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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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