‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’
This is a saying that I sometimes hear being thrown about. It seems to be a phrase that is despairing in tone as it is defeatist in intent. Essentially it means that once a habit or way of doing things has become ingrained into somebody’s mindset, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to change that mindset. Which I suppose can be a depressing notion in of itself!
Why do I bring this up?
Well I guess it’s because it only recently dawned on me how relevant this saying is when it comes to the subject of mental illness.
Don’t we all struggle to not slip back into some of unhealthy thought pattern or another ? Don’t we all have those thoughts that, despite being overtly negative in nature, seem so true that they burn through opposing beliefs like a cigarette butt does through paper?
With me, as the image above suggests, I am constantly fighting that thriving sense nihilism that lives inside of me. It guzzles away at me like pig does upon being gifted with a nice, juicy 12 ounce steak. It bites and it chomps away until all that is left is a perspective of life that has been drained of all colour, value and sense of vigour.
Every good day, every precious moment and even every fondly looked on memory is overshadowed by that voice inside my head that says things like:
So you’re getting all nostalgic about that time you had a great night out with your old uni friends huh? Shame none of it matters in the end isn’t it? Those days are long gone and will never return.
What’s that? You found the sun rising over the hilltops to be a pleasurable thing to witness? Bless you. You do know that many other people on this planet probably enjoy that exact same thing right? You’re just one of billions and the earth will continue to revolve on its axis long after you are gone.
What’s that? You’re at graduation? Oh wow. Look at you, dressed up all nice and snazzy in your hat and gown. You look so proud. But here’s a thought. Have you noticed the sea of hats that are present in any direction you turn to? How many do you think there are? Hundreds? Thousands? I’d say thousands myself. So tell me, do you still feel proud now? I should hope not. You’re not special at all.
The list goes on.
It seems that, no matter how much effort I put into living in the moment, seizing the day and all of that jazz, my mind always reverts back to this train of thought. Rather like how you can stretch an elastic band any which way you choose. It does not matter. It will always revert back into its original shape, regardless of how much you twist and turn its rubbery innards.
Bur what do you do when those thoughts contain elements of truth? We are constantly told how depressive thoughts are often irrational and lack the objectivity that is necessary when it comes to making important decisions and living a generally healthy existence. Yet sometimes, I cannot help but struggle to dispel these cynical thoughts from my mind when the evidence seems so clear cut.
What fuels your depression? Is it nihilism like mine or is it something else entirely? More importantly, how do you prevent yourself from sliding back into thoughts that come so second nature to you? Can you even distinguish between your ‘normal’ thoughts, and your ‘depressive’ ones? If so, do you think it is possible to change the way you think permanently and incontrovertibly?
I don’t know. Maybe there is some ray of optimism inside of my mind that really does believe you can teach an old dog new tricks. I hope so anyway.
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here