Black Dogs, Storms & Rhapsodies

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (public domain)

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (public domain)

“(…) How very trying I was—all agog, all aquiver; and so full of storms and rhapsodies…” wrote Virginia Woolf in 1936 in a letter to Violet Dickinson, her older friend and correspondent. This and many other letters can be found at an exhibition devoted to the life of Woolf which is currently on at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Storms and rhapsodies” is a beautiful metaphor for the demon of bipolar depression that Woolf had struggled with all her life—until her suicide in 1941. It’s hard to walk around the gallery space and look at all the photographic and painted portraits of Woolf without a tremendous sense of loss. On March 28, 1941, Virginia filled the pockets of her coat with stones and drowned herself near Monk’s House at Rodmell… A great mind and a beautiful spirit lost in the depths of the Ouse River.

In a heart-breaking letter to her beloved husband Leonard, Virginia wrote:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

A few weeks ago Robin Williams, the famous comedian and the star of numerous wonderful movies, was found dead in his home in Tiburon, Calif. The cause of his death was suicide by asphyxiation.

Upon the tragic news of his death, social media were instantly buzzing with comments. A lot of people were expressing sadness and understanding but there were also voices of shocking ignorance. Comments such as “What the hell did he have to be depressed about. He had more money than I could ever earn in my lifetime. The 1% are so out of touch with the real world.” demonstrated how little understanding there is towards mental illness and how important it is to fight against the stigma surrounding it. For depression is an illness like anything else. From a medical point of view, it is the unbalance of brain chemicals, notably serotonin and norepinephrine. Severe depression can take control of the brain just like cancer can take control over the body. The amount of money in one’s bank account isn’t likely to make any difference to a person whose brain isn’t functioning properly.

Robin Williams, 2011 | Image by Eva Rinaldi (CC)

Robin Williams, 2011 | Image by Eva Rinaldi (CC)

In one of my favourite films, The Fisher King by Terry Gilliam, Robin played the role of Henry Sagan—a college professor whose wife gets shot by a psychopath. After a few years of being in coma, Sagan emerges as “Parry” and becomes a homeless outcast who often has visions of a demonic, fire-and-smoke-spewing Red Knight, who chases him with a sword. The apparition is a result of the deep trauma he experienced when the killer entered a restaurant where Henry was eating dinner with his wife, and blew her brain out with a shotgun.

Terry Gilliam recently spoke to Vulture about the challenge of shooting the final chase scene: “This scene (…) was very hard from an acting point of view, because Robin was tearing his guts out emotionally. The interesting thing about Robin in all of those scenes was that he always wanted to do another take. He felt he had even more anguish and pain to spill out of the character. And I had to really stop him. I had to say, ‘Robin, you’ve reached a point here, way beyond what we expected. We’ve got what we needed. Now you’re just hurting yourself.(…) What we have here is very good. And if we look at the rushes and it isn’t, I promise you I will reshoot it.’ And I had to hug him basically, and hold him.”

The scene is truly poignant. Not only is it a beautiful piece of cinematography (you can read about the design, creation and shooting of it on David Morgan’s website) but also a frightening visualisation of what goes on in a malfunctioning mind.

For the Red Knight isn’t just a phantom of the killer. It is a striking metaphor for an outbreak of mental illness. Just like the Knight would appear unexpectedly in front of Parry, in the middle of a busy street, depression can creep up unnoticed and attack in the full light of the day. Andrew Solomon, writer and lecturer on psychology, politics, and the arts, who also suffers from depression, called it “Noonday Demon” in his bestselling account of the disease which won several literary prizes. Solomon was hit by the demon at a time when everything was going well: he was publishing his first novel, getting along with his family, he had bought a beautiful new house and peacefully ended a two-year relationship. “It was when life was finally in order that depression came slinking in and spoiled everything,” he wrote in 1998 in the New Yorker article. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the world’s most disabling condition. According to Beyond Blue, one in six people (one in five women and one in eight men) will experience it at some point in their life, and it underscores most mental illness. The demon is very real.

The Red Knight from the Fisher King, movie still

The Red Knight from the Fisher King, movie still

I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate…

“Voices” were one the main themes in Virginia Woolf’s writing as well as life. Her books focused very much on the inner life, inner monologues and thoughts voiced by many different characters. Her twenty-four volume diary, on the other hand, is an account of the struggle to silence the other, unwanted voices in her head. “Sometimes these were identifiable,” says Steve King in his essay; “the birds she heard singing to her in Greek, King Edward swearing in the azaleas. Sometimes they were the common noise of anxiety, though loud and frightening enough to convince her that to step over the puddle in her path would be to step into unreality.”

Virginia Woolf was only 13 when she experienced the first outbreak of depression, which happened shortly after her mother passed away. The next major mental breakdown happened nine years later, in 1905. After her father Leslie Stephen died of stomach cancer, she attempted a suicide by jumping out of a window, and was briefly institutionalized as a result.

This was the beginning of a painful hide-and-seek game with the Red Knight who would regularly haunt her. When she was 31, depression became much more severe and led her to another serious suicide attempt. Luckily, she got rescued by a physician who happened to be in the neighbourhood and managed to pump out 100 grains of Veronal she took from the case that Leonard, her husband, usually kept locked.

Throughout the decades, she was observing and recording her illness, in an attempt to open “the dark cupboard.” In 1921, Virginia randomly took to her bed for next eight weeks, following a night when she stayed up after a concert. Two months later she recorded in her journal: “What a gap! How it would have astounded me to be told when I wrote the last word here, on June 7th, that within a week I [should] be in bed, and not entirely out of it till the 6th of August – two whole months rubbed out ..” A note from 1926 was more dramatic: “Woke up perhaps at 3. Oh it’s beginning it’s coming… physically like a painful wave about the heart—tossing me up…. Down—God I wish I were dead.”

In the 59 years of her life, Virginia had written nine novels, fourteen non-fiction books, numerous shorts stories, as well as diaries, letters and autobiographical writings. The voices were debilitating and painful but she withstood them for as long as she could.

What Virginia referred to as voices, Winston Churchill called  “the black dog,” which followed him like in Bly’s poem.

A light seen suddenly in the storm, snow
Coming from all sides, like flakes
Of sleep, and myself
On the road to the dark barn,
Halfway there, a black dog near me.

– Robert Bly, from “Melancholia” in The Light Around the Body (1967)

Sir Winston Churchill (public domain)

Sir Winston Churchill (public domain)

Churchill’s mental illness, which began in his youth, was haunting him throughout his long and remarkable life. According to his close friend Lord Beaverbrook, Winston was always either “at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression.” Still, not only had he managed to push through the bad, but he was using highs of the mania to his and other people’s benefit. Psychiatrist and historian Anthony Storr goes as far as attributing Churchill’s success to the bipolar disorder, and in one the essays in his Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind book, he says that: “Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgement might well have concluded that we were finished.” Churchill was not only one of the greatest wartime leaders, but also a prolific writer. He had written a novel, two biographies, three volumes of memoirs, and several histories as well as numerous newspaper articles. He is the only British Prime Minister who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”

Churchill is famous for the “black dog” metaphor, although its origins are in fact much older, and its associations with depression can be found in the poetry of the Roman poet Horace (c. 40BC) and Appollonius (c. 1st century AD), as we can read in Paul Foley’s in-depth analysis of the history of the term. Still, it was  the famous politician who popularised the image, which has become a symbol of mental health illness. Two years ago, the mental health charity SANE, celebrated the 25th anniversary, and they named 2012 the Year of the Black Dog. As part of that, they launched the Black Dog Campaign to raise awareness of depression and mental illness. Sculptures of black dogs were placed in various locations across London and the UK and later sold at an auction to raise funds for the charity. Several people, including artists and celebrities, were designing a decorative coat for the dog sculpture. Among them was a 52-year-old British artist Anthony Cleyndert, who had suffered with recurring mental illness for 30 years.

Black Dog Campaign by SANE | Image from Black Dog Tribe (CC)

Black Dog Campaign by SANE | Image from Black Dog Tribe (CC)

It seems that depression is slowly becoming less of a taboo topic, and there is an infinite number of articles about it on the internet. But it’s a tricky subject, and not all advice on how to deal with is good and helpful. Following Robin William’s death, Tom Hawking wrote an article in which he condemns using the word “battle” to describe the illness. He criticizes the narrative which implies depression is something you can fight, “that you can maybe even vanquish if you fight hard enough.” Without any training in the medical or psychological field, he advocates passiveness and enduring rather than actively trying to do something about the illness. Hawking’s message is wrong and unnecessary. This is a battle (or rather, a series of battles) that can be won—not in the sense that depression disappears forever, but in the sense that it doesn’t send someone to an early grave.

One of the people who have been successfully fighting with depression, made a very good observation under Hawking’s article: the “fight” happens outside of depression. “In the same way you wouldn’t strap on armour or sharpen your blade while in the MIDDLE of a sword fight, depression is never fought while you’re inside of it. When you’re in that pit, no amount of willpower of your own will pull you out. It’s only through everything outside of that moment that any hope can be found,” he said. Healthy lifestyle, CBT, self-development, friendships, relationships, reading other people’s accounts of their fight (i.e. Marcus Aurelius who lived and dealt with depression all his life), nurturing soul and mind, cherishing good memories, etc. are all tools to increase the chances of survival when depression strikes.

Surviving the storm and chasing away the Red Knight, however hard and painful, is a noble battle and one worth pursuing. Not only because life is worth living but also because while being on the mountaintop is easy and doesn’t teach us much, getting through the darkness and pain is a character-building experience, inspiration for other people, and in the case of artists—an inspiration to create some beautiful work.