Sir Winston Churchill was prone to depression. He called his depressions his ‘black dog’. Now, I know that not all black dogs are miserable or skulk around in corners, but imagine what you feel like when you are depressed. More than that, maybe you’re depressed right now, so you don’t even have to imagine it – you can just experience it. I’ll connect the black dog dots for you.
It starts without you knowing that it has started: Something distant and abstract – remote, even, in your subconscious. A sense of unease swirls around you like an invisible mist. But, you carry on with your day and don’t think about it much. It is just an off day. That night you may even sleep well, but you wake up the next morning with that sense of unease just a bit stronger. It may continue like this for a while, gradually leeching your REM sleep away. You wake up in the night, wondering what woke you. Was it a gun shot? Was it a scream? Is there something scratching in the ceiling? It doesn’t much matter what you think woke you, but what does matter is that the unease is now there, in your bed, with you. It is pressing the blankets tightly around your legs so that you can’t move your knees into a more comfortable position; preventing you from immediately getting up. A heavy dark presence has intruded in your space: The black dog.
You lie there, trying not to think about why you cannot sleep. Your mind zooms in on the things you are able to avoid in your waking hours – the fear about the implications of the arthritis in your thumb: you vividly picture becoming bent and crippled without sufficient medical insurance for the pain and the physical aids. From there it is a short leap to a cold gripping fear that your stolen nest egg has permanently disappeared into the bowels of Indonesia and that the people who allowed it to happen are going to hang you out to dry. You fear the embarrassment of dying in poverty almost more than you fear living in pain until you die. The black dog is now stretched out so comfortably on your bed, with his muddy paws and his slobbery mouth leaving their mark on your nice new duvet cover, right on your chest that you can’t quite catch your breath. You can’t stand it anymore and although it is still dark outside you get up and go checking for emails. You know it is too early to start on coffee but you have one anyway.
The next night it is the same thing and the night after that even more so. The dog is growing like Topsy. (Remember Topsy?) You have to do something. This cannot continue. You buy some over- the-counter homeopathic sleeping pills. They work. They knock you right out. But the black dog didn’t take any, and by 4.12 am he is restless: he wants attention. He crawls up even closer into your face and whines until you wake up. Before you even open your eyes you feel for the familiar and comforting softness of his head and his droopy ears. You almost say out loud “hi there black dog – I was wondering whether you’d be here this morning” and then the fear hits you; you palpitate, you cringe. You want to go back to sleep because you’re exhausted, but the black dog won’t let you: he’s ready for a run among your favourite fears. He wants to brush up against them, collect their smells and their dry and fertile seeds, in order to grow stronger himself.
There are some well-known and simple things you can do to put the black dog back in its place. I have used them in the past and I will no doubt use them again in the future. Depression isn’t something that just visits the neurotic or the psychotic or the junkie or the alcoholic, although they all have their own black dogs that follow them around. Depression is something that can creep up on one through unexpected circumstances: job loss, unexpected disablement of yourself or a loved one, loss of investments, failure of a good idea, a publishing world ostensibly inured to your fabulous talents, or even the accumulation of small persistent things that go wrong, the harder you try to fix it. It is a bit like adult onset diabetes: With some minor but determined lifestyle changes you can beat it.
Here is what I’ve learnt about keeping the black dog of depression at bay:
- Name it (Winston and I call it the ‘black dog’): by naming it and familiarising yourself with its character you can kick it off your bed before it has time to settle in properly.
- Recognise it as a friend, but know that it has a great inclination to become abusive: It is a friend only in that it will force you to recognise the truth: that there is something you fear that you are not facing. Do NOT under any circumstances make it your best friend because it will take over your life – it will BECOME YOU.
- Take it to obedience training. Does your black dog drag you along its nasty miserable path? Much as you don’t want to go there you can’t let go because you don’t trust it not to get you both run over, and so you stagger along in its wake? Train it to walk to walk at heel: say ‘black dog, you are allowed to come with me to the store, but only if you behave yourself’.
- Put it on a diet. Limit the things it can make you miserable about by making a short list for yourself at the end of each day, of things that happened that day that you’re grateful for. (E.g. you have a bed to sleep in, maybe with a really cosy duvet, AND there’s electricity in your apartment – three things already). Tell it that you are going to find three positive things in the trip to the store today and it isn’t going to be allowed to have any.
- Distract it with new toys: Write two pages of free-flowing thought in your new diary, every morning upon waking. By letting your fears out of your head and onto paper you create space for hopes to return. Pretty soon your two pages a morning are about joy, gratitude, faith and all that is good in your life.
- Take it to the vet. Sometimes the simple actions like practising to be grateful won’t be enough. Sometimes that black dog is more of a bull terrier than a Labrador retriever: it hangs on, no matter what. Seek professional help. Don’t let the black dog suck out your life blood. It is the black dog that needs the medical care – let him have it.
- Take yourself out on a date. In ‘The Artist’s Way’ Julia Cameron prescribes spending at minimum, an hour a week by yourself, just on you: not a chore or a duty that would benefit someone else; no, something you never get around to doing because your fear always drives you to doing stuff you believe to be more important. Trust me: there’s not much that is as important as loving yourself.