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Beating the black dog

A few years ago, a regular Shooting Times contributor became derailed by depression. As he begins a new note-book, Laurence Catlow recalls its effects and his joyous recovery

in field with gundogs

Laurence Catlow has made a joyful return to shooting after suffering from a crippling bout of depression

You may remember me, or rather you may dimly recall the monthly pieces that I wrote for Shooting Times, about fishing (occasionally) and shooting (mostly) and (in particular) running my own small shoot at High Park in Cumbria. I did this for around 10 years and then, three or four years ago, there was suddenly silence.

The reason for this was not what you are thinking — Shooting Times did not sack me. I more or less sacked myself because I realised that I could no longer keep writing. And now, for good or ill, I am back and perhaps it will be best if I use this first piece to explain what caused that long and painful silence. Once that has been dealt with, I can resume burbling on much as I used to in the old days.

You may find what I say difficult to understand; in fact, I rather hope you do, because it is almost impossible to understand depression unless you have been its victim yourself. Perhaps a few of you are struggling with its crippling effects and, if so, it is for you that I am writing. If my own brief encounter with depression helps you to believe that you can be well again, it will have achieved more than all the articles I wrote over the years of my earlier association with Shooting Times.

I do not really know what caused it. Friends have suggested that it was retirement, but I know that they are wrong. I gave up schoolmastering in July 2009; in the winter that followed — a bitter winter of savage frost with deep snow lying for weeks on end — I shot more than ever before and enjoyed almost every minute of it. With the shooting season over, I looked forward to a spring and summer spent catching plenty of trout.

I had already caught the first fish of another season when a shadow fell over my life. It was the shadow of ill health, but I was told that there was nothing wrong with me. I breathed a sigh of relief and expected to resume normal activity in the form of fishing, walking, writing and preparing for the next season on my little shoot. But it did not happen.

rainbow trout

Laurence only fished once in a year and came home in tears at the height of his depression

My mind had got stuck. I was slow to acknowledge that, in fact, it was the mind rather than the body that was going wrong. Depression crept up on me unawares. I went fishing and found little pleasure in it. It was as though the brightness in the water had died. When August brought my poults to High Park, looking after them was a thankless chore rather than the deep satisfaction it had almost always been in the past. I did not go flanking on the moors when the Glorious Twelfth came round. I fished less and less and looked forward to shooting with foreboding rather than the usual impatient eagerness.

There was a flight or two in the early autumn. They were successful flights but the pulse of wings in the darkening sky had somehow lost its power to stir me. The first pheasant shoot was a disaster; there was nothing much wrong with the bag, but there was, by now, plenty wrong with me. Every minute of that day was an agony because it seemed that my long love affair with shooting was suddenly over. Whether I missed or hit a pheasant made no difference to me. There was the same blankness and the same pain, the same sense of loss and the same confused distress. I kept my birds fed throughout the winter, but I did not shoot again until January when, for some reason, my spirits revived a little. I almost enjoyed those few late-season days, shooting alone except for the company of my two spaniels. The improvement in my mood did not last.

Life closing in

I fished only once in the following year and came home in tears. Often I thought I was dying; sometimes I barely cared. My poults turned up in August and, out among them, I asked myself every day why on earth I was bothering with pheasants because I was already certain that, when they were ready for sport, I would be far from ready to go shooting. My life was closing in on me and I was slow to seek help. I did less and less; I spent whole days lying on my bed. There was no shooting until, for whatever reason, January once again brought something similar to hope and I shot  my own ground a time or two with something like satisfaction. It was a hope that soon died.

There was no fishing in the spring or summer. I cancelled the order for my poults, telling myself that I would feed hard through the winter and enjoy sport with old and with wild birds. That season I never raised a gun to my shoulder and came to believe that I should never pull the trigger of the old Webley ever again. I made a brief and disastrous return to part-time teaching that ended in a complete nervous breakdown. Then I was rescued by friends.

Merlin and Karen Unwin, who had published my books and become close friends, discovered the state that I was in and took me off to Ludlow for most of December. My brother and his wife took care of me over Christmas and the New Year. This saved me from the crushing loneliness of nothing but my own company for days on end, and it was good for a man who could see no way forward to let others take charge of him for a time. It may have been this sort of vacation, this break from that terrible conviction of complete isolation, that prepared the way for the beginnings of recovery.

I came back to Brough early in the New Year and had the good fortune to come into the care of an exceptional GP called Ian Tod. I did what Ian told me to do. He saw me every week and
he treated me as a friend. There was no miracle. I did not wake up one morning and feel wildly happy
again. I took the pills and talked  to the doctor; friends came to stay and encouraged me to believe that one day I should fish and shoot with something like the old pleasure and fulfilment. I began to hope that it might be so.

The joy of reconnection

That was two years ago; when spring came I returned to the river and catching trout became important to me again. I fished mostly with friends; there were difficult days but there were days filled with a joyful sense of reconnection. It was the same looking after my poults, and it was the same with autumn and winter shooting days. Some were tense and nervous, but there were others when being out with two spaniels and a gun seemed already halfway to paradise. Last year was better still and this year has been marvellous. I have fished more than ever before and caught sackfuls of trout. I recently had my shotgun certificate renewed after my GP assured my licensing manager that I was on the mend.

I have my own shoot; I have kept my Gun in one syndicate, joined another and am now looking forward to sharing them with readers of Shooting Times.

If you were to ask me how I got better, I would answer that I do not really know. The medication probably helped. My doctor certainly helped, as his successor continues to do. The loving concern of family and friends has been worth more to me than all the medication in the world. Perhaps this, together with time, was the primary healer. I am still prone to anxiety but I am active and happy again and I no longer go to bed dreading how I shall feel when I wake up in the morning.

I end this article more or less as I began it, with the hope that it might help one or two of you — who are perhaps struggling with a darkness similar to mine — to believe that the time will come when the old joy will return. Believe me that it will.

Read our article on depression and gun ownership 

Laurence Catlow has been a passionate shooter and angler for more than 40 years. He has written four books about sport with rod and gun and is now busy with a fifth.