There’s no easy, gentle way to write it. Just as there’s no easy, gentle way to live with crippling depression and being bipolar.
Anne* and I grew up together, but weren’t exceptionally close. My Nanna and Pa lived up the road from her parents, so when we’d visit, we’d walk down the street to the park and all play together with my cousin, Karen. I was in awe of Anne’s crimped blonde hair, dazzling blue eyes and the enviable wardrobe of gelato pastels for which the 1980s were, and are, famous.
I was thrilled to get her shoulder padded, hand-me-down clothes, delighted when she shared her Revlon cotton candy frosted lipstick. Down at the park and milk bar, boys flirted with her, but she was always kind and never left my side. Quite simply, she was everything I wanted to be.
We reconnected via Facebook just before Karen died of leukaemia. Our grief united us and we found ourselves talking about old times with Anne laughing to hear how much I had idolised her… she honestly had no idea… and how we all loved Bon Jovi, especially the song ‘Livin’ on a prayer’. But there was always something under her laughter …a brittleness…a fragile veneer of faux happiness. I recognised the same symptoms I’d seen and experienced from close friends, family, colleagues. She was fighting the Black Dog. And sometimes, despite her brave words, I knew it took every inch of her strength to fight back and not let it consume her.
I later found out that severe mental health issues ran throughout her maternal line. Her Grandmother and Mother had both tried to take their own lives. Her sister had succeeded.
And then, two days ago, her brother had almost succeeded too. If it hadn’t been for the ocean’s current and an astute, caring onlooker, he would have drowned.
Anne didn’t detail the circumstances publicly but one of the pictures she posted on Facebook showed me she was in a dark place. I private messaged her to see if she was ok. And that’s when she told me.
I knew it wouldn’t be until the next day that the realisation would hit that another one of her siblings had tried to kill themselves. So I reached out again, in fact a part of me felt almost compelled to do so and it wouldn’t have surprised me if Karen hadn’t been micromanaging me from on high, she was always the ringleader of the three of us.
The truth is, the meme people send round of ‘would you stay up all night to talk someone out of suicide?’ is dreadfully simplistic. Of course *most* people would. But the biggest fear during that exchange is that you’ll say the wrong thing, and unwittingly unleash the black dog to devour them whole.
But it soon became apparent I didn’t need to fear releasing her black dog. All she needed was some help tugging on the leash and holding him back.
So, I just pmed how loved, valued and needed Anne was. I told her she wasn’t alone, and I’d chat or talk to her on the phone, whatever she preferred, for as long as was needed.
Why wasn’t I on the phone? I wanted to call her, so she could hear my voice and so I could hear hers. But my son was running screaming around the house, demanding he could stay up, demanding his iPad, demanding more milk, demanding, demanding. My husband had it covered, but Anne had already expressed that she was being ‘a burden’ and that I needed to ‘get back to my family’. Nope. They could wait. I had decided she didn’t need to hear our nightly chaos in the background when she was fighting her own internal battle.
The conversation was taking a dark turn so I took a risk, and dared to say Anne’s parents, sister and Karen weren’t ready to see her yet. Anne quite rightly pointed out that if Karen did see her ‘she would have given her a kick up the arse and sent her right back again.’ And we sent Lols through bits and bytes, talking about our memories of Karen, about how she and I fought over who would marry Michael J Fox, and how devastated I was when I finally realised he was much, much shorter than me… and, so, heartbroken, I had to declare Karen his future wife.
It broke up the underlying tension that we knew what was potentially at stake during our entire conversation- her life. I knew what she was considering. But
Anne knew I wasn’t going to let that happen without a fight.
But I also knew, and in an odd way respected, that this was her Black Dog. She was still here because she had learnt how to keep it on a leash, snarling and snapping, but restrained. And I had to trust she could do so again. But I also wanted her to know that she didn’t have to do it alone.
So I made her a deal. I asked for her to keep her crisis numbers nearby. I asked for her address and mobile. I told her I was going to have a shower. A long one. I told her while I did that I expected her to listen to Bon Jovi and dance her arse off like it was 1988. When I got out of the shower I would pm her. If I didn’t have a response by the third time, I would call 000. She agreed.
I did take a long, hot shower. I washed my hair. I thought of Anne constantly, but I also didn’t want it to look like I didn’t trust her to manage her own medical condition. So I didn’t pm her for 30 minutes. It was a long 30 minutes.
‘So…you still dancin?’
I paused. No response.
‘Cos if you take my hand, we’ll make it I swear…😜’
I’ve never been quite so relieved to see those three typing dots appear. Anne replied,
‘Not dancing, but in bed with the dog and cat ‘Whoaaa ohhhhhhh Livin’ on a prayer!’
She had won another battle against the relentless Black Dog. And I was so, so proud of her.
Unless you have lived with the Black Dog, or loved someone who has, you can never understand just what a heavy burden it is to hold it up and keep it back. Chances are, that damn canine will never completely leave your side. But with help, you can give it a strong leash. And when you feel the leash start to slip, or snap, then please, reach out. To a friend. To family. To Lifeline or Beyond Blue. I know that reaching out for that help can take as much courage as fighting the dog.
But in your darkest moments, please remember:
You are loved.
You are valued.
You are needed.
Above all, remember you don’t need to face the Black Dog alone.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Three million Australians live with depression or anxiety. If you, or someone you love needs help please consider contacting Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or LifeLine on 13 11 14.