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

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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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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare

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