Black Dog, White Wolf

The cat’s just been sick. I’m not sure how relevant that is to my mental health, but you never know what’s gonna come out when you remove the filters…

When I was diagnosed with Cyclothymia a few years ago, it was bittersweet. At last, I had a name for what had been destroying my whole adult life, but at the same time I now knew that it was not a phase, was not circumstantial, would never leave me alone. “Good news: the beast has a name! Bad news, it’s chained to your leg…”

Cyclothymia is related to Bipolar Disorder – its lesser-known little brother, characterised by rapid cycles of depression and hypomania. Less common than Bipolar disorder (but diagnoses are on the rise) it is unpredictable and unrelenting; an exhausting battering to and fro between being a hyper-productive, convivial, electrified king of the world, and a wretched shadow of a person with the self-esteem and motivation of a disused septic tank.

Those days of elation are truly exhilarating! I can sleep no more than five hours a night, bounce out of bed, do three impossible things before breakfast, create masterpieces, charm and excite every person I meet, rip the bones out of life with my bare teeth and suck out the marrow (cyclothymic vegetarians presumably don’t do this last part – I expect they do something clever and nutritious with lentils.) It’s what people imagine they’re doing when they take cocaine, I’m sure.

Then the crash, oh the crash is spectacular. After a few days, a crack appears in the brilliant, brittle glass, and within thirty minutes it suddenly shatters completely. I am bereft. The lights go out, the curtains are drawn, and for days or weeks, I am just a stack of inert meat. Where once there stood a tiger, a sad sloth now sits and rots. When the fire burns twice as fiercely, the darkness left when it burns out is twice as deep.

Two sides of the same capricious coin, such that neither can be seen from the other side; night & day; Jekyll & Hyde; agony and ecstasy.

The Black Dog and the White Wolf.

The thing about the two beasts is that they are both me, but neither recognises the other. The Black Dog knows, it knows that I am lazy, unreliable, unattractive, inconsiderate, and have poor taste in shoes. It knows, it knows that the White Wolf is a neurochemical imposter, some arrogant, jumped-up, shrill and over-confident facade, a lie I tell myself in order to get anything productive done whatsoever, and ultimately it will let me and the people I love down. When I’m depressed, I cannot imagine ever being happy again.

The White Wolf knows though, it knows that this is the real me, the truest expression of who I am, the joyous titan that is admired and admirable, creative and sound – and that the Black Dog is nothing but a neurochemical imposter, some dismal, defeatist, sleep-addled aberration, a lie that tells itself over and over again to keep me down and undo all my hard work. When I’m elated, I cannot conceive of ever succumbing to depression again.

The two beasts ascend and subside, over and over, never really believing that things can be different a week from now, or an hour. The White Wolf achieves monumental things, draws admiration and respect, build relationships and makes ambitious plans.

Gets employed.

The Black Dog smothers everything, draws pity and shame, frays relationships, and is so crippled with anxiety that it can’t even answer the phone to cancel plans, but simply doesn’t turn up.

It gets fired.

This is the worst thing, for me. Aside from the constant loss of hard-won opportunities, aside from the constant drain on my friends and family and partners, aside from the stress of knowing that if I can never earn a reliable income, I can never feel secure… aside from all of that is the knowledge that I can never possess the integrity that is so important to me. Integrity, that allows me to look myself in the eye, that allows those I love to rely on me, to trust me and to confidently turn to me in times of need, and it hurts me more than anything.

Having a name, a diagnosis, allows me to say with some confidence that this will not go away (and believe me, I’ve tried everything), that the coin will keep turning forever and will never come to rest on either face. It means that I can be sure the bad times won’t last forever, no matter what the Dog says, and that it’s worth not killing myself. But I can be just as sure that the White Wolf will never be king, and I will never be able to tell a friend, a lover or an employer that I will be what they need me to be next week.

I can be the very best version of myself today, and that’s likely all you’ll ever see, but I can never promise I will be there for you tomorrow. I can never have the integrity that is so important to me. It’s as certain and unpredictable as epilepsy or schizophrenia, but to me, it feels like a deep character flaw that I simply cannot overcome.

I cannot live with the Black Dog. I cannot live without the White Wolf.

So I live each week planning for the worst and hoping for better. I try not to make plans I can’t back out of. I work freelance and hope that the jobs coincide with the good times, and that the money and reputation is enough to get me through the bad. I make sure to tell people early and in detail what to expect, so they’re not too hurt or disappointed when I let them down – and when they inevitably can’t deal with it any longer, I make sure to tell them that I understand, that I would probably feel the same in their position, that they are not wrong for choosing reliability over flashes of brilliance.

I try to keep the dogs on a leash. I have a name for them now, and I try to do better each cycle, and try not to let them damage anything. For me, this is all I can do, the truest expression of integrity:

I have learned not to trust myself.

Phil McArthur (@Pyrotyger)