: “I don’t know, I don’t know, oh god, I just don’t know!”).
To be honest, it’s also the fact that this has been going on for months now. So step one: acknowledging. Then what? I liked what Sue Chance said here:
"Black Dog" was Churchill's name for his depression, and as is true with all metaphors, it speaks volumes. The nickname implies both familiarity and an attempt at mastery, because while that dog may sink his fangs into one's person every now and then, he's still, after all, only a dog, and he can be cajoled sometimes and locked up other times.
Can I cajole this little guy? Tie him up? Show him the door? Last week I think he missed the plane to Ghor and I had a week without him casting his inky shadow over my every hopeful, cheerful thought. But here he was waiting for me when I got back. So it’s time to accept that he is here. I know some tricks that usually work with him. They’ve worked before and even really smart people with degrees in Black Dogs agree with me on these. Like psychologist Dr Carmel Loughland, senior researcher with the The Neuroscience Institute of Schizophrenia and Allied Disorders in Australia, who says people "can go off to their GPs and be assessed very easily for medication, or more specialist treatment". Oh, except not here in Herat they can’t, and the one time I summoned up the courage to talk to the doctor employed by my organization his response was that I was “having psychological problems” and not medical problems, so obviously he couldn’t help, Gee, thanks! But that’s okay; Dr Loughland has some tips for helping yourself:
“We reduce the amount of stress that we’re feeling if we can get out and about and exercise,” she says. “When people are feeling very blue or down they tend to isolate themselves, and in some countries that’s a form of torture; it’s used to break people down. “It’s very important that we get out and talk to people and socialise, even if we don’t feel like it or we don’t have a lot of access to people. Just getting out and taking a walk is really important.”
I agree, completely, especially about the getting out for a walk bit. Hmm, except “getting out” is not so much an option around here, neither to exercise nor to socialize, and certainly not to take a walk. Isolation and containment are characteristics of life here. We are isolated from the communities in which we work by chasms of cultural difference and by extreme security measures, which – if we were to obey them to the letter - prohibit us from even visiting our Afghan colleagues since their homes do not comply with the security guidelines. We are isolated from each other by restrictions on our movement and, in my case at least, by our own black dogs. I found this fantastic little book online today, and I liked what the author/illustrator had to say about his own experience with the black dog.
“One of the simplest tools I’ve learnt is acceptance; acceptance is the one thing that deprives the Black Dog of his power. If Black Dog chooses to make an appearance I no longer take flight or burn huge reserves of energy trying to conceal it. I accept the Black Dog is there, I batten down the hatches, I try to unload some responsibilities and I live in the knowledge that it will pass because it always does. Like all bad dogs a Black Dog needs discipline, patience, understanding to bring him into line. Never, ever give up.”
Here’s what I’m figuring out. Doing this here, dealing with the black dog here in Herat, is something new. I have to learn how to do it under these circumstances, with these challenges and restrictions. I have to stop avoiding it and stop complaining that the things that usually work are impossible here. I need to work out what will work here. I need to not give up. I am also going to remember something else. The black dog can also drive me to do great things. Out of this sense of smallness and the fear of not being loved I can find the drive to do things which, hopefully, will earn me some love and admiration. Out of a sense of hopelessness and helplessness I can find the strength to act.
I know I am not alone in this, and although it may seem extraordinarily arrogant (especially for someone who claims to be suffering from such a low self esteem) to compare myself to Tolstoy, Churchill or Luther, I’m going to take this final thought with me into this day and the ones that will follow:
“[Churchill] was in lustrous company - Goethe, Schumann, Luther, and Tolstoy to name but a few - all of them great men who suffered from recurrent depression. Who doesn't have at least a passing familiarity with the notion that depression sometimes acts as a spur to those of a certain temperament and native ability? Aware of how low they will sink at times, they propel themselves into activity and achievements the rest of us regard with awe.” Sue Chance, M.D.