Hello. My name is Mark, and I’d like to tell you a story about a journey. But surprise surprise, this was no ordinary journey. This was the scariest, most daunting and challenging yet greatest, most exhilarating and rewarding journey I’ve ever been on. It took me by plane and train, bike and boat, car and foot, from the brightest and bluest of skies to the deepest and darkest of caves, from countryside to city and across many countries and continents. Without ruining it for you, I’m pleased to say it also has a happy ending.
I’ve seen my fair share of the world, yet this story has nothing to do with the actual places I’ve been to. You see, this particular journey all took place within my head wherever I went. This is the story of my years-long battle with anxiety and depression; my long, slow dance with the black dog.
As I write this, it is September 2011 and I’m now a happy and healthy forty-year-old Scotsman of Italian descent. I’ve been living in Melbourne, Australia for 14 years and I have what many would say is a decent responsible job. I’ve also been married to the beautiful Tess for nine years, and we have two adorable sons – Jack, five and Freddie, two. We live near the beach, where I regularly go running in the sun. The seemingly perfect life, so you may think.
Growing up in Glasgow on the other hand, where at times it felt like it was raining all summer long, and the annual heatwave (if any) might be measured in minutes rather than days, I used to dream of a life like the one I now have. But to a black dog dancer like I used to be, good things happened to others – not to me.
Yet for more than a year now, life truly has never been better – and it has nothing to do with living near the beach. No, life has never been better because to complete my brief résumé, I’ve been taking antidepressants every day for more than a year, and I may well continue to do so for the rest of my days.
As well as being on medication, I’ve also spent several hours on the psychologist’s sofa – and I am not even slightly ashamed of either. But my story is not about medication or counselling – these are simply two courses of action that ultimately helped me defeat my own black dogs. My story is about encouraging sufferers of anxiety and depression to speak up – to seek, find and take whatever course of action works for them, and to be proud of their bravery in doing so, rather than ashamed of their fear.
As you can no doubt imagine, living in Australia, looking like an Italian, and talking with a Scottish accent often leads to misunderstandings. Whenever anyone hears my name before my voice for the first time, they tend to look somewhat puzzled by the strange post-introduction rumblings that subsequently emanate forth from my lips. I’ve even been in restaurants where I’ve ordered baked fish with seasoned garden vegetables – and ended up being served bangers ‘n’ mash (no really, I have!) I’ve been in Aussie pubs when I’ve been driving so I’ve asked for a coke – only to be be served with a beer by a somewhat confused-looking barman, who opted to assume rather than clarify. Though to be fair, I have also had some locals look at me with a bemused smirk on their face and say, “mate, I don’t have a clue what you just said but can you say it again – cos it sounded greayt!”
Likewise, one of the purposes of telling my story is to address apparent misunderstandings in our society around the stigma of anxiety and depression, and what it’s really like to undergo counselling or be on medication. I’d like to show that what they are really like and how people assume them to be are often as similar as a fish and a sausage, a coke and a beer.
In the same vein, I’d like to shine a big bright light on one of the black dog’s greatest illusions. I’m sure you’ve seen it many times before. You know – the one where the bitch always makes the lives of others sound so great compared to ours, yet we don’t have a clue as to how much anxiety and depression lingers beneath their surface. These conditions are far more prevalent than many of us may care to realise, and I intend to do my bit right here to expose the great black dog fraud.
Through writing openly and honestly about my past experiences – my endless bouts of racing irrational worries and resulting depressive episodes – I also want to help those who are struggling with their own inner demons realise there is nothing inherently wrong with them. If this sounds like you, rest assured you are not crazy. What you are going through is in fact quite normal; furthermore, no matter how deep and dark a cave you may be in, your anxiety and depression can be beaten. You can go on to live a life far more normal, far more enjoyable than you ever dreamed possible – a life where you’re not broken goods, a life where you truly feel a sense of freedom and inner peace. I may not be a medical or mental health professional, but I do know this is all possible because I did the one thing I can tell you that you should do: I took appropriate action. I sought professional help. I took the fight to my own inner demons – and I won.
Of course, you may be reading this having never suffered from anxiety or depression yourself. You may therefore struggle to empathise with, understand and support friends or family who are suffering. In telling my story, I’d like to help you understand what it’s like to always have a growling black dog on your back, and how very vivid, real and nasty a beast it is.
As my story unfolds, I will also touch on what some may call one of the secrets to living a happy and meaningful life. Though I prefer to describe as the most incredibly liberating yet simple life insight, one that I stumbled across at a time when I least expected to – while I was cowering away in my own darkest cave, at the very lowest point in my entire life.
I’m not trying to kid myself here. I know my story is no different to many millions, even billions of other stories out there. I’m not going to single-handedly change the world just by sharing mine. I do know, however, that if I can encourage just one person to reach out from their own cave and seek help, I can at least change their world. As clichéd as that may sound, I also know that it carries oh so much truth.
I was very fortunate in hindsight. My black dogs grew slowly over the years, and like many others, I was able to live with them. In fact having them in my life – having them as my life – felt quite normal, as I had nothing to compare them to. But my irrational worries, my bouts of anxiety and depression gradually became more frequent more lengthy and more gripping until a series of unrelated circumstances in 2010 pushed me right to the very edge of breakdown. But I realised that no, I did not have to put up with this any longer, this was no way to live my life. I grabbed my black dogs by the scruff of the neck and yelled out “enough!” That was the day I started to take action.
One thing I’ve learned over the journey is that the greatest experiences in life truly are the most hellish, the most daunting and challenging. They are the ones we want to turn around and walk away from, when the best thing we can do is to stand up and keep walking through, only to emerge on the other side better, stronger and wiser; more capable rather than less capable than before. On that note, a very good friend of mine recently asked me – if I could wind the clock back, would I change the hell that I’ve been through? And would I do it all again if I could learn even more of the same? My answer was the same to both questions – “hell, no.”
And so I hope you will join me as I walk you through my own wouldn’t-change-it-for-the-world-but-am-never-going-there-again journey to hell and back. Of course, please feel free to share this story with any of your friends who may benefit from it. Who knows, perhaps he or she is the one person whose world can truly be changed beyond their dreams.