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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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