May 3, 2018
My black dog can’t swim
My name is Judith, and I’m in my mid-forties. When I was a teenager the Black Dog of depression started hanging around and, after a while, became a regular visitor in my life.
As I got older and faced some common life challenges, like starting university and living away from home during the week, the Black Dog made his presence felt more acutely and more frequently. By the end of my fourth year of medical school, having been exposed to life and death in all its complexity, I realised that what was happening to me was more than “just stress”.
I sought help, initially without the knowledge of my friends or family as I was too ashamed to admit I was struggling, and I didn’t want to worry them. I was diagnosed with Major Depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder and started treatment with medications. Unfortunately, my particular Black Dog is rather stubborn and tenacious, and over the 24 years since then has become more and more resistant to treatment – whatever form that has taken.
This has resulted in times of feeling hopeless, useless and worthless (for example, my capacity to work has been significantly affected and I have lost my job and career, more than once). Frighteningly, for an intelligent, usually rational person, this has led to thoughts of suicide as a valid option for dealing with the situations I’ve found myself in.
Thankfully, over the years I have developed a significant amount of resilience (a.k.a. I can be stubborn too!) and when I’m in that dark place I know I need to reach out for help – and keep doing so until I find things that work, even if it is only for a while.
So where does exercise fit into this story?
To be honest, I’ve never been one for playing sport or exercising, mainly because I had other interests, but also because I felt awkward, embarrassed and clumsy at most things I tried. I’d obey the directives of my doctors, psychologists and physiotherapists to exercise by walking, but I didn’t enjoy it and was motivated primarily by people pleasing and guilt.
Then, about four years ago, I tried aqua aerobics. I found it was something I could actually do, in that I could usually keep up with the instructor (when I couldn’t, nobody could see anyway), and that made me feel good in itself. I started getting to the pool early and swimming laps before the class, and discovered that doing so mindfully – concentrating on each stroke and breath – cleared my mind of the noise of negative thoughts.
I began to enjoy exercising, and now I look forward to the class times I schedule in my diary to make sure that I don’t book something else in at that time. Even when the Black Dog looms large again and steals my motivation and desire, I choose to keep going because, for a while at least, I felt better for it.
What I’ve realised is: MY BLACK DOG CAN’T SWIM!
The pool is a place where I can get away for a bit. Move my body, clear my mind, feel okay.
I encourage you – if you live with a Black Dog, or any other mental health diagnosis, or if you simply find yourself struggling with, or overwhelmed by, life in general (work, relationships, finances, study etc.), then reach out for support, seek professional help if needed, and find ways to build and maintain your mental wellbeing.
Exercise is a great way to do this and can take any form you like. Find something you enjoy and that makes you feel good. It can be as simple as doing some hand weights or pilates exercises in your living room, joining a dance group, or even getting outside for a walk.
Finally, a quick word about the picture that accompanies this story
I asked a friend’s four year old to make a picture for me of a sad looking black dog next to a swimming pool or other body of water. My friend reports that he “enjoyed the painting” and “was very happy when he heard that it [would] be used to help people who feel sad”. I love this compassionate response and the painting he produced. I hope you do too.
If you or anyone you know needs support in a crisis contact Lifeline 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467. In a life threatening emergency call 000.
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