I have an acute sense of smell. And the truth of the matter is, I stink.
Well here I am, in my Hereford den, poised to relate my adventures. But the black dog has sought to hound me yet again, and that is why my WordPress Tartan Trilogy is still wrapped in its box in my cerebral attic.
I have stolen the black dog metaphor from Winston Churchill because I cannot produce a better one. The hound appears from nowhere, hungry for your soul, thirsty for your life-blood. When you wake up and espy the beast lying at your bedside you cannot escape from him. Loyal as any hound, he follows you wherever you go, and finds his way into the core of your being. In many ways you become the black dog which is haunting you.
Shortly after my return from Scotland I learned that my grandmother had died. I thought that I was coping fairly well with my grief until the black dog bit my ankles and brought me down. Once I was on the ground with his hot breath pumping into my face, I could not get up again.
Over time I have learned that the black dog is not something to fight. He is stronger than I am, and could kill me with one snap of his jaws. Whenever I feel those iron jaws upon me, despite my instinct to fight him off I must reach out to caress and soothe him. As my fingers plunge into his black fur I know that I have to accept this unwelcome visitor. For an unspecified period I will be sharing my life with him – a semi-feral beast who would not be averse to eating me for dinner. If I allow him to stay and treat him with wary respect, I have a better chance of staying alive. For being no ordinary hound, eventually he will tire of me and wander away. The black dog likes to wander.
As I write, the black hound still lurks nearby but he appears to be retreating. As soon as I feel some space between the beast and myself I crawl onto my knees and examine my wounds. The bites have been severe this time, but they are not fatal.
I know that as soon as I regain some inner-strength and optimism he will slide away into the shadows. When I become master of myself, I am master of him also.
So the Tartan Trilogy may well appear fairly soon if the black dog continues his retreat. But right now he is still skulking between me and my mental archives, and I do not wish to lose my fingers.
I have not tended my Blog for a while because I’ve been waiting for a decidedly dark cloud to lift from my mind. It is taking its time – so much so that I have decided to wait no longer. This time of year has always stirred up a malevolent host of demons in my world. The darkening evenings actually seem to suck the life out of me, and I feel myself sinking into hopelessness. Real sink or swim stuff. Yet here I am, still alive enough to write.
When all is well I throw myself into daily life – making plans, embarking on courses, committing to dates and appointments, acting on ideas. Then depression strikes and within days all my excitement has died. I can feel the demon’s claw seizing my spirit and attempting to strangle it. Suddenly I cannot go out, I want to shut myself away from my friends, I lose the motivation to do the simplest tasks, and slowly things begin to fall apart.
So where does Trudy fit into this? My black and white choice is to find somebody to look after her while I wallow in misery, or to stumble onwards and continue caring for her myself. Unable to part with her, I’ve chosen to keep things as they are. The upshot is that I have to continue with a daily routine for Trudy’s sake. That means getting up at the usual time to feed her and take her outside for her “busy busy”. More often than not I meet a neighbour and we spend a few minutes engaging in chit-chat. Having a bouncy Labrador makes it impossible to hide away from the outside world. Thanks to Trudy, the skeleton of my normal routine has remained intact.
I have learned to lower my expectations during times of low mood. My current goal is to survive this rather bleak period and to continue to look after Trudy – not because I have to, but because I want to. The love I have for Trudy makes me glow inside, and even when my mood is dark and I can’t feel the warmth from that glow I know it’s still there. When Trudy bounds over after I’ve popped out for a few minutes, I can feel the glow stirring, and it gives me hope. Trudy is a gift, and the bond we have is a gift. Being on the receiving end of the unconditional love which just spills out of Labradors is very precious.
One of the great things about dogs is that they are so tangible. Trudy’s warm, soft fur has an instant feel-good effect – and that’s before I get to the silky ears, and the wagging tail. Research has proved that stroking animals can increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. In addition it can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and decrease pain. This is why there is an increasing number of Therapy dogs being assigned to hospices and retirement homes. In fact when I have visited such places myself in my capacity as a Speaker, I have witnessed the positive effects that Trudy has had on some of the patients. Trudy is synonymous with Life. Just being around her makes life livable.
Perhaps her ability to inject humour into my bleakest moments is the thing that strikes me most. If Trudy wants to play hide and seek with items from my laundry basket, she won’t take no for an answer no matter how depressed I feel! And the fast-beating thump of her tail has such an upbeat rhythm that my mouth smiles without me even thinking about it. Then there are the numerous feats of Labrador mischief that prove to me how priceless Trudy is, and before long I realise that I’m actually glad to be alive. Sometimes I surprise myself by my own spontaneous laughter – thanks to Trudy. Trudy ignites hope inside me, and hope is what stops people from drowning.
So despite the waves of gloom which permeate my days at the moment, I have the means to stay grounded, focussed and connected with other people. When I’m in the park with Trudy, fellow walkers see the hurtling Labrador before they see me. Even when they notice me and we strike up a conversation they are unaware of my inner struggle. This in itself is a true bonus. Antidepressants can set right the chemical imbalances in your brain, but having a dog like Trudy is a reason for living and thriving. Merely wanting to look after a dog takes your thoughts away from your own troubles. Actually having a dog reduces those troubles to the bare minimum. Trudy’s role as a Guide dog at this time is secondary to her therapeutic role. The very fact that she gives me so much makes me determined to do what I can for her. This has prevented me from caving in on myself.
Trudy provides me with so much more than freedom and mobility. I know she understands me as I do her, and it feels like we’re joined together by something magical. She is not just part of my life, she has become part of me.
Hetty is Britain’s first dual Guide dog and Seizure Alert dog http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/news/uks-first-dual-guide-dog-and-seizure-dog-graduates-with-new-owner/
Children with autism and OCD benefit from assistance dogs http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/giving/11DOGS.html?_r=2&partner=TOPIXNEWS&ei=5099
Therapy dogs in Psychiatric services http://drdeborahserani.blogspot.com/2010/10/therapy-service-dogs.html
I am not a particularly outgoing person, and three years ago you would have had to drag me into a room full of people. Social ease does not come naturally to me. Yet I have learned to present a confident persona largely as a result of my role as a volunteer Speaker.
When I trained with my Guide dog Trudy in 2008 I received the “Qualifying Pack” which all rookie Guide dog owners are given at the end of training. One of the leaflets in this pack gave details about becoming a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs. Something stirred inside me and I wondered if I would be any good at it. After all, I had started out at University wanting to be a Teacher. I love the art of language, and to me a string of well-chosen words beats any fireworks display. This drive to express myself and communicate passionately with others left me in no doubt that I would end up being a Classics Teacher.
But it was not to be. Twenty years after my arrival at Oxford I found myself dwindling in a nursing home, afraid to be seen in public, unsure of who I was. Losing my useful vision at the end of my first year as an undergraduate was the end of my world. The disappointment of having to abandon my degree left me in tatters, and I lost all hope of having a life. The grief I felt took over my mind and dismantled my thoughts. I was unable to function, and thus began my default career as a psychiatric patient. I seriously thought that I would never emerge whole again.
But after many struggles which spanned twenty years I did emerge. Somehow I reached the peak of the mountain, and my reward was Trudy. Training with a Guide dog had been my dream since leaving Oxford. I knew that a dog would free me from the confines of sight loss, so I had to get myself back on track. At the time I did not anticipate that it would take so many years. But Trudy was worth the wait. When I trained with her I had been a resident in the nursing home for seven years, and never envisaged leaving. Trudy literally led me out of the front door and showed me the world outside.
So the leaflet in the Qualifying Pack renewed my sense of purpose and gave me direction. I moved into my own flat and began to seize every opportunity to rekindle the life which had so nearly died inside me. Could I really be a Speaker? Why not! I was extremely apprehensive, for my mental breakdown had stolen my confidence and given me a morbid fear of strangers. Yet I knew that if I didn’t seize this chance I would probably never feel fulfilled. I reasoned that even if it was disastrous, at least I would have given it my best shot.
I expected to have some training in Public Speaking before I was let loose on the public. However this was not the case. After registering as a volunteer for Guide dogs, six months later I received a phone call requesting me to give a talk at a nearby village Primary School. I cannot properly describe the terror which took hold of me as the appointed day grew closer. What was I thinking of?! Me! The semi-reclusive blind woman with a cleft palate speech impediment, giving a talk to a schoolful of kids! I always struggled being part of an audience, so how was I going to address one?
The dire scenarios tormented me for nights on end, but I forced myself to go through with it. When the day came I was relieved to find that most eyes were fixed on Trudy throughout my talk. I was speaking during Assembly to 90 children, but thanks to Trudy the dreaded “spotlight effect” did not take hold of me for long. When I finished my talk the children plied me with excited questions, and I felt so elated that I almost soared into the air. I was alive and free! This first talk was sixteen months ago, and now I am averaging about three talks a month. So in a very round-about way I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a Teacher. The topic of Guide dogs is easily as thrilling as Classics.
As I have grown more confident, my voice has ceased to vibrate uncontrollably as I’m speaking. I forget that I have a cleft palate which affects my pronunciation of certain consonants. Somehow I have learned to project out of myself, and the audiences I speak to rarely get to see the quaking nervous wreck inside the Speaker. I would not say that every talk I give is a success. Recently I came home convinced that my public speaking phase was over, and that I would never have the guts to speak in public again. But I guess the Phoenix within me won’t let my courage die forever. This week I gave another talk in Hereford, and thankfully I hit the right note with the audience. The buzz from a well-received talk fires up your soul and you leap into the clouds feeling literally on top of the world.
One of my favourite books is Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. Zorba’s dance epitomises the phrase “Carpe Diem” – seize the day. His love for the moment and the simple pleasures of life, together with his incredible passion for music, has always struck a deep chord within me. Zorba knows what it means to be free, and is desperate to teach others the essence of freedom. One day I shall visit Crete and when I get there I will dance like Zorba. Sometimes it pays to leap out of your every day life and risk the unknown. Uncertainty gives rise to adventure, self-discovery and possible fulfilment. If it all goes wrong and you find yourself heading over a cliff-edge, then you can always turn round and go back the way you came.