My fish are dead: the black dog ate them (an explanation?)

[This blog post ended up being too long and way too pointless. It was meant to be a simple statement that I’ve just been diagnosed with a depression disorder again — the black dog being a familiar visitor, of course, but recently more seriously, so I wanted to tell friends and colleagues why things might have seemed a bit erratic — but it took on a bizarre 1000-word life of its own. So that’s the main facts dealt with, right here in the preface. But do feel free to read the post — provided you’ve got nothing better to do with your time. Or you like cartoon fish.]

No, see, that solution is for a different problem than the one I have: click for Allie Brosh's original articleDepression is such an ankle of a thing, and it’s a thing that I’ve got. “Ankle”, you ask? Yeah, it’s an old Australian expression, one that has even been discussed in the NSW Supreme Court. Yes, Depression is an ankle of a thing. It’s three feet lower than a cunt.

That’s certainly set the tone, hasn’t it, boys and girls!

It’s been that kind of a week. Or two weeks. Or a month. Two months? Longer? Yes. Two and a half years, actually. Maybe even longer than that. I really don’t know.

So here’s the story…

You don’t always notice when Depression steadily, stealthily infiltrates every crevice of your mind, leeching out the colour and joy and inspiration. (It’s an ankle of a thing, but it still deserves a capital letter, right? Respect.) And when you live by yourself, as I have for most of the last two and a half years, you don’t notice when your routine drifts out of step. There’s no-one to raise an eyebrow at your increasingly bad habits.

Being a freelancer, rather than an employee working within some sort of structure, makes it worse.

No, you only notice when — eventually, inevitably — you do some utterly fucked-up thing that slams reality back into your face like an unplanned pregnancy.

“Well that’s fucked,” you think. “What the fuck made me do that utterly fucked-up thing? That’s utterly fucked up!”

Then you spend the next few hours, or days, staring into the abyss. Shaking is also traditional at this point. And pacing. Also, not pacing, but just sitting.

As you’ve probably guessed, all this is leading to the fact that I’ve recently done one of these utterly fucked-up things. One night last week, in fact, although it was more a thing I said rather than a thing I did.

I still have no idea how the conversation went where it did. I had no plan or intention to go there. The specifics aren’t important to anyone but those directly involved, so I won’t be telling you what actually happened. In any event, there are… memory gaps.

Planned or not, the next morning I was in full utterly-fucked-up abyss-staring mode and thinking, upon reflection, that maybe the familiar old black dog had recently been a bit more vicious than usual, and perhaps even more than I’d realised. Maybe I should check that out.

So I did check that out, using the K10 Depression and Anxiety Checklist, a standard diagnostic tool. The result was “high”. It “strongly recommended” that I see my GP or someone. And it listed crisis counselling line numbers.

“Orly?”, I thought.

So I went to my GP and told him the score.

“Orly?”, he said.

I detect a pattern here.

And so began a “management process”, as the euphemism goes. Familiar territory, yes, but it still means an erratic few weeks ahead as the mind is re-tweaked back to more appropriate levels of serviceability. The fucking things should come with a service manual, you know!

So why am I telling you all this highly personal stuff? Two reasons.

Firstly, it saves me having to tell the story over and over again. I can just point people here to explain why Things Did Not Get Done in recent times.

Secondly, and more importantly, because men are less likely to talk about their state of mind, and that increases the risk that their depression or anxiety will go unrecognised and untreated.

Depression is a high risk factor for suicide and, in Australia, there are approximately 2,200 suicides each year. 80 per cent are by men — with an average of 5 men taking their lives every single day. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 44, significantly exceeding the national road toll.

To be clear, I was not and am not suicidal. I mean, everyone standing on the platform at North Sydney station of a late afternoon wonders, every now and then, what it might be like to take that one small and oh-so-easy step into the path of an approaching train, right? Surely it wouldn’t hurt that much. And anyway, the train drivers get counselling afterwards so it’s all cool.

Sigh. That was a joke, OK?

But look, my point is that us blokes should know better, yet we never learn. That’s not so smart.

Over the years, I’ve experienced a handful of somewhat disruptive episodes of Depression, or anxiety, or post traumatic stress disorder, or whatever label you think it needs to give your life a coherent narrative. I’m certainly familiar with the process of going into the hole, and the process of finding my way out again.

So you’d think that when I began 2011 in fear; then had one cat fall gravely ill and, soon after, I chose to end her life; then launched into accommodation unknown; then the other cat escaped from his lodgings, never to be seen again; then I had questions about my media work; then saw budget cuts; then there were more questions and declining revenue; and all the while, in parallel, Certain Personal Matters caused difficulties about which I do not speak — with all of this, do you think I saw the need for corrective action, and took it?


Because the complete ankle of a thing that Depression is, it just doesn’t work that way.

You don’t notice until you’re all the way back in that full utterly-fucked-up abyss-staring mode again.

Guys, it’s not the way you should be doing it. I was once told that as you get older, the responsible thing to do is help teach the next generation. If you can’t be a role model, then at least serve as a dire warning.

Anyway, so here I am. The diagnosis and choosing to start fixing things is the most important step. I’ll attempt to undo the damage caused by the utterly fucked-up thing. I’ll start dealing with the disruption the Depression itself has caused — mostly that’s about doing some actual planning for my future, instead of just letting things drift along. Whether I continue with status reports or not has yet to be decided.

OK, this blog post just runs out now. There isn’t a proper ending. So I’ll finish by saying thank you to Nurse Tina, who introduce me to Hyperbole and a Half, a blog about Depression (mostly) by Allie Brosh. That’s her image up the top. If you read her posts Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two you’ll get a bit of an idea of what Depression is actually like. The second one is where the fish reference comes from.

Useful Resources

  • beyondblue, “an independent, not-for-profit organisation working to increase awareness and understanding of depression and anxiety in Australia and to reduce the associated stigma”.
  • The Black Dog Institute, “a world leader in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder”.
  • A Table of the Common Logarithm.
  • Coal.

Update 13 July 2013: I’ve had a couple suggestions for things to add to the resource list. They are:

  • If you seriously need another human to talk to right now, try Lifeline. In Australia, they’re on 13 11 14, and there are equivalents in most countries. Seriously, they’ve heard it all, and the voice of someone not in your own head can help.
  • Depression runs rife amongst geeks. If this matches your profile, try BlueHackers.

“Unplanned pregnancy”?

It’s an odd simile, no? Well, I was stuck for inspiration. I didn’t want “slapped in the face like a wet fish”, and when I consulted Google it wasn’t terribly helpful.

Google slap screenshot: see text for explanation

So I asked on Twitter, “‘[an event] that slams reality back into your face like an X’, sure, but what is X?”, and got suggestions including anvil, meteor, X-TREME [huh?], my balls, slice of lemon wrapped etc, rake in grass, unplanned pregnancy.

“I think I might go with an unplanned pregnancy. Thank you, @shipw,” I tweeted.

[Illustration: An image from Allie Brosh’s post Depression Part Two at Hyperbole and a Half, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.]

11 Replies to “My fish are dead: the black dog ate them (an explanation?)”

  1. Stil, as someone not entirely unfamiliar with your tale, with a tale of my own (though rather less complex than yours, I reckon), and as someone who’s at least a bit of a friend in passing, I am here (as I expect many of those you know are).

    Well done for laying it out there.

    You know where to find me.

  2. Hi

    I’m sorry things are shit for you right now. I wrote something similar a few weeks backs back but took it down because…argh…feelings. Maybe you’ll keep your post up and maybe you’ll write some more about depression but if you don’t, that’s cool.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I hope you find something that helps you feel more like you again as I like reading your posts and if you jumped in front of a train I’d have to read something else and I’m to tired and old to form new attachments to people I’ve never met.

  3. This is good reading; a useful place to point my people when starting a conversation about related concerns.

    Coal is a useful resource, I agree, but I cannot believe you think that your readers need it.

  4. Thanks, good people. I’ve received quite a few compliments about this post on Twitter too. But from now, I won’t do endless individual thank-yous, unless there’s some specific point I want to respond to, because they tend to get a bit tedious to read. But they are certainly appreciated.

  5. “The fucking things should come with a service manual, you know!” Too right.

    Looking at a table of logarithms for the first time in a long time brought a melancholic smile to my face.

    1. Sir,
      You are clearly stuck in a quagmire of self pity, and use your cleverness to deal with that. Although this may at times be pithy and overly self focused – it is an excellent coping mechanism – and shows me how you handle the “black dog”. This is a good thing.
      PS is vulgarity really necessary?
      My interpretation
      Steve Campbell Grant

  6. get healthy soon. ankle hey. I assumed it was because the foot and ankle were so poorly engineered.

  7. Mate, this is a well written piece about a conversation, that is still considered taboo in many circles (which drives me insane). This stuff should be spoken about. It should be out there for other people to be able to relate to and understand that notion that seems so far away when coping with depression – that we are not alone in this fight.

    Like many others, I know too well the feeling of falling down the rabbit hole that seems so deep to ever climb back out from. So I can relate very much to this piece. But I’m also living proof that it can happen. As are many others.

    Having started an anti-bullying / suicide prevention foundation – I see so much of this (in young people) and then am told not to use certain language, words or responses because it is ‘taboo’ …. (of course, they get the middle finger and I continue to grow the foundation without them. Successfully.)

    You have many friends online (and offline) to call on, to remind you, like we do at our foundation – that you are not alone. I am more than happy to be a listening stranger. Feel free to ping.

    Very proud of you having the balls to stick this up in a public forum, helps get the conversation going – even if ‘they’ continue to detract from this important topic. We need more of these conversations. We need them now.

    And remember – don’t drop anchor here mate. No need to force when you leave this place, just need to remember it is not permanent.


  8. I just realised that I haven’t responded to these comments. I might as well do it now. Here we go.

    Overall, I don’t think it’s particularly brave or bold to have posted this. I guess that’s because it isn’t the first time that it’s come up in public, and there’s still plenty of detail that’s been kept private. In a way, it’s even a weakness, because I have a tendency to turn everything into a nice, neat packaged-up narrative that I can then use to explain away the need to actually make the dramatic changes that might be needed in my life. So in another sense, I’m a coward.

    All that said, I’m really pleased to have heard, here and elsewhere, that a few people have found this post useful. Thank you all.

    Only two individual responses at this time…

    @Steve Grant: I don’t know that I’d characterise things as “self pity”, ‘cos to my ear that term matches the Macquarie Dictionary gloss: “exaggerated or self-indulgent pity for oneself, or exaggeration of one’s misfortunes”.

    I do vent some of my daily frustrations for comic effect, but depression goes way beyond the self-indulgent kind of “woe is me” stuff that might be seen as being under an individual’s control. I hope I haven’t misread your meaning.

    As for “vulgarity”, well, I’ve long been a proponent of using the full gamut of resources available in the language, including the power of the taboo words. That viewpoint goes back thirty years or more to when I studied linguistics and started this media “career”.

    I’ve written about this stuff before, so I won’t repeat my explanation for these sorts of language choices, though the only piece I can find quickly is Twitter Discourse 1: Fuck off, swearing is my birthright. I never did write part two.

    I can also recommend a couple episodes of the excellent Lexicon Valley podcast, namely Who You Callin’ A**hole? and A Brief History of Swearing.

    I’m not sure whether you chose the term “vulgarity” deliberately, as opposed to “obscenity” or “profanity”, but in the first of those two podcasts they note:

    Vulgarity was a very broad term for Victorians and referred to any kind of word or practice that was not strictly speaking what one ought to do in a social sense. But over the course of the 20th century, it became narrowed by and large to refer to words that were associated with the speech of the lower classes or working people.

    I’ve always reacted strongly to the essentially class-based put-down of “vulgarity”. At its worst, it was a mechanism for excluding the common people from political debate. But that’s by the by.

    Whether it’s “really necessary” in this post was an editorial decision, and I went with the power of my emotions at the time of writing. I’m happy with that decision here on my own website. I wouldn’t make the same decision if it were someone else’s patch.

    @Arjen Lentz: BlueHackers is an excellent suggestion. I shall add it to the body of the post, along with a couple of other things people have told me about elsewhere. Stand by.

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