Monday, January 15, 2007

Black dog

BAIRES ABRIL 09, originally uploaded by frida world.

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.

12 comments:

luzie said...

((Frida)) Depressive spells suck majorly, I know. I've only recently discovered your blog, but from what I've read so far I can say that I admire your strength and dedication in what you're doing. xo

Regina Clare Jane said...

Dearest Frida... thank you for sharing so openly about how you have been feeling. I can relate to these feelings as well and to the isolation. Getting myself out there after my dad's death seemed like a horrific thing for me- and it still does. But it does get better and I am grateful for every day I have where I am not crying my eyes out.
Writing seems to help me a lot, lighting candles to instill a sense of peace, my yoga practice... yes, they are all just things to do and even though I may grump about having to do them, afterwards I do feel better.
And Frida- you do not need to EARN love and admiration... you DESERVE love and admiration because of who you are- a wonderful, kind, loving human being... and I am all the more richer for knowing you.
Thank you for all you do... love to you, dear one...

AnnieElf said...

Dearest Frida. My brother and I read your piece together. We were both deeply moved and understand how the difficulties of daily life can pull you down so hard. More thoughts to come. Remember, every thought is a prayer. Be sure to draw strength from that. Blessing to you and to all.

Wanda Martini said...

I agree with the author of that little book you read - maybe you should just give him a little bowl of water and a nice gentle pat on the head and he might just quietly go to sleep

xox

Mardougrrl said...

"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."

You know, as someone who also suffers from the black dog often, I can honestly say that I NEVER thought of it that way before. Thank you for this gift.

You are not alone. We're all here too, listening and watching and keeping you company.

eb said...

Oh Frida - your thoughts have moved me so deeply - 2006 was a black dog year for me and now I find myself in 2007 - a new beginning - reaching out into a WHOLE NEW WORLD - like yours - but many thanks for speaking out about the black dog - most prefer to be silent - speaking gives form and shape - form and shape give hope - thank you xox - eb.

Mary Parker said...

Darling girl.
I did wonder after we talked on the phone…
I have had a think about how I might be able to love and admire you even more than I already do. And I don't think I can. And I wish more than anything I could shoo that black dog away. All I can say is you will sleep again. You will run again.You will sit with friends drinking red wine and talking about men. You will wake up in warm places and have nothing planned for the day.
You will come through.
We love and miss you always.

susanna said...

I wish I could reach through our computers and give you a big hug and tell that Black Dog to get lost. Just know that it's normal to have dark days and that better days ARE coming, even in the middle of Afghanistan. And you ARE an extraordinary woman!

My Marrakech said...

Dear Frida,
I am so sorry to hear of the black dog. He visited me once when I was much younger and it was terrible. He visits my mother every day and I watch her suffer.

Having followed a path not so dissimilar from yours and having seen a great deal of very sad - terribly sad and sometimes frightening - things, I wonder if your work or Afghanistan might be contributing to the dog's presence. Or perhaps he has been around for far longer than that.

You have many admirers here on your blog. We are here supporting you in spirit. I hope that provides some small measure of comfort.

daffa said...

the black dog is not a companion i would wish on anyone...

but to overcome is something amazing...

you have already (by the sound of it - i don't know you) been through so much. it sounds to me like you are an amazing woman... a woman who reflects and learns. a woman who will treat this as a learning experience...

when i had my black dog, i took him for a walk everyday... he wandered further and further away from me,until one day i returned from my walk home without him. i know that you can't get out and about where you are so much, but maybe there is somehing else that you can do each day. something else that you love??? i know that you talk about yoga and meditation and reading... perhaps these are things that can't be too well concentrated on with your black dog constantly vying for attention... have you tried creating something???

god luck frida... i wish you peace and happiness...

paris parfait said...

I think you're going through what all human rights workers go through at some point - a bit of burnout. It is exhausting and debilitating to assume the burdens of so many, day after day, and maintain a positive attitude - especially when you're dealing with endless bureaucracy and local customs/prejudices to accomplish the simplest of tasks. Be gentle with yourself, try to take some time to "tune out" by watching DVDs, listening to music, reading escapist novels, phoning friends - something totally out of your normal routine. Frequent short breaks are necessary in your kind of work - don't try to do too much and stress over things you can't change. I know it can be disheartening when you see so many things/situations requiring attention and so many seeming obstacles to quick action. Just take one day at a time and realise many people admire and support you and your efforts. xo

Alex aka Gypsy Girl said...

Fri, I was so surprised by this post... And I'm also sad that I did not catch it sooner to send you the warmest hug as soon as possible. Damn black dog! Let's talk to him and teach him some manners. Once in a while, terrible purple gremlins follow me as well. I get moody and fatigued. Not a good scene.
But Fri, you are so lovely! You do so much and I find your life's work so inspiring! Just looking at the pic of you and the girls (above), I bet everyone can see your peaceful, caring and loving nature. There is so much spark in your eye... You glow! I'm sending you a sunny day on a tropical island. Mango smoothies. Pineapple chunks. Coconut water. Warm ocean water for you to splash around. Beautiful seashells along the beach. Cool breeze on your face. A thatched roof cabana with white hammocks and your fav book... Right by the water. Dream.
Feel better, sweet girl!