My Black Dogs

I never really understood the symbolism of calling depression “the black dog”. I mean, I know in modern terms it stems from Churchill’s description of his own struggles. Funnily enough, Churchill’s black dog was probably a crucial factor in the defeat of the Nazis. Even a bad dog is still man’s best friend.

But the association for me with dogs is always, unerringly, positive. Anyone who has owned a dog will be able to relate, minus the odd chewed shoe or wrecked couch. But when you lead a team of dogs, work with them every day, rely on them nearly as much as they rely on you, that relationship intensifies out of sight.

I love my dogs. I tell people freely they’re 80% of the reason I’m doing what I do, and that’s probably an underestimation. They’re not people, but they have their own characters, their own personalities, and they’re hardcase and endlessly enthusiastic for life and for work. I bring mine on from pups, and watching them grow and learn and start to understand is tremendously satisfying. You share their achievements, and seeing one completely click on one day and nail a job perfectly for the first time is quite elating. I have six dogs currently, including an actual black dog – a rising 3yo bitch named Haze.

I was a little fortunate to even get Haze. I was struggling at the time with another huntaway pup with no chasing instinct. I finally admitted defeat and looked on trademe late one night for a replacement. Here was a well-bred, good looking pup only 45 minutes away, already chasing in the training paddock. Is she still available? Yes. I’ll be down in the morning. We hit it off straight away. First morning at work, she mustered some calves for me. It wasn’t really planned, I didn’t want to do anything with them, but she was enthusiastic and doing a tidy job, so I took them to the yards and back, gave her a pat and said good girl. And that was that – she was mine, and I was hers. She’s terribly jealous. If I do a job with another bitch, or tell another dog “good girl” she notes it down, and later on beats them up. The message is clear – I’m his girl, and only me. Capiche?

I went back to work this week, for the first time since the beginning of March. The dogs were fizzing after seven weeks of sitting idle. Usually just a weekend off has them raring to go. I have to say I couldn’t share their enthusiasm. It was a real battle for me. I’d reached a point where further time off wasn’t going to be of any greater help, but even so just two and a half days was enough to exhaust me. The second afternoon, I set out to do a simple job, something that should take an hour. I spent four hours trying, failed to complete it, and got so stressed out my nose bled. For an hour and a half. It’s going to be a long road back. I don’t know how long. How long is a piece of string? Last time around, it was two years later before I finally looked back and realised I’d had a good few weeks – not just better, but actually good. Healthy. Happy. I didn’t have the support around me then that I do now, but I wasn’t starting from as far down either.

The midpoint of those two years was the toughest. A couple of people have said that when I’m really struggling, to remember the worst day I’ve had, and tell myself that if I could make it through that, I can make it through this, too. It’s an easy choice. The 13th and 14th of August, 2011. Because I lost a dog, another black dog, my original black dog. I actually lost two dogs that day, but Bo was a special case. The first pup I ever trained, except there wasn’t really much training needed. I just took her to work one day and started using her. And she understood, everything. Here I was as a junior shepherd, relying on a ten month old untrained pup as my main dog, and she just did everything. You couldn’t ask for a better dog to start with, you couldn’t ask for a better dog fullstop.

I’d had Bo eight years by 2011, from a pup, and from when I’d started out taking farming seriously as a career. We’d grown up together really. I’d worked with her all day every day, and she was my main companion. I told her all my hopes and dreams, asked her opinion on all the big questions in my life. The bond between us was as deep as man and dog go. And on the 13th of August, while at a fancy dress party, I got a phone call to say she’d been killed. She and another huntaway of mine, dragged from their kennels, beaten unconscious and left on the road to be run over, in a twisted act of revenge for something I hadn’t even done. Here I was, deep in depression, leaning on these dogs as my coping mechanism, and suddenly the next day I was burying them. My best friends. The guts ripped out of my team in moments. Ripped out of me.

It took a long time to come to terms with that. No charges were ever pressed against the guy who did it, which burns deep in my soul. I still often have moments of survivors guilt, that I wasn’t there, that I couldn’t be there when they needed me. Eventually I realised the only thing I could do was move on, rebuild, and live a good life anyway. A hollow victory, but the only one available to me. And I had. I got through that. I rebuilt my team, better than before, stronger. I found another black dog. And now suddenly, once again, I go to work every day with not one but two black dogs trailing behind me. Hopefully, eventually, Haze will beat up the other one for me. Because depression is a bitch, and Haze reckons there’s only room for one bitch in my life.

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A Chance Encounter

I’m due for a blog, it’s a fortnight since my last one. Not sure if I can manage something coherent or whether this will just be a ramble, but I’ve achieved literally nothing else for two days, so I’ll give it a shot.

It’s been a tumultuous two weeks for me. I started taking some medication. It’s eased the pressure in my brain, like letting the blood out of a broken toe, and restored a lot of mental clarity. It felt initially like it was on the verge of giving me back the ability to sleep for more than four hours a night – felt like it, but wouldn’t quite happen. Like a sneeze that makes you screw your face up and then disappears. I may need to try something else. The mental clarity has remained but the sleep is regressing. I didn’t even bother going to bed last night, I was awake and alert the whole way through and knew I couldn’t have slept. And now, at 10.30pm after a night with no sleep, I still feel like sleep is somewhere in the distance.

I’ve also tried a new psychologist. I had tried one a month ago, and the guy was an idiot. He must specialise in the autism field – he spent the entire session trying to see if he could diagnose me with Aspergers (for the record, he couldn’t). But that wasn’t why I was there, and he just didn’t listen. It put me off, but early last week I realised I still wasn’t coping and needed to try someone else. The new woman is much better, and got it straight away.

On Thursday night, I also attended a local Hope Walk, intended for suicide prevention and awareness. It’s not really my sort of thing, but I thought I ought to attend after the attention I had inadvertently drawn to myself. It was one of the best things I’ve done, because listening to another sufferer describe all of their episodes of depression as having been brought on by big losses in her life helped me understand mine a lot better.

The first one was the farm. Being a family farm, we’re a lot more emotionally invested in it than most people are with their jobs. It’s not just a job. You carry it with you all the time. And these days, that’s a big responsibility. Farmers are not the simple, Fred Dagg type characters any more that a lot of people still conceive us to be. They’re running complicated, complex, highly-skilled businesses. But it’s even more than that. Your standard commercial business is funded by investors. If it goes wrong, some faceless investor loses their money and the person running the business walks away. Our investors are the life’s work of several generations of family. The cumulative life savings and the blood, sweat and tears of our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. All of the sacrifices they made, all of the hours of back-breaking toil they put in, that’s what’s at stake for us. Of course, then, we’re more deeply invested in it than someone managing a business financed by a hedge manager for a superannuation fund. How could you not be?

You can’t come home from farming and just switch it off. You don’t clock out at 5pm on a Friday and just blank it out until Monday morning. It’s always there, ticking away. And when it’s going wrong, like it did in 2010, the pressure is enormous. Working seven days a week, in horrendous conditions, steadily, inexorably losing ground. Watching nature laugh in your face, mock you for thinking you had some control over anything. And after endless weeks of that, the pressure got too much, and it broke me.

I hadn’t actually realised it until listening to the woman at the Hope Walk talk about big losses, but part of getting myself through the first episode had been learning to step back and not be quite as invested in it as I was. That will be why I managed to get through the 2013 drought without a relapse – which I was deadly afraid would happen at the time, and that fear added to the already intense pressure of the drought itself. But I’d stepped back, and wasn’t quite so emotionally tied into it, and I got through. I fed 5,500 sheep maize silage on 10 hectares for two and a half months. It was mind-bending stuff, but I coped.

And that’s why this one has rocked me so much. Because although we only dated reasonably briefly, I had come to care about her more than anything else in my life. More than the farm, more than my dogs, more than all of it put together. I wasn’t just heavily invested in it. I was completely, 100% invested in it. And when it went wrong, I went with it. As every interaction between us this year went wrong, I was right there, riding the trend. Going down with the ship, into the vortex to the bottom of the ocean. When one final text went wrong on the 23rd of March, I hit that rocky bottom, and my ship splintered into pieces. I couldn’t do it any more, realised I had to open up about it, and wrote that first blog. I’m still invested in it, and scratching my head about how I’m going to manage to step back from this one.

I ran into her on Wednesday, just a few hours before meeting my new psychologist. A chance encounter, in a shopping mall, both of us away from our home towns. And it went well. We stopped for a moment and chatted, as you do, and it was friendly, and smiley, and good-natured. It was our first in-person interaction this year, which helped – as well as two people might know each other, things can get distorted when all communication is digital. I’d made things out in my head to be a lot worse than they actually were. It was so good to see her, to see her smile at me, to hear her voice and look into her eyes. It’s been a bit of a setback in terms of now missing her terribly again, and wanting to make contact, and I’ve been low these last two days, which is why I’m unsure about this blog. Maybe I’ve got the tone a bit wrong. But this is where I am. More aware of myself, more understanding of what I need to do. And with the right help around me now to achieve that. Just because I asked for it.

Shining a Light

That went a bit crazy. I thought I was writing a blog for my friends, and maybe a few friends of friends they would add in. It would just be a fortnightly thing, a bit of release, a bit of explanation, to a handful of people. When I gave it to the NZ Farming page to share, I thought it might gather 100 likes, 20 comments. It might, at best, reach 300 people. It was worth it, I figured, because I might be able to help two or three people at those sorts of numbers. But the sheer level of response makes me feel a slightly more expeditious second blog was required.

3600 people reacted to that post. It was shared over 700 times, and by the time Stuff, the Herald and The Project picked it up would have reached nearly half a million people in total. Insane. I was playing with matches, and lit a wildfire. It really hit a nerve. Seeing my pictures on TV nearly made me physically ill, but I had Mark Sainsbury talking openly about suicide during prime time. Suddenly I’m a pseudo-ambassador for rural mental health. I never expected, never dreamed, it would become so big, so fast. I’m just a really ordinary guy. I never expected to be national f*cking news. The power of social media, harnessed for good. I never actually dreamed the problem was so big, so widespread. So common. How can something this common still be so taboo in modern society? Aren’t we meant to be a more accepting bunch these days?

Writing that first post, and probably even more so the reaction to it, has helped tremendously. I feel lighter – it’s taken a lot of weight off my mind. I’m not so bogged down. The offers of help, in many forms, from so many people, across the country and even around the world – it was extremely humbling. And when my pride is what got me into this jam, being humbled like that, on such a scale, was probably what I needed. But the most touching were the messages. Strangers, writing to tell me that after reading this, they were going to talk to someone. And the ones who just quietly tagged their mates in the comments, with a gentle, “I think you should read this.” What an experience, to have caused that. I barely slept that night, sitting on the couch in tears at what the post had become.

The hardest question I got, once from an aunty and once from a stranger, was, “How do we help? Tell us how.” And that really stopped me in my tracks. Here I was, telling you all I was reaching out and asking for help. But what did that mean? What was I actually asking for? Could I put that into specific words, in a way that could be understood by someone wanting to help, but with no personal experience of depression? What was it I needed?

I thought on that, carefully. And what I needed most was simply the freedom to be having a bad time. I’m exhausted from trying to appear positive. The keeping up appearances, maintaining the façade – it’s draining. It saps us of all our energy, energy we don’t have to spare, energy we need to be putting toward healing ourselves. I think, when having to put it into words like this, that’s why such a great proportion of people going through depression withdraw from those around them.

Beyond that, what I needed, what people with depression need, is understanding. Acceptance. To know we won’t be judged, or pressured. We need you to realise that we’re going to be irrational now and then. That socialising is often too hard – we can barely deal with ourselves let alone other people. Having to sit and smile all the way through dinner is impossible. We’re living minute to minute, holding our breath, trying not to blink in case we burst into tears in front of everyone. We need you just to be there when it falls apart, when we fall apart, so we know there’s somewhere we can go, someone we can talk to. Someone we don’t have to pretend that everything is fine with.

The stupid thing is, I had all of that. It was sitting there, waiting. My family, my friends, they would have given me that at any moment, if I’d just asked them. If I’d just let them know.

I do stress though, this is only my answer. Depression affects everyone differently, and other people may have different needs from those around them to get through. So I’m going to throw this question open – it’s better 100 people try to answer it than just me. What do you need? How can people help? Let’s help those that want to help us, understand how to do so.