There’s been a bit of blog traffic about black dogs of various sizes, viciousness and longevity of late. I’m not jumping on any bandwagon here, no waving of banners singing “ooo, ooo, me too!” But it is something that isn’t much talked about and I am glad that some brave individuals have put themselves in their humanness ‘out there’, so when Blog This asked, “Share one thing that has made your life easier, and that you wish you knew about long before you first got your hands on it!”, this was my obvious answer.
Depression of any magnitude, intensity or duration is hard to deal with (for everyone involved). Mine was/is directly related to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and, even more challenging, having spent my entire growing life as an elite athlete in pursuit of a level of perfection that can only be described as insane. As a result, I have had a fair load of baggage firmly attached to my back; baggage that brings Black Dogs sniffing, rummaging and setting up shop in my head.
So what changed my life?
A good psychologist. Not a counsellor, but a psychologist who specialises in Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and is not so much interested in talking about the problem as releasing the physical/emotional trigger events (whether I am conscious of them or not) so that similar experiences don’t trigger the melt-down response that you can see coming a mile off but have absolutely no capacity to stop.
Ok, so I didn’t exactly “get my hands on it” but to give you an idea of how it changed my life, here’s an edited extract from my book, Wobbles – An Olympic Story (cracking read, order one now and $10 goes to charity, great Christmas present, etc).
At 27 years old, I drank and partied like a rebellious teen by night, and I worked myself into a stupor by day.
I moved in with a colleague from Macquarie University and went out some more.
I smoked cigars and swore, had flings, broke hearts and had mine broken.
I went on fitness kicks that lasted two, maybe three weeks at a time, each time ending in self destruction and as the cycles got shorter and shorter, I’d work like a maniac and end up in a heap to which I responded by getting drunk. I was having fun and I didn’t need anyone.
But the words of Emily Dickinson followed me wherever I went:
‘One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
one need not be a house;
the brain has corridors surpassing material place.’
I flew high and crashed to the depths of inexplicable despair, searching furtively for the next way to be up. My life became like a series of flashes, as though something out of my control kept turning the lights on and off and on and off and on and off…
* * *
Over those 18 months from October 2003, when my life with Ben ended and my world spun out of control, my aunt Marianne died of a brain tumor, my mother nursing her at home until her last day; Mutti died in the same room in my parents’ house, also after four months of my mum nursing her; Rob Henderson, my first and truest sponsor, died in a plane crash with his daughter Jackie; and I remained stoic, a pillar for everybody to lean on as I ignored the pathetic little girl that resided in me, begging only for the kind of love and attention I lavished on everyone else.
I changed career, looking for a path that would make me feel as though I was doing something meaningful. I began teaching and found a world of students on whom to dote, in whom I could find joy and purpose.
I lost myself in working for them. My every moment revolved around them, my dedication as complete as it had been in the pool, but it was unsustainable. They were my priority and I relished feeling like the overworked, underappreciated school mistress – it gave me an excuse to have bouts of misery and I no longer had to blame the swimming – an excuse that had long ago worn thin. I could run off the rails, I could lash out and I could piously cite my dedication to the future as the cause of my distress. But it didn’t last because, while I loved my students, was patient and gentle and nurturing with them, the neglected little girl in me began to scream.
I had managed to sustain my manic, fear-driven life for almost six years…
It took a long time to wade though the mire…
* * *
I went in, guns a-blazing, “I’ve never had any luck with psychologists, so don’t take it personally, but I’m not expecting much.”
She laughed with warmth, “That’s good.”
“They all tell me I’m too self-aware already and I already know what the problems are. I know where all my destructive patterns come from. I can see them coming a mile off but I can’t stop them and I just can’t break out of the cycle and psychologists usually say they can’t help because I’m already aware of the issues and…” I could have gone on forever with that defensive spiel. I was terrified that this last resort would prove that I was a permanently damaged relic from the swimming world and that I was doomed to a life of catastrophic ups and downs; that nothing would ever fill me with the euphoric rush of those brilliant moments in the pool, the gamble of risking everything for an outrageous dream; that the glorious promise of ‘normal life’ would be disappointing drudgery forever.
“Well, that’s lucky, because I’m interested in fixing those destructive patterns. I don’t really care where they came from.”
That shut me up.
It started as eight sessions, developed to ‘a few more’ and ended up almost every week for 18 months. Coralie guided me though forests and mists and wild, raging seas; I have seen myself as a tiny child, hurt and scared; I have revisited people who hurt me and have let go of the pain; I have rejoiced in the freedom of forgiveness and understanding and I have cried with regret and anger, I have felt the relief of letting go, even when I couldn’t be sure what I was letting go of or why or how…
And to this day I am still learning to let go, I am still finding Black Dogs sniffing at my heels, but I now have the tools to send them on their way with gratitude for what they are teaching me. And I am still learning to love me… as I am.