Monday, 27 March 2017
Black dogs are labradors
It doesn't happen very often, but when conversation turns toward mental health, I'm sometimes asked about my "Black Dog".
I can see why it became a useful shorthand for depression (first popularised by Churchill, among others). The black dog follows the person like a shadow, sometimes oppressively so, sometimes so large it shuts out all light and prevents any normal activity whatsoever. It is an entity outside of the person it visits: the person is pursued by the dog, hunted and hunter. And then the hound can be chased away, tamed or quietened by various treatments and remedies.
While it's a popular metaphor, it has never been one that I have applied to my own clinical depression.
Point one: I love dogs. Especially black labs, which is often how the black dog of depression is drawn. A bit like choosing a baby name ("no it can't be called George because that's the name of my tyrant boss") you can't help the mind associations you have and for me dogs represent fun, comfort, companionship and silliness.
Point two: my depression is not some "thing" that visits me. It is part of me. It IS me.
This is the reason that matters. Because, in my experience, depression cannot be chased away or tamed. To suggest that I can out run or out fox depression makes no sense. Depression is integral to me, a body part that starts off as a small knot in my chest then grows like a tumour until it encompasses my entire body.
When I'm depressed, I am depression. There is no me and it, only It.
It is my hand's hesitation to pick up a buzzing phone.
It is my stomach's insistence that it is full, despite not having eaten a proper meal in days.
It is my eyes' reluctance to look my husband in the face.
It is my arms' inability to reach for my son when he is clamouring for a cuddle.
It is my legs' leadenness when asked to move from the sofa.
It is my mouth's paralysis stopping words caught in the back of my throat from ever coming out.
It is everything, and yet nothing. A big negative void that eventually fills me up to the eyeballs. I cannot run from or fight it any more than I could gouge out my own heart. Instead I must treat recovery as a more gradual process: slowing filling the void: with words, with actions, and then even further down the line with thoughts and feelings. The words and actions must come first (CBT 101). There will always be several weeks - months maybe - when I am going through the motions of life. But eventually the thoughts and feelings return and the void is filled with my sense of self.
Terms such as "get a grip" and "snap out of it" are not PC but are actually quite accurate to how I get over depressive episodes. People who know me well tend to know when to push. What nobody can do is chase away a Black Dog for you, or save you from it: the illness (and the recovery) can only start from within.