My Story of Struggle and Hope

Ale Alberti

My name is Alessandro (Ale`) Alberti and I am a cofounder of Black Dog on a Lead. I am going to be totally open and honest about my struggles with depression and anxiety so hopefully my short story will give those who suffer in silence, the courage to turn to someone close to them and say, “hey! I’m not feeling too good.”

I remember from year 8 and throughout high school there were times I would feel down or nervous for no reason at all. I was well liked by my peers, was never bullied and I am sure most people would say I was a pretty confident guy. Well that confidence was the disguise to some horrible feelings I would experience, not daily, but quite regularly as I was growing up in high school.

I missed quite a lot of school, particularly in year 11 and 12 and I definitely held back from activities I was good at in the fear of making mistakes or looking like a fool in front of my peers. I was a talented guitarist throughout primary school, but gave it up one term into year 8. I was a pretty decent soccer player, but lost my confidence, as I felt extremely intimated by some of the guys who had bigger personalities on the field than I did.

I’d constantly use the injury excuse as a way of covering up my anxiety and confidence issues I had, particularly out on the sporting field. After spending five years at high school, I think I only attended three or four swimming and athletic carnivals because the anxiety I would experience on the lead up to these days was just too much for me to handle.

Once year 12 had finished and TEE was behind me, things started feeling pretty good for me again. Leavers was great fun, school holidays were awesome, I was about to turn eighteen and I was about to start a commerce degree at UWA the following year.

About three weeks before uni started, my mum, dad and I were supposed to attend an information night at the university on the evening of the 27th of January 2010 (a date which will always be significant for my family for all the wrong reasons).

That morning I remember well. I woke up late to find dad asleep on the couch. This wasn’t too unusual as he was on school holidays and for about a year he had been suffering from pretty severe insomnia. After we exchanged some small talk, he got up from the couch and got ready to go out for the afternoon. As he left, I was still sitting on the couch and he was about six meters away from me near the kitchen door.

Before he went out of sight, he looked towards my direction and told me he’d be there with me that night at university. (As I am writing this, sitting on the same lounge room chair, I can almost reach out to dad from the vivid memory I have of that exact moment).

If I had of known this would be the last time I’d speak to him, I probably would have replied to him in a nicer way than the tired/TV watching/distracted grunt that I sent him off with. Dad took his life not long after he left me that afternoon. Still to this day, I am not a hundred per cent sure why he chose to end his life when all he had to do was just tell me he was in a dark place. The family knew he was suffering from some form of depression but nothing to that extent. I think his lack of sleep for over a year, definitely contributed to his poor mental state.

My dad was an exceptional human being. I love him, miss him and think about him every single day.

For years I didn’t really come to terms with dad’s death. I didn’t grieve for nearly as long as I should have and a lot of feelings about his death I bottled up inside me for a very long time.

My mind finally cracked in the middle of last year. Unfortunately this happened during a European trip of a lifetime with some of my best mates. Some of the thoughts that were going through my head during this time were very dark and feelings I had experienced for a number of years had now become tenfold. I had no choice but to tell my mates what I was experiencing and I was very fortunate they gave me the support I needed to get through the rest of my holiday and help me enjoy it as much as I could regardless of how I was feeling.

Things didn’t get any better for me when I got home. I had dark intrusive thoughts that would be in my head every second of the day. I would wake up extremely nervous for no apparent reason every day and my heart was constantly beating 100 miles an hour. Just imagine that feeling you get in your stomach when you’re watching your favorite footy team in a nail biting game. Once the final siren goes, that feeling of adrenaline eventually passes. For me, I had this feeling constantly for about the next six months. During this time, I was analyzing every single symptom I was experiencing not knowing what was really wrong with me. I became a prisoner of my own mind for such a long time and there was no escape.

This constant analysis of every single feeling I was experiencing made me live a life deep inside my own mind resulting in uncomfortable sensations of depersonalization and derealism. For anyone who has experienced this, you will know it is one of the worst byproducts and most terrifying symptoms of severe anxiety. It makes you question your reality, causes long-term and constant feelings of unrealty and before you know it, you don’t recognize the person looking back at you in the mirror.

Although living with these symptoms was extremely difficult, suicide was never an option for me. Taking my life may have solved all of my problems right there and then, but it’s the people you leave behind that are the ones who have to suffer for the rest of their lives.

I was prescribed anti anxiety medication and saw a psychologist once a week for about 10 weeks and I was officially diagnosed with depression with the major symptom of anxiety. Talking openly about how I was feeling was definitely the first major step I had to take on the road to recovery. I opened up to my family and then my close mates, but for me, the best thing I could have done was accept the way I was feeling and not fear the anxiety I was feeling. By over analyzing every symptom I was experiencing, I was fighting fire with fire and before I knew it, I became anxious about my anxiety (if that makes sense).

Late September last year, I decided to give in to what I was feeling. I decided that if I am going to feel this way, I am no longer going to fight my feelings and let these anxious and depressive thoughts stop me from living a normal life.

I rolled with every single weird feeling or thought I experienced and no longer deeply analyzed how I was feeling. In doing this, before I knew it, I went a couple of days feeling normal and then slipped back into an anxious state of mind. I didn’t let that bother me and when I did relapse, I did the same thing again and before I knew it, better days turned into better weeks and better weeks turned into better months. In time, some form of normality returned for me and I can honestly say, I feel I finally have control of my anxiety and a control of this black dog on the end of this very long lead.

I am not sure who said this but the words are very true.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter whether you are successful, it doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, how rich you are, it can hit you at any time in your life.

The photo I have attached to this story was taken at one of the worst times of my life. Beyond my tired eyes, beyond my smile, there is a person struggling… but that’s okay.


Ale Alberti
About the Author: Ale`Alberti 

Ale` is cofounder of Black Dog on a Lead, a community group that encourages people to talk openly about depression.

Open communication is key for eliminating any stigma or taboo associated with this illness. The question is: why should society treat depression differently to any other illness. Think about what it would look like for those with the illness if they felt comfortable communicating it to their family, friends and community. 

Whilst depression is difficult to cure fully, the effects of it can be managed effectively. Essentially this is what “Black Dog on a Lead” symbolises. The “Black Dog” is a metaphor for an unwelcome companion that externalises dark feelings, that follows you around BUT that ultimately is distinct from a person’s underlying personality. By putting a “lead” on that Black Dog it can be tamed, disciplined and controlled.

Depression should not be a one-man battle. Let’s all march together, united in the fight against this illness. You can keep track of their work and stay in touch through the Black Dog on a Lead Facebook Page.

(I had the pleasure of meeting Ale` recently at YouthSpeak. He, together with co-founder of Black Dog on a Lead, Massimo Iustini, are doing incredible work. They’re warm, genuine and open, and dedicated to breaking the stigma of  mental illness. They are doing this by sharing their own powerful stories and I’ve seen the difference they’re making. After sharing their stories, I watched young people come forward – brave, strong and beautifully open, all of them – to share their own struggles. Conversation is a powerful thing. For details of future events and to keep in touch with the work they’re doing, follow them here on their Black Dog on a Lead Facebook page).

5 Comments

Nicole L

I am currently struggling with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I decided to start a podcast in hopes of spreading the same awareness to others who feel alone. I was doing research for the show when I stumbled upon this article. Thank you for being brave and for being open and for being vulnerable enough to be raw in order to let other people know that they aren’t alone. What a wonderful spirit. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for helping me with mine. < 33

Reply
Ricardo

I am also a therapist working with people with depression, anxiety & addictions. I also believe that the self must open up to its unresolved emotional issues in order to heal itself from the black dog. I have seen and accompany many into their journey of recuperation and have observed that the self has to recognize who he is and change will occur. the self needs to talk and express what it feels in order to feel healthy.

thanks for sharing your story with us, keep working on your happiness.

best,

ricardo

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Kate

Thank you Ale for being so open and honest about your True feelings of Depression and Anxiety and how overpowering they can be and how Alone they make us feel. I love how you use the name “black dog on a lead” and explained the meaning of it!!! And also the picture of you taken at your darkest time It’s amazing how good we can look but inside feel hopeless Thank you and I hope to be able to find you on Facebook and find more of your articles because this one really help me And I think you’re awesome !!!!

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Buell "Buz" Barton, Jr.

I am a therapist who works with people who experience anxiety and depression. Ale’s story is one that catches my attention because he has found an internal mechanism for dealing with depression. That mechanism would seem to be externalizing the feelings, thoughts and despair that have accompanied him through much of his childhood and beyond. I am very impressed with your accomplishment in managing this crippling disorder.

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Vera Rudinica

What a beautiful, brave, touching article. I can’t even imagine how a young adult navigates through these experiences and comes out with a workable inner system. I am in total awe. Thank you for sharing.

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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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