Try God and con­ser­vatism to qui­eten trou­bled minds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ian McFar­lane

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.

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