Try God and conservatism to quieten troubled minds
Taming the Black Dog
By Kevin Donnelly Connor Court Publishing, 80pp, $19.95 MORE than 100 years after first seriously considering the unconscious mind, we’ve split the atom, walked on the moon and created cyberspace, but we still have trouble understanding mental illness, and why its insidious reality is increasing. There are various reasons — the human brain is fearfully complex, with many symptoms of something as serious as clinical depression, for example, being largely invisible, and difficult to identify, even by experts.
The picture is further clouded by common misconstructions about depression being uniformly the same, rather than always different, and how easily it can be dismissed as ordinary sadness. After all, everyone feels low now and then, don’t they?
Yes, of course, but sadness can be reached; clinical depression is like being sent into exile without leaving home. And while some forms of this malignant condition, such as bipolar (involving dangerously swift mood swings) need to be stabilised by drug medication, others can be managed by cognitive behaviour therapy (basically, challenging negative thoughts) and seren-
May 10-11, 2014 dipitous distractions (which for me — a lifelong victim of clinical depression and chronic anxiety disorder — include long walks, music, books, the empathy of family and friends, and perhaps a glass of good red wine).
Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute, and has written and commentated widely on education issues. His slim memoir, Taming the Black Dog, records an experience of depression triggered by personal tragedy, and managed (or “tamed”) with the comfort of family love and support, judiciously selected lessons from literature and religion; all soundly bolstered by traditional concepts of society. Some of which prompt me to confess — in the interests of comparative perspective — that the confident presumptions of faith and conservative politics have always been anathema to me, as a tenuous agnostic and leftover leftie.
Of course, clinical depression makes no such distinctions, although it is important to remember that the experience is uniquely individual, and crucially configured by personality and background, with a key to recovery being linked to acknowledging this primary truth. In short, whatever the cause and effect, the Black Dog must be owned before it can be tamed, and having the insightful courage to recognise this, as Donnelly obviously does, is worthy of mention.
Donnelly was raised as a Catholic, growing up in 1960s Broadmeadows, when Melbourne’s urban sprawl had yet to reach the “perfect playground for children raised before computers”. His mother was a Catholic; his father a member of the Communist Party; a curiously disparate relationship, giving young Kevin a keenly diverse introduction to life, which BA Santamaria later described as an ideal way to “understand the significance of the ongoing conflict between one of the 20th-century’s most influential ideologies and the teachings of the church”.
However, despite claiming to have “imbibed the Left’s radical agenda” as a youngster, during subsequent years, spanning a teaching career and marriage to Julia, who introduced Donnelly to great sculpture and art, he found increasing motivation to “question cultural-left ideology and causes”, and become “active in the Liberal Party”. The process is questionably justified by a quotation that Donnelly says is attributed “either rightly or wrongly” to Winston Churchill: “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” Churchill was never a socialist, at 20 or any other age, and variations of this quotation (with possibly different interpretation) existed long before his time; as did, incidentally, the use of the Black Dog as a metaphor for depression.
Donnelly’s Black Dog arrived catastrophically on Bastille Day 2002, when Kevin and Julia’s son James was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Donnelly writes with dignity: “How we deal with depression caused by sorrow and loss is different for each one of us. While there are stages of grieving that might be common — shock, numbness, anger, denial, sorrow, resignation, acceptance and healing — how we deal with fate depends on our character, experience of life and the help and influence of those we love.” Indeed. Ian McFarlane’s most recent book, The Shapes of Light, is a collection of poetry.