Working With The Black Dog


Working With The Black Dog

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, sole traders make up 57% of all new businesses registered in Australia in the last 12 months.

That’s a lot of individuals carrying a lot of stress, worry and pressure. When you couple that with the fact that 1 in 5 Australians will have a mental health issue this year, you can see the impact of mental health on Small Business owners.

Mental health awareness is a topic very close to my heart. I am one of those 1 in 5 Aussies who walk with (as Winston Churchill aptly names depression) ‘the black dog’ and I am also a sole trader.

In no way am I minimising the impact of any kind of mental health issue, but when I was an employee, I could take a personal day or apply for holidays when things were getting a bit much.

As a Small Business owner and sole trader, I don’t have that luxury.

I am expected to get up and show up each and every day. I cannot allow the quality of my work to be impacted by how I am feeling and I cannot let down my clients or suppliers. I have deadlines to meet and bills to pay. There simply is no time for my black dog to run away with me.

The black dog joined me when I was a teenager, so I’ve had many years to learn what puts me in a precarious place and what helps me to get through. That said, I’ve also learnt that depression and anxiety are incredibly individual. What may work for me, may or may not work for you. The black dog requires you to remain ever vigilant and, much like a real dog, to remain the pack leader. But I hope some of my experience can help you.

When I feel the black dog nipping at my heels, I know it’s time to look at how I’ve been working and to put some self-care measures in place.

I make sure I get plenty of good quality rest.

That means not lying in bed mentally running through everything I still need to do. That means consciously switching off from work. I like to dive into a book (fiction, no business stuff at these times). When I have read to a point where my brain has given up trying to remind me of things, I know I will get a good night’s sleep.

I listen to music that has no lyrics.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good 80s sing along. But when I feel myself on the slippery slope, I’ve learnt to listen to pure music. Music that my brain doesn’t have to try to recall lyrics for, music that can carry me away on its melody. During these times, my classical playlists go on high rotation. I find myself drifting into mini meditations, where my brain can just float along, bathed in sound.

I make sure I’m eating well.

Definitely no takeaways during this time! I cut out bread and I do my very best to cut out sugar (even when my body is screaming for the chocolate aisle). I increase my fish oil tablets, source strawberries (when they’re in season) and get plenty of protein and fresh veggies.

I get myself outside.

The last thing I feel like doing when the black dog barks is to go outside. I’d much rather retreat to my bed and hide, but again I’ve learnt that forcing myself to be out in the sun does wonders. Taking off my shoes to walk barefoot on the grass has lots of benefits for me and fortunately my dog Obi is always happy to oblige in a dose of sunshine and ball chasing.

I make sure I stay connected to friends.

This took me ages to figure out as it feels so counterintuitive, but getting out to connect with friends over a coffee or a walk really helps me see all the good stuff I have going on. A good chat with a great friend can help you re-frame what’s going on in your head, and help stop that negative self-talk.

What about you?

These are just a few of the things I do to keep showing up for my business. I’m sure there are plenty more that work for others, but my point is: as small business owners – and sole traders in particular – we have to be our own mental health champions. Please share in the comments the things that help you to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

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Showing 10 comments
  • Georgia Thomas

    What a wonderful article, Tracy. I do similar things, but the key for me is to pay attention to the nipping at the heels and take action straight away. I find a couple of days being kind to myself at that point can save me slipping down the slope into the abyss for an extended time. Thank you for being open enough to share your experiences – these are conversations that need to take place. GTx

    • Tracy

      Hi Georgia,

      You’re so right… Noticing your own signs and taking a few days at first showing can make all the difference.
      Thank you for adding your voice to the discussion.

      Cheers, Tracy

  • Maree Clayden

    Thank you for your honest practical pearls of wisdom. I am just coming to terms with the black dog who has been with me from age 23. A misspent youth in the ’70’s sampling prohibited substances was the trigger with a genetic predisposition- mum also had the dog for company. If only back then we knew what we know how about our illness. I was dog free and medication free from 33 until 51, and through a pregnancy at 39/40 as well.

    However then came the Big M – menopause, 2 redundancies, much greater responsibility in a new job, no company support as they didn’t know how to cope with growing from 90 to 770 staff in 12 months and then my beautiful mum getting frailer with numerous rare health complications.

    She passed away last year at 88 and while I had been preparing for this over the last 15 years of her life, I bombed about 6 weeks after the funeral. I had been running on a tank full of adrenaline and cortisol for way too long. My bed became my safe haven with my cat, tea and a good read-if I could read through the tears. The one person in the world who knew me inside out, who knew my illness because she too was dogged for over 50 years was gone. Our love, support and understanding for each other was the most wonderful loving relationship a mother and daughter could ever hope to have. We were so alike, she was the sister I never had, my best friend, my confidante, my role model and my mum. My heart felt like it was physically breaking in half.

    Just 3 weeks before mum’s last 6 weeks of pain and decline I had opened my own shop as a sole trader selling my passion for eclectic furniture and homewares. She loved it as her and dad had owned their own small business for 12 years, up until dad went blind from a very rare disease- one in 10 million. She was worried of course about my health, the economy and a hefty rent, but so looked forward to me wheeling her around the shop to see what was new in. I am so glad she got to see it and am so glad she did not live to see me in the state I am in. Even her strength and understanding may not have been enough to get me out of my safe haven.

    Four of these grand funks (as my son and I call it) have occurred over the past 18 months of the business. We have had majors happen in that time, 10 last year alone and still happening this year so that we have inevitably hit rock bottom in our lives, our relationship of 29 years and our family. It’s like we have imploded and exploded at the same time. The funks have gone from 1 week to 4 weeks with medication increasing but not working so well.

    Fixing this is imperative. So the business is closing, the assets are being sold, life must be simplified and consolidated so there is less stress, responsibility, worry and being overwhelmed by it all. Big 4 months ahead of us but we have made the right decisions and can now see light at the end of the tunnel.

    Amazing that as soon as that happened the dog took off! Hope he’s gone for a bit of time now as this time I’m really not sure he will go for twenty years again. We are going forward, time spent resting instead of running around, real dog walk leash free for an hour or so, drop in to see friends and have a cuppa, talking to friends and family instead of hiding and most important of all, doing something that we are not used to doing and that is asking for help. We are the helpers and givers so it is a big change to train my brain to do so.

    Everything you have said is right and it is so hard to do because you feel like doing the opposite. Bread, toast, sugar in copious cups of tea and chocolate. The nausea created by the anxiety and the medication doesn’t help but next time the dog visits I am going to read your post and try hard to do everything you say. Thankyou from my mending heart. Maree

    • Tracy

      Wow Maree,

      What a time you have had of it! Kudos to you for facing your dog head on and putting yourself first, it’s a tough thing to do isn’t it… Put ourselves first.

      My condolences on the loss of your mum, your relationship sounds as though it was a rare gem indeed. Wishing you all the strength and love to find the way through your tears to understanding the connection is still with you, it’s just the communication method that has changed. Think of it like turning the dial on a radio – you just need to find the new frequency to reboot your inner dialogue with her.

      Wishing you many dog free years. Keep putting yourself first and you will get through this.

      Big hugs…. Tracy

  • Cate Scolnik

    Hi Tracy, thanks for sharing your story and your strategies in this highly personal post. I’ve not struggled with this myself, but I’ve lived with someone with bipolar. So I applaud you for your courage in sharing, and for your ongoing battle. Take care of yourself.

    • Tracy

      Thanks Cate,

      We all have our own responsibilities for raising the awareness of mental health. You have certainly faced your own challenges supporting and living with someone tethered to a black dog, at times like those it’s important to eek out time for yourself and your own needs.

      Appreciate you taking the time to comment,

  • Kate

    Tracy – such a brave share – I admire you wholeheartedly xxx

    • tracy

      Thanks Kate,

      For me it’s not about being brave so much as shining a light on a topic that has spent too long in the wilderness.
      Very appreciative of you taking the time to have a read and sharing with your network.

      Tracy xx

  • Linda Wilson

    Great post Tracy and also great practical advice. It is obvious from the comments that you have touched a nerve. Having only had one bout of serious depression over 25 years ago now I admire and applaud anyone who deals with this as a constant issue it is harrowing. May your speaking out encourage others to do the same so the light is shone on those dark days for many.

    • Tracy

      Thanks Linda,

      One bout of depression is enough for anyone’s lifetime. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, like you I hope this article starts a conversation with those who read it.

      Cheers, Tracy

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