My black dog: depression and my photography – by Rob Davie
Please be aware that some subjects and depictions in this story may be uncomfortable reading. I make no apology for that, but please go into this with your eyes open. At the bottom of the article are a number of contacts that can help if you find yourself in the kind of situation that I describe, or worse. Please use them.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression in my early 20s and it’s something that has been a part of my life ever since. Depression is not sadness. Depression is many things but sadness, it is not. Depression to me is emptiness, rage, hatred, fatigue and worry. But mostly emptiness.
The condition of depression is often referred to as a Black Dog. Winston Churchill used the phrase when talking about his depression and it has stuck because it’s quite evocative and describes well the idea of having a pet following you around. Sometimes he jumps into your lap for a cuddle, sometimes he growls for no apparent reason, and sometimes he runs off and chases birds only to reappear when you least expect it.
I was a good boy
My grandfather died in the early 80’s and I at the tender age of 7 or 8 was given his Pentax KX 35mm camera. My dad already has his own camera, an Olympus OM10 that is currently in my camera bag and although I hadn’t known my grandparents very well, I was a “good boy” and they knew I would look after it.
This was the start of my love affair with photography, although I can’t remember actually putting any film through it. I loved holding it and working the mechanism. I found comfort and peace in racking the film winder and clicking the aperture ring around slowly. I would frame and click with no film inside just for the pure enjoyment of it.
I think that even at this early age I had the beginnings of the mental struggles that would come to the fore much later and the camera was my comfort and safety.
I don’t know what happened to that camera; there have been various points in my life where I have thrown out many precious belongings while in various states of fugue or rage, so it almost certainly went to the bin men in one or another of those purges.
When I was at school I would have week-long periods of not getting out of bed, barely waking up. My mother put them down to “growth tiredness” or something similar. This continued a few times a year up into my early teens then stopped. No-one thought any more of it until I was in my early 20s.
The reality of what was affecting me came almost out of nowhere. The black dog that is still my pet, confidant and “ultimate frienemy” found me. My Black Dog was awake.
I was still living at home with my parents and had my then fiance over. I can’t remember what we were doing at the time but I do remember just closing off the outside world and starting to cry. I can recall waves of emotions – fear was the strongest – although I couldn’t then and still couldn’t now tell you what exactly I was afraid of.
My teeth clenched until my jaw hurt, my hands formed into tight fists and my arms were pulled tight into my chest, which itself felt like it was full of rocks. When I have a bad episode like this, I also stop breathing and need to be “talked down” to start again. It’s like I am trying to make myself as small as possible and deny my existence to the world. Thankfully it doesn’t happen very often now, but it’s terrifying when it does.
Very quickly my parents appeared and I was whisked off to the doctor who thankfully was brilliant and recognised what was going on. I started therapy soon after and my first course of antidepressants.
I stabilised after a few weeks and my fiance and I we went on to be married, buy a house, hate living together, separate and ultimately get divorced. I know that my condition was partly to blame but it was only one factor.
It is bloody hard to live with someone with depression.
Around the same time, I bought myself a Minolta Vectis S-1 APS camera. APS was a brand new format of film and produces (produces?) a 24mm wide frame. It was (is?!) “smart” in that it loaded itself, it didn’t have a leader sticking out of the can and was all handled by motors and codes on the can and in the camera. You could also take three formats with it, although two were just crops of the first. It was fun and felt very futuristic in the mid-1990s.
My Black Dog was still with me and it was about this time that I started hiding a kitchen knife under my bed. Not for protection, it was in case I woke up with the strength of will to use it on myself. I would lay in bed with my head over the side of my bed looking at it, trying to build up the courage to slice into part of myself or to plunge it into my heart or belly. I hated myself twice over those nights, first in general due to the depression and second because and I despised myself for being a coward. a coward for not removing myself from the world and saving everyone the trouble of having to put up with me.
I felt like I was letting everyone down by continuing to inflict my pointless self upon them.
My Black Dog, trouble at home and ultimately separating from my wife…one massive positive came out of this period: I spent more time with my camera than with any person and happened to learn a little bit about what I liked to photograph.
Hello, my name is Rob and I am a taphophile
It may sound a bit twee and “depressed goth” but I really like graveyards and memorials.
It’s called Taphophillia, although most people start reaching for the phone to dial the police if you mention it as such. To me they are peaceful places where no one bothers you. I remember being very jealous of the occupants and wondering about my atheism, wishing I believed in something, anything that might encourage me to take that step into the afterlife, even if it was eternal purgatory.
I used to get up at dawn and walk to the nearest large cemetery with my Minolta and occasionally my dad’s OM10 and spend a few hours there. This was the beginning of my interest in the artistic side of photography and the earliest photographs that I would call fine art come from those trips.
I came to love the textures of the gravestones and the skill in the lettering. I would read hundreds of inscriptions on these trips, often trying to infer something about the interred from what it said, trying to imagine their life. It was so much more enjoyable doing that than thinking about mine.
I got made redundant not long after 9/11 and over the course of a year or so had a few short-term jobs (I was a taxation consultant at the time), all the while sliding further into darkness before one day, having a massive breakdown in my car in a car park in Leeds.
I couldn’t make myself get out of the car and go into work. Over the course of an hour or so I talked myself into calling my parents and begged them to let me move home. I don’t know what would have happened if they had said no. Options vying for attention included walking up onto the moors and just walking until I fell over and couldn’t move.
Talking (writing) about this always makes me feel like a massive drama queen.
Tangent: that “drama queen” thing…
There are literally MILLIONS of people on this planet in a much worse place than me. How many will die of starvation by the time you have read this? How many of disease? How many are being tortured, are fighting a war for their homeland, are going blind and deaf?
The thing is, the Black Dog isn’t logical or based in any way upon ACTUAL circumstances. If you have such a pet your thought processes are affected, the very person you are is affected.
You could be the richest person on the planet and you would feel worthless. You could be a gorgeous hunk or a starlet and you would feel like a sack of potatoes and that everyone was laughing at you. It is all inside your head, inside my head.
The real kicker is that it doesn’t matter if you know it, it’s still there affecting you.
It has taken me a lot of therapy and time (and a lot of the time, medication) to be able to see what’s going on and then decide to do something about it (see Cognitive Behavior Therapy) – 20 years later I am starting to get better at it…
Losing my religion
After the incident in Leeds and eventually moving in with my parents, I lost all interest in everything and didn’t pick up a camera again for 8, maybe 10 years. The Minolta disappeared somewhere, the OM10 went back to my dad (although I have it again now).
I didn’t take another photograph until picking up a refurbished Canon Digital Rebel in the late noughties: my first and only venture into Digital SLR photography. It provided me with the images on the first half or so of my Flickr account. The last thing I want to do is get into the age-old argument, but suffice to say that I didn’t get the same pleasure from the Canon as I now do from my Mamiya or Canon Ftb QL.
I took quite a few photographs with that Rebel over the following five years or so, and quite enjoyed it. My creative side came along a bit thanks to how easy it is to experiment with digital at zero cost besides time.
It’s difficult to give too many details about this time as my memory is almost non-existent. It was during these years that my vinyl went, I imagine in another much-regretted purge. The run-up to the present day is thankfully much more positive. I have a wonderful fiance who is a fellow “Black Dog owner” and we are raising her awesome daughter together.
It’s not all bad times or: my black dog training programme
The original idea/thought/concept/motivation behind this article was to talk about how photography is a balm for my depression and how it helps me cope. I have touched on that occasionally in the two and a half thousand or so words that make up this article but this isn’t how I had planned this article going – it’s much more of a stream of consciousness than I envisaged. In this case, I believe that’s a good thing.
What I love about film photography, what helps me, and what is absolutely invaluable to someone in my position is concentration. The ability to absolutely lose yourself in something is both a bliss and a refuge.
Regardless of how you feel about digital photography, it simply does not require the same level of input that film does, not for me. Importantly, I’m not saying that digital photography can’t provide the same type of help. It’s more that it doesn’t help me. For example, not having a built-in light meter (or a reliable one) necessitates a handheld one, which is more to learn, more to do, more to get lost in. Having only 36 or 24 or 16 or 12 or 1 shot available means that the time you take on each goes up exponentially. If nothing else the cost implications of a “spray and pray” attitude are downright scary!
It’s a balancing act and not all roses and unicorns. Before I can get the enjoyment out of a photography trip I still need to climb the mountains of pointlessness and fear. No picture I could ever take will ever match up to this one I just saw on Twitter so why bother? We all have that don’t we?
Imagine that thought stopping you from even touching a camera for half a year. Then there is the fear that you are selfish and a terrible partner and father for wanting to do something so solitary (complete rubbish, she loves it when I disappear for a day :p). It’s normal stuff I now know, but magnified to a ridiculous size and so difficult to get over.
But look, when I do get over those feelings, it’s wonderful.
Creativity and depression have always been closely linked, and I find that the more time I spend exercising my creativity the less my Black Dog gets to determine how my life goes. It can be a bit of a struggle to start, to get out of the house, to buy film, but it all fades away pretty quickly once I have a subject in front of me and I start thinking about how to take the picture.
As a child, I loved turning that aperture dial and what made it enjoyable to me then makes it enjoyable to me now. Using the battleship (my RB67) is slow and deliberate and such joy. The noise the mirror makes puts a smile on my face, the resistance of the cocking lever as the gears wind that enormous slab of glass and silver back up feels so “right”. Getting those huge negatives back from the lab and firing up Lightroom/Photoshop to get the best out of them (or see where you went wrong….) is such a pleasure too.
Continuing the theme of the positive impact of film photography on my life, as part of the editing process for this article, EM asked me to think about what I could say about the good times. How does photography help extend the good times or how it has helped deal with bad. I thought this was a great idea so I started giving it a lot of thought. I was surprised when I found this really difficult. When I have a bad time, the last thing I think about is picking up a camera. It’s all I can do to remember to breathe and to think straight.
I realised that -for me – it’s not a tool for recovery, it’s a tool for prevention. The time I spend on photography is time that I can pretty much guarantee is free of the effects of depression. It does have a knock-on effect through the process of sending the film away to be processed and scanned – I can usually think of little else for that week whilst I wait for the negatives to come back!
Apart from being a useful and cathartic exercise for me, I am hoping that this article will help someone out. If even one person reading this identifies with anything here and talks about it with someone then I will be overjoyed. Talking about depression is the key to overcoming it. Making it a real thing that can be fought rather than a bogeyman that can’t is a massive help in coping with the Black Dog.
Thanks for reading.
A final word and some useful resources
EM here. For over two years I have been in conversation with a handful of photographers living with mental health challenges ranging from depression and long-term grief, to PTSD and substance addiction. Much of these conversations have been guided from the perspective of how photography has helped transform them for the better or at the very least, stop their slide further into darkness.
The topics Rob’s dealt with here did not suddenly appear on the page. Although the process has been cathartic for him, it is not always that way. Getting to the point where you are able to think about putting thought to paper can be harder than writing the first word, and in the case of this article, some of Rob’s words above may leave you shocked, cold or confused. This is the story of Rob’s reality and I have done little to tone it down – that would go against the purpose of inviting him to write about it.
On a personal level, it is important to me to keep these stories visible, both as a tool that people can use to relate to, and from the perspective of awareness of mental health in our community. I hope it helps in its own way.
There are thousands of accessible resources, services, charities and other organisations globally, which you can use to find out more about mental health issues such as depression or reach out to for assistance.
The links below to discover just a few of them.
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