I’m a firm believer that the greatest and most rewarding gifts are the ones we give – all the more so if they are given anonymously, without even the possibility of a thank-you in return. However, I will always remember my 30th birthday for two of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
The first was given to me by my then-girlfriend Tess, who is now my wife. Tess has an eye for elegance, takes pride in perfection, and she pulled out all the stops. She proudly presented me with a small box-shaped gift, which was simply yet impeccably wrapped in silvery grey paper and tied together with a silky white bow. I almost didn’t have the heart to unwrap it, as that would have ruined all her hard work.
Slowly and carefully, I began to unravel the bow. But then the five-year old, who I was relieved to find still lurking within me despite my milestone turning of age, got all excited, and I quickly tore off the rest of the wrapping.
The wrapping paper was turned to confetti, and a mysterious metallic grey box emerged from the mess. I was more than pleasantly surprised when I opened the box to reveal a white silver-framed watch staring back at me with what I can only describe as a friendly look on its face. The time was exactly 1.50pm – I could swear it was even smiling at me.
The second gift I want to tell you about was a strawberry. Well, not so much a strawberry as a story about a strawberry. On the night of my 30th birthday, we were at a friend’s house for a barbecue. It was a pleasantly balmy November evening, with not a cloud in the sky. As we sat on the grass under the stars and shared a few drinks, another of our friends began to tell us the tale.
The story goes that a man was being chased through the jungle by a hungry lion. As he tried to escape, he fell down a ravine. He landed on a small ledge where the lion was unable to reach him. As he looked down, he saw another hungry lion at the bottom of the ravine. There was no way out apart from up or down. He was in the middle of nowhere; he was trapped; he knew that he was going to die.
But then he spotted a perfectly ripe, juicy strawberry growing on a bush by his feet. He smiled and thought, “that’s a nice strawberry, I think I’ll eat it.”
The moral of the story is simple: treasure each and every moment for they are all precious; live life in the moment.
The gift of the story was a perspective that’s held me in very good stead during some anxious and dark times but is one that’s tough to perfect: whatever happens, don’t lose sight of the strawberry!
For a long time I’d been hearing the concept of living life in the moment – from reading about it in books, to hearing about it in conversations. When I was living in Glasgow, I even went to the extreme of seeing a hypnotist once to try to overcome my homesickness. Indeed it was he who first introduced me to the concept of living life in the moment. Despite all this, I still could not fully grasp the notion. Throughout the first three full decades of my life, not even for a single moment had I ever lived fully in the moment.
So there I was, on the night of my 30th birthday, with the social side of me smiling away, listening to and taking part in the conversations under the stars. But at the same time, my black dog had me worrying on the inside about the usual irrational and extremely unlikely outcomes, distracting me from being fully present to what was going on around me right there and then.
I looked down at my new watch and it was like the hands were spinning out of control at fast-forward speed onto the next day, the week and month ahead, and onwards over the next decade to my 40th birthday and beyond. All this time was just passing me by. I was missing out on the conversations. I was missing out on the moment.
But then, almost out of nowhere, I heard the strawberry story. The penny dropped and my black dog simply vanished into thin air. Everything seemed to slow down to a more observable pace. Everyone at the party looked more vivid to me than anyone I’d ever seen before; their words sounded clearer than any I’d ever heard before. It literally turned into a birthday celebration like none I’d had before as the food, drinks and laughter continued to flow into the early hours.
Of course, my black dog’s exodus was a temporary one. As I lay awake in the early hours of the following morning with my guard down and, if the truth be told, a hangover from hell, my mind started racing again. The beast had returned with a vengeance.
I can’t remember exactly what it had me worrying about this time. I do, however, vividly recall that familiar experience of feeling pinned to the bed in a state of panic. Any positive thoughts I tried to have seemed to be instantly rendered pointless by the black dog’s ability to keep me transfixed on an inevitable future of doom and gloom.
Something felt different; something had changed, and permanently so. I looked over at the bedside cabinet and caught sight of the friendly face of my new white watch. “That’s a nice watch”, I thought to myself in amongst all my worrying and panic, “I wonder what time it is.”
It was only a brief moment, a shiny white glint of a positive thought, but it was one that anchored me firmly in the present, away from yet another vicious onslaught of the black dog. It was also a moment like I’d never been able to have before during such onslaughts from the black dog. I can best describe it as being like a tiny chink in its armour.
From that day forward, in my ongoing battles against the black dog over the following years, I now had a new weapon in my own armoury, as well a new reminder on my wrist that such a white weapon existed.
Of course, it was never quite as simple as it sounds there. For sure, I now had a new choice available to me whenever the black dog bit. But sometimes, many times in fact, choosing to live life in the moment was still a very hard choice to make. Sometimes the black dog would growl so hard, filling my head with the most extreme irrational worries, that living in the present moment seemed like an impossible option. Sometimes it would growl so hard that I’d even forget I had this choice to consider, with or without my new watch.
But there were times from my 30th birthday forward when my newfound knowledge of living life in the moment would be just enough to drown out the growling if my black dog was having a quieter day. Times, that is, when previously I would have had no control, no ability to silence the growling no matter how mild it may have been.
Part of the challenge for me was that even throughout my thirties, I still didn’t realise I had a black dog relentlessly following me through life. Despite everything I’ve described above, it‘s only with the benefit of hindsight that I’m able to describe my inner battles in the context of a black dog. For many years, the devious beast cunningly camouflaged my endless worrying thoughts, making them seem to me like a normal part of life.
It wasn’t until I was closing in fast on my 40th birthday that I began to wonder whether I might in fact be struggling with anxiety and depression, then took the fight to the black dog and eventually won the war. As I’ve outlined in previous chapters, the final battle too was neither as simple nor as brief as I’ve made it sound here. But the important point is that it’s a battle you can win. I only know because I did – and emphatically so.
With that victory, as I’ve also outlined in previous chapters, came a whole new sense of freedom and self confidence. I became comfortable in making human mistakes as well as knowing and trusting my own limits. As a result, I no longer walked around with my former constant fear of inevitably losing my job for a seemingly infinite number of irrational reasons.
There were still times in my very early forties, however, when the distant echoes of the black dog would try to play tricks on me. I retained a lingering occasional fear of being berated and chastised like a child for errors of judgement or minor mistakes at work.
The level of fear I continued to occasionally experience was not even in the same league as the days before I defeated the black dog, and the bouts of fear were always short-lived in comparison. But whenever they did occur, usually on the train on the way into work to finally face up to the outcome of my perceived errors, I’d be left feeling like a five year old on the inside, imagining some dark, ominous and ruthless figure casting judgement over me.
Over a period of several months, and with newfound clarity of thought, I reflected on why I might still be sensing those occasional distant echoes. I became convinced that if I could uncover the source of this lingering fear, I could live a life that was fully driven by aspiration and inspiration, rather than by any level of fear no matter how small or infrequent.
But at the same time, I was now in my early forties and just enjoying being able to truly enjoy life for the first time; I was just getting acquainted with my white dog. So my ongoing internal enquiry, my quest to get some clarity on the reason behind this lingering fear, was a passive one. I was, however, constantly drawn towards books, conversations even quotes that might help me get to the bottom of the mystery.
I also began to wonder whether when I was very young, someone somewhere had berated, scared or intimidated me in some way, perhaps even on a single occasion, leaving me with this lingering emotional scar. And perhaps if I could gain some clarity and pinpoint it, I could deal with it once and for all. I had absolutely no recollection of any such event, however, so I had no idea where to start looking.
I brought the topic up in conversation with my good friend Gary one day. I’d only known Gary for a short while, but had quickly found him to be both philosophical and practical. Gary seemed to have an ability to add a whole new perspective to any situation. And if some conversations are just meant to happen, my conversation with Gary was certainly one of them.
“Have you thought what you would do with such clarity if you ever found it, Mark?” asked Gary. “And if you did understand where this lingering fear came from, how do you know it would truly bring you the clarity you are after?”
Gary went on to point out that I had already overcome many great obstacles in life without the clarity I was now seeking. Perhaps, he suggested, I should consider no longer looking back to attempt to understand where this fear came from, but rather focus on moving forwards. After all, if I did want to move forwards in life, what good would it do to keep looking back to where I had already been?
“Maybe it’s time to let go of this past that has kept you caged”, he continued. “Perhaps the ‘you’ that lived in the past, lived in fear, was not the real ‘you’. Perhaps it has never been the real ‘you’. In which case, which ‘you’ do you want to get to know better now – your past or your future?”
“This lingering fear”, he concluded, “it‘s an old trigger. Perhaps now is the time to just stop using it, stop reacting to it, stop letting it own you. Now that you do have the ability to choose.”
It was a lot to absorb in a single short conversation. It was only after replaying Gary’s words over and over in my head that it finally hit me a few days later on the train into work. The same train journey, that is, on which those last surviving fears used to play out more often than anywhere else.
I had more than the normal amount of challenges to deal with at work that day – of the type and volume that my black dog used to tie me up in knots of worry and anxiety with. The ‘me’ of the past would be filled with dread as the sight of the Melbourne skyline came into clear view, a stark reminder that my train journey would soon be at an end and it was finally time to face up to the outcomes of my errors.
But not today. As the sight of the city came into view, the ‘me’ of the present found myself smiling and appreciating the view. I briefly observed the various shapes, sizes and colours of all the modern buildings. I also observed how much the city had expanded sideways into Docklands as well as upwards to the pinnacle of the Eureka Tower and its symbolic orange and gold top in the short decade I’d been living in the city. Had I just found myself catching sight of the strawberry?
At the same time, the ‘me’ of the future found myself confidently looking forwards to taking on my imminent challenges at work, figuring out what I needed to do to steer those situations towards positive outcomes.
It dawned on me that at times like this, the black dog would once have tricked the ‘me’ of the past into conjuring up the most unlikely irrational worries and associated anxieties.
And that’s the moment it hit me.
That’s the moment I realised one of the great deceptions of my black dog was its ability to look into my past for that very real recording of a long-forgotten anxious, fearful reaction. The blooded beast made the recording real again by pushing it into the future and replaying it over and over and over again. It was taking a dark shadow from my past, and pushing it into my future by projecting it onto various people in my present.
That, I realised, as clear as the blue sky I could now see above the Eureka Tower, was how the black dog also made my fears for the future feel so real and so inevitable.
My black dog, I realised, had once been focusing on the hungry lions in my life, often making me feel dead already on the inside. My white dog, on the other hand, was now seeing the strawberry; my white dog was now saying “ok we are where we are, what are we going to do now?”
A pure white dog, I realised, sees raw possibility, the opportunity for a lifetime of enjoyment in a single moment – even if it knows it is going to die.
This change in my own mindset certainly didn’t happen overnight; it also wasn’t a one-off shift. To this day, the odd lingering manageable fear still surfaces in my own day to day life. But as Gary also explained, this is what makes me human.
What has changed, however, is that I’ve learned how to choose whether I’m going to look into my past or my future when tackling these occasional minor moments of fear. It’s a choice I would have struggled to make back in the days when I was dancing with the black dog. But now I realise it’s a choice that disempowers my past while at the same time empowering my future. It’s also a choice I’ve learned to make more readily nowadays – and that it’s one more nail in the coffin of my black dog every time I make it.
I’ve also learned that sometimes it’s good to be selfish; sometimes the best gifts in life are in fact the ones we freely give to and accept from ourselves. They don’t have to cost anything, and you certainly don’t have to wait till it’s your birthday.