Hounded by Phillip Hall

One writer’s battle with depression

for Jillian & Charlie

I suffer from depression, and when things get a bit overwhelming, I sometimes find relief in grog’s license to self-harm. In mid-2019, an incident got a little ‘out of hand’, resulting in a ‘threat’ of rehospitalisation unless I agreed to a new regime of treatment, and a commitment to taking my medicine.

Living with depression is like living with poetry. You know it when you have it, its feel and shape, but reducing it to a diagnosis or definition seems crude. This doesn’t stop me crying for answers, but unfortunately, when things get bad, I confuse the care of family and medical practitioners with meddling interference; and too often, hanker after the quick and easy solution of an empty bottle. Depression is a stink:

Unforgivable

(May it please God to crush me,
to give his hand free play and do away with me!
Job 6: 9)

Well, there are at least a thousand reasons why
I despair (and in the recurring nightmare
many more) where
a troubled night after drinking
alone gives way to grunge
and a surrealist’s caved-in cranium, the clear
brain fluid frothing
with snot and leaking
from every orifice
in a head once held dear
to me.

How can despair be preached as the ‘unforgivable sin’? I remember watching a documentary on The Falling Man from September 11. This program attempted to identify him, interviewing family and friends, and in all the anguish, no one wanted to believe that The Falling Man was their son or husband or father; they were irreconcilable at his death, but the thought that he had escaped the furnace of the Twin Towers by ‘taking his own life’ and plunging to his death was unbearable. In the midst of grief, where do we turn for salvation?

sacred ground

to wield the knife is one thing
but what if   all that’s done
a spot in harm’s way

I have never wanted to end in suicide. To be remembered only for the manner of my finish. And it has caused me to live with much shame and guilt. But for a long time, it seemed this would be my end despite my best intentions:

The Good Samaritan

I had four university graduations I desperately wanted
and worked hard to attend       but went to none
the dread of humiliation in public
was a fact felt more
than my own name       inevitable
like life or death       to hide
inside neatly packaged roles       resisting the deathly pull
of a way out       I am beat      stuck
in a mud of anxiety       and there are (oddly)
universes to love       such a trunk of goodness
I do not wish to die       to halt
in failure       but
the railway tracks all end
in hurt      though I lived to be

a donor


Depression, and its resolution, are not choices. And many of my tears are for this everyday incapacity to live well. I do not believe that you commit suicide (as in to commit a crime) rather you pass away from it (as in from a car wreck). And unfortunately, unlike a car crash, the causes of suicide are very difficult to forensically unpick. Living with this complication is often awful:

What I Would Have Missed

…it hurts, this drive
to end     why
isn’t this Attenborough wonderland
enough     I have family and my place
at home, muscles and passion
to be useful, but still
there’s a brilliance that fails
to graft     I’ve tried to beat
it, drink it under
or cut it out     I’ve yielded
to my daily pill, to appointments
with nice people concerned
holistically with me     others have tested
my estrangement from God and the lure
of ‘false prophets’     and my atheist
partner (whilst I dither, hoping for God to show signs
of life, to change
to just cause) has bribed me with gold
membership of a footy club that wins
nothing but hearts     but we turned up
and a dam wall burst
with more tears than could possibly fit in two
premiership cups     I’ve been paid off
with the stars and stripes
of Hawktail String Quartet, such Appalachian zip
untethering the heart-
land from centre stage     but still
to my shame and amidst so much
I am weak for an end…

And depression manifests in so many ways. Of course, there are the tears, the self-medication in grog’s sly mouthful, the retreat from society and opportunity. But the physical body also begins to buckle and trail, like some old horse and cart:

sulky

with the smallest amount
of grog on board     I squeak

and now my body has corrupted
my breathing
into a chesty
shortness that fails
to adequately expel
carbon dioxide     and hiding behind a raised opened hand
facial tics are all the worse
for being made
self-aware    libido goes belly up     and now
I am a night time teeth grinder
with eighteen pearly whites
needing either extraction or filling

I feel laughable
and now my body buckles and
trails

bruxing: a mouthful of hurt

noon
and already finished my first bottle of cheap red
I indulge the doleful
mouthful     the un-knowing
grinding of myself     to keep it under wraps
this drive to hurt     it takes one
to know one
and I know     brew     I will hang
my head low     teardrops
to pickle the jam of
staying alive

Thus, for so long, I have ‘accepted’ suicide as my certain end. I have made deals: to get this finished first, to settle that account, to reassure family (to procure their forgiveness and protect them from my damage). I have required release:

and the crows can have my eyes

I am too indecisive to do
what needs to be done, but I can
envisage an end
when a winter expedition with an unburdened pack
sets out from Katoomba into scenic wonder
Glen Raphael’s to Narrow Neck Plateau
where morning mist can come spilling
over swampy heaths and I can hit
after a few days hiking the junction
of the Cox’s & Kanangra Creeks, from there
it’s a walk in the park to the Deep
where some whiskey can ease
a crossing into cold, bleak
bush – a guilt free passing kept carefully from view.

But one night, collected in my partner’s lap, both in tears, I found absolution. We were exhausted. I needed an end. She wanted me. She held me, and told me she forgave me, that our thirty-five years were a blessing, now we would see what we would see…

I don’t know why this permission was my circuit breaker. I am fragile. But something in my partner’s gift released me. She breathed into me, and something transplanted, something worthy grafted.

My partner is strong, she is also not without humour, so decided I had to have a dog: unconditional love that would keep me housebound, sober and needed. She adopted me a rescue greyhound, a retired racer.

This gentle, timid dog came to us afraid to go outside, shying away from shadows, self-harming and beaten. And he has changed my life. I am male, so have had to work hard to woo him, that my touch is needy love, and not abusive. That the rewards I beg are not prize-winning ribbons, but him. I am so in love with this dog: the feel of his soft ears, his slobber on my rug, the accidents in my bedroom. I cannot imagine a life without him, the genius of my partner, the sanctification of him. Am I healed? There is no such thing. But in him, the gift of my genius partner, I am needed, and so can at last see ahead. I am saved by love: dog love and by a partner who never said never:

Hounded
for Charlie, my rescue greyhound

I cup the palm
of my hand over his cranium, fingers scratching
that spot
behind his ears, wooing
sleep in this alien
space of comfort & love & treats:

What mass grave
of neglect might have been his
after a life racing, when camera/lights/action
are whittled down to a concrete pen:

You come to me
afraid of shadows, too scared
for outside, your body
a trace of misuse:

And yet, in rescuing
you, temptations
to self-harm are shed
& in my townhouse turned kennel
I am becoming
safe.

Acknowledgments
My title was another gift of my partner, Jillian Hall. She is my first editor, my lover, and my gifter of dogs. With her, and Charlie, I can see a way ahead.

About the contributor

Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne, where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. His publications include Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press, 2014), Borroloola Class (IPSI, 2018), Fume (UWAP, 2018) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press, 2015). He also publishes the e-journal Burrow: https://oldwaterratpublishing.com.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. This was not only an eye-opener, but incredibly moving. Thank you for sharing these thoughts with such honesty. Being an eternal, almost sick optimist and positive to make you vomit, I never understood how black black could be. I am also in love with your shy greyhound (and your wife). The line that made me come close to entering your world are these: “but still / there’s a brilliance that fails / to graft “

    • Thank you, Rose. Your generous, kind words are most appreciated. This hurt to write, but ‘better out than in’ as the wonderful Shriek said. I guess we are all confessionals now.

  2. Phillip you have managed to explain it in a way I have never understood. I thank you so much, for you, and for myself.

    • Thanks for your kind & generous words, James. I really appreciate it because, while I am (I think) proud of this essay, I am also a bit embarrassed at the thought of people reading it. It is a bit exposing, but (I guess) we’re all confessional now. And thank god for that…

  3. Hi Phillip, I am so glad that you and Charlie found each other. Some things are just meant to be, and this match is one of those. Wishing you many years together, with love. Christina.

  4. Very well written and moving. So much easier to see things from your perspective. Well done. (But I might have to go and cry now)

  5. Phillip, up until now, I was not aware of the extent of your struggle with the black dog. I was deeply moved by your openness. I was intrigued with the bible reference to Job, a man seemingly abandoned by God. The isolation must be unbearable. I am reminded of the John Lennon song ‘ isolation and also his song ‘God’……..”God is a concept by which we measure our pain”
    The abyss is constantly calling but the Light has covered over the abyss. ( my words )

  6. Thanks, David. Yes, I’ve been unwell for quite some time. I think I’ve shifted out of the worst. Jillian (& my gorgeous brindle boy greyhounds) have saved me. I feel safe right now, & it is such a relief, I am so joyful & appreciative.

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