Black Dog

Header: Norwick, Shetland

He may not be here now, but he’s always around, somewhere.

It is time to own it, as people have started saying, and so I have been inspired by all the others who have gone public over the last few years: friends, relatives, colleagues, ex-pupils. It is a sign of progress that I could name a few dozen of the members of my Facebook friends list who are now open and honest about their mental health. Not that I am judging those who choose not to be open. We all deal with it in different ways.

This has still been the hardest blog entry to write. When the Black Dog is not around, then I don’t want to think about it. When the Black Dog is around, then writing anything, doing anything, is completely and utterly futile. Anything as trivial and transitory as a blog about my trivial and transitory life would have been so overwhelmingly pointless that there would be no way that I could put anything down on paper (or in pixels). In your more lucid moments you might want to – how much you could explain, how you could help others – but, of course, when the Black Dog is on top of you, it suffocates every ambition, every passion, every hope. In a TV program I watched once, one of the participants explained how she wanted to write a blog about her depression. I laughed. A little cruel, perhaps, but I knew she couldn’t do it. She didn’t. When the Black Dog calls, writing about it, explaining it, talking about it; they are all just too much effort. And when I try and think about the subject when I feeling okay, there is just such a great whirlpool of ideas, thoughts and opinions to sort through

The Black Dog as a euphemism for depression is often thought to have originated with Churchill, but the metaphor is much older and apparently appears in Anglo-Saxon writing. Churchill was one of the people who brought the concept of the Black Dog to public perception. There were times in Churchill’s life when he would retire to his bed for weeks at a time. He used to dread standing on railway platforms, because he knew it would take just one second of weakness, to step forward, and then … Yet, we never hear much about this. Because we don’t want heroes to be flawed. We don’t want heroes to be unwell. We don’t want the person who almost single-handedly brought Britain through the Second World War to have mental health problems. Churchill was, however, a classic bipolar in many ways. His periods of depressed inactivity were countered by spells of manic activity when he would barely sleep at all, making him a perfect leader in the chaos of war. He was up at four every morning, waiting impatiently for the first editions of the newspapers, and he expected everyone to work as hard as he did when he was manic, so he would have been a nightmare to work with.

More recently, the Black Dog as a metaphor has been popularised by the excellent books by Matthew Johnstone. These illustrate the effect of the depression in cartoon pictures with short captions. For example, a sad-looking man trying to fly a kite, with a dirty great Black Lab sitting on the string of the kite. The books are great because they illustrate depression in a way almost everyone can understand. A former colleague, who has written about depression online, has used the books to help her children understand. They will ask “Mum, how big is the Black Dog today?”

Former England and Lancashire cricketer Graeme Fowler also devised a system to help communicate with his family, using a scale from 0-20 to explain how he felt. I can understand how just being able to grunt a number would be easier than trying to explain a complicated and futile state of mind. I also liked the fact that Fowler’s scale went from 0-20 but he only used the numbers 6-15, because he knew things could conceivably be worse and could, hopefully, be better. Fowler’s book was the first that I read that communicated ideas to me that I could empathise with. There were aspects of Fowler’s circumstances that spoke to me.

Nowadays, there are lots of celebrities who have discussed their experiences, although I did get to the stage that finding out that yet another celebrity had fought depression and still succeeded was becoming quite depressing in itself. Stephen Fry may have run away from a play, but he’s a National Treasure. Ruby Wax may have divebombed her TV career (starring in Celebrity Sharkbait! – Google it, it’s real) but she ended up doing an MA at Oxford University to understand her illness. Matthew Johnstone may have suffered with the Black Dog, but as well as advertising careers in three countries he wrote the most brilliantly simple summary of depression and has become a motivational speaker and exhibited photographer. It makes you start to wonder: how come I couldn’t manage teaching a small class of inspirational pupils in a supportive school and a nurturing environment? What the hell was wrong with me?

Fry’s experiences do remind us how things have progressed in the last few years. When he walked out of a play after just three shows back in the 1990s, disappearing on the cross-channel ferry and turning up a few days later in France, people didn’t quite know what to make of it. Was that a mental health problem, some people asked, or did he just not like the reviews? And there is still a stigma, a feeling that you’re just weak and not up to it. It comes partly from the pervading public attitude, but it originates as much from your own thoughts about how you are being viewed and, crucially, how you feel flawed and inadequate for having such ‘weakness’. Ruby Wax covered it well in writing about her depression:

Why is it that every organ in your body can get sick and you get sympathy, except the brain?  You end up with a huge sense of guilt with people going ‘Oh come on, show me the lump, show me the x-rays,’ and of course you’ve got nothing to show, so you’re, like, really disgusted with yourself because you’re thinking, ‘I’m not being carpet-bombed. I don’t live in a township.

Ruby Wax (b. 1953) American-born British-based comedian, in the book Sane New World: Taming the Mind (2014)

The grime musician Stormzy also touched on this idea that you just feel weak and inadequate; the feeling that we don’t have any reason to be depressed, that we don’t actually deserve to be depressed:

What convinced me to talk about [depression] was the fact that if there’s anyone out there going through it, I think to see that I went through it would help. Because for a long time I used to think ‘soldiers don’t go through that’, you know? Strong people in life, the bravest, most courageous people, they don’t go through that. They don’t go through that, they just get on with it. Like, any person I admire or look up to hasn’t felt like this. They just pick themselves up, you know what I mean? And that’s not the case. 

Stormzy (b. Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr. 1993) English musician, in a TV interview with the British Channel 4 News (2017)

Some people are lucky. They can just get on with it. But some of us can’t. Not always. Sometimes it’s a struggle to just get out of bed. On other occasions, we can continue to ‘perform’. It may be possible to work or ‘put on a show’, but it is wise to stick to your comfort zone, and you are aware that you are underperforming.  There is a constant nagging feeling that you are letting everyone else down, no matter how good you are at putting up a show. And how do you differentiate between the Black Dog and apathy, self-pity, laziness …?

When I retired from my job as a teacher I spoke about my Black Dog in public for the first time. I thanked the rest of the staff for compensating for me not pulling my weight (which, as I pointed out, must be quite a loss, given my weight). There was a laugh at this comment. The serious point had been put across without making it sound too serious. Humour is often the best way of putting on a show. It is a mask to hide behind. Many great comedians have suffered from depression: Tony Hancock, Eric Morecambe, Robin Williams, to name just a few. When Robin Williams said: “You’re only given a little spark of madness and if you lose that, you’re nothing”  it seemed to sum up his zany, ebullient personality. How different the quote sounds now, when we know that Williams took his own life in 2014.

Humour can’t shroud the Black Dog forever. It is too dark and too powerful. The Dementors in the Harry Potter books were created by J. K. Rowling as a personification of her depression and, knowing this, they do take on an even more sinister aspect. No-one who has had depression can fail to recognise the symptoms described by the character Remus Lupin, and for those lucky enough not to know what it feels like, this explains it well:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them … get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself … soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

J. K. Rowling (b. 1965) British author, in the novel Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999).

One other misconception about depression is the idea that it must be ’caused’ by something, which means that people will sometimes try and cheer you up by trying to explain that things aren’t that bad. Depression may have triggers, it may have deep-lying causes, but it is frequently totally irrational in its timing and appearance, as I have pointed out in recent blog entries for the Falklands and Tahiti, both days when the Black Dog appeared when I rationally and intellectually knew that there was nothing to be depressed about. One of my first bad bouts was when I first lived in Shetland and it disgusted me: ‘to despair amid such beauty is obscene’ I wrote at that time, trying to resolve and rationalise my condition. Stephen Fry explained the illogicality well: “If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression just is, like the weather.”

I overheard some friends discussing someone who they knew suffered bouts of depression and they commented on how he had plenty of reasons to be optimistic. “Yes,” I interjected. “Imagine that. Being able to rationally and logically assess your life, to know that you have a good life, to know that you are better off than most, to know that you are fortunate … and yet, you still feel depressed!” That is a chillingly reflective moment.

My lowest spell came more recently, at about the same time as I lost my parents, but this was just co-incidence. I could deal with grief. Grief has a reason, it has a source. But depression eats away at your very reason for existence. It’s like cancer of the soul. At my worst, I felt that was looking over the edge of a great chasm of emptiness, and nothing, absolutely nothing mattered. The total and utter futility of everything, the certainty that everything that you hold dear is so transient and irrelevant. There are no positives. Only negatives. There is nothing that you do well, only things that you do badly. Only failings. What is the point? Even now, writing these words, they seem so facile, shallow, pathetic. But they are so all-pervading, so enveloping. And then there is the fear. The debilitating fear. Like the day I couldn’t even face the doctor and ran out of the surgery …

Interestingly, I was talking to a friend once, someone who had very good reason for grief, and he described how long it took to get over his loss. He felt that he was climbing out of a deep dark hole and, every time he got near the light, he seemed to fall back. I was struck by how his analogy was similar, but opposite, to my feelings about depression. He felt he was in a deep, dark place and it was too difficult to get out and into the light. But, he was aspiring to get there, he was looking up, even if his destination frequently seemed too far and his progress too slow. Whereas my analogy for depression is the sense of looking into a black chasm of emptiness and the fear of falling down and down and ever down. He was looking up, even if he was frustrated at the rate of progress, but depression is about only being able to see down; there is no up.

Throughout, my wife, Margaret, has been magnificent during my bouts of depression, even though she doesn’t understand. Don’t get me wrong, she has tried and she has been wonderfully supportive and empathetic. But I am so delighted that she does not really comprehend. Every now and again she says something that shows that she does not really understand, and I am so glad, because it means that she does not suffer.

So, this ramble is partly a way of trying to explain to those who don’t suffer, and partly a means of showing solidarity and understanding to those who do. The things I do may be pointless, but they are the things that make me who I am. It’s okay to be fragile. It’s okay to be strong. It’s okay to be me.

A rare photo, taken when I know I was low, Saturday 19th October 2013. Something as trivial as taking photos is something I rarely bother with when the Black Dog is around, but this was taken on a grey, damp, misty day in Perthshire when I was trying to work my way out of a low phase

Posted May 2020 (minor additions May 2022)

Further Quotes

Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. David Bowie (1947-2016), English musician, in the song Lazarus on the album Black Star (2016).

The terrible truth about depression, and the part of its nature that terrifies me the most, is that it appears to operate beyond reason; feelings happen to you for no apparent cause. Or rather, there is usually an initial cause, a ‘trigger’ as they say in therapeutic circles, but in severe depression the feelings of sadness, grief, loneliness and despair continue long after the situation has resolved itself. Sally Brampton, English writer, in the book Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression (2008).

The statistics on insanity are that one out of every four people is suffering from some form of mental illness. Look at your three best friends: if they’re ok, then it’s got to be you. Attributed to Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944), American writer; original source unknown.

People think depression is sadness … crying … dressing in black. But people are wrong. Depression is the constant feeling of being numb. Being numb to emotions, being numb to life. You wake up in the morning just want to go back to bed again. Days aren’t really days, they are just annoying obstacles that need to be faced. Mitch Clark (b. 1987), Australian rules footballer, writing on social media (2016). 

So many of my friends would say, ‘How can you feel like that?’ and, ‘But you’re so lucky,’ and I’d be like, I know, trust me, I know. I know I’m the luckiest girl in the world, I understand all of these things, and I wish I could appreciate it. There is just something dark within me I cannot seem to shake … I hated myself for being depressed. I hated feeling depressed, I hated feeling. I was very good at disassociating from emotion completely. And all the time I was second-guessing myself, saying something and then hating myself for saying it. I didn’t understand what was happening apart from the fact that I didn’t want to be alive anymore. Cara Delevingne (b. 1992), English model and actor, in the British-based international magazine Porter (2017).

I have a nice life. I have a great job, great family, lovely wife. I know all that exists but I can’t get to it. It’s over there and I can’t get there. So, am I going to kill myself? The answer is no. But do I wish I was dead? Yes. Graeme Fowler (b. 1957), English cricketer, in his autobiography Absolutely Foxed (2016).

[Medication] made me feel numb, like I was looking at life through five-inch thick glass, but it was better than wanting to be dead. It was better than feeling worthless and pointless. Graeme Fowler (b. 1957), English cricketer, in his autobiography Absolutely Foxed (2016).

If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Stephen Fry (b. 1959), English comedian, in the book More Fool Me: A Memoir (2014).

In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the lips and face and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smile and kept moving. Neil Gaiman (b. 1960), English writer, in the story Bitter Grounds, originally published in the anthology edited by Nalo Hopkinson entitled Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003).

We are all like the bright moon, we still have our darker side. Attributed to Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), Lebanese-American writer; original source unknown.

There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds. Laurell K. Hamilton (b. 1963), American writer, in the novel Mistral’s Kiss (2006).

I’ve had a bad week. – What’s happened? – Nothing’s happened. I’ve had a bad week in my head, is all. Nick Hornby (b. 1957), English writer, in the novel High Fidelity (1995).

Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable.  Kay Redfield Jamison (b. 1946), American clinical psychologist and writer, in the book An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (1995).

The black dog I hope always to resist … when I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking … after dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect … what shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this? Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), English writer, as quoted by W. B. C. Watkins in the book Perilous Balance: The Tragic Genius of Swift, Johnson, and Sterne (1960).

I had a Black Dog, his name was depression. Matthew Johnstone, New Zealand-born writer, illustrator and advertising creative, in the book I Had a Black Dog (2005).

There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, ‘There now, hang on, you’ll get over it.’ Sadness is more or less like a head cold – with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer. Barbara Kingsolver (b. 1955), American writer, in the novel The Bean Trees (1988).

Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) American writer, in the novel Hyperion (1839).

I was just beginning to slide into a state of melancholy and senselessness that were incomprehensible to me. Richard Mabey (b. 1941), English writer, in the book Nature Cure (2005).

There has always been a third response to trouble, the stratagem … referred to as ‘vegetative retreat’. When fight or flight is impossible … possums ‘play possum’. Hedgehogs curl up. Barn owls faint. They all pass … into states resembling death or sleep, where decision-making and even movement are put on hold … In Humans, prolonged unhappiness or disappointment also seems to provoke it. Richard Mabey (b. 1941), English writer, in the book Nature Cure (2005).

Pour some misery down on me; I’m only happy when it rains. Shirley Manson (b. 1966), Scottish musician, in the song Only Happy When It Rains on the eponymous album by Garbage (1995).

The pain is too much, a thousand grim winters grow in my head, in my ears the sound of the coming dead. Spike Milligan (1918-2002) Anglo-Irish comedian, in the poem Manic Depression (1953).

I have got so low that I have asked to be hospitalized and for deep narcosis (sleep). I cannot stand being awake. The pain is too much… Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning – I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going – so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is ‘good evening’ and then I go quiet. Spike Milligan (1918-2002), Anglo-Irish comedian; exact source unknown.

‘It’s snowing still,’ said Eeyore gloomily … ‘And freezing … however,’ he said, brightening up a little, ‘we haven’t had an earthquake lately.’ A. A. Milne (1882-1956), English writer, in the children’s novel The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other easily understood disease, just to make it easier on me, and also on them. Jennifer Niven (b. 1968), American writer, in the novel All the Bright Places (2015).

Brain stopped play. Message to the reader: I am not making this up. I’m afraid this is really happening. And, yes, I am afraid. Bill Oddie (b. 1941), English comedian, in the book One Flew into the Cuckoo’s Egg: My Autobiography (2008).

The truth is that in the deepest state of depression one is virtually catatonic. In a less extreme condition it may be possible to work or ‘put on a show’, but even then it is wise to stick to your comfort zone. Bill Oddie (b. 1941), English comedian, in the book One Flew Into the Cuckoo’s Egg: My Autobiography (2008).

God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfilment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), American poet and writer, in the book The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2002).

I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me; all day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), American poet and writer, in the poem Ariel (1965).

I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), American poet and writer, in the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963).

I’ll never forget how the depression and loneliness felt good and bad at the same time. Henry Rollins (b. 1956), American musician and performer, in the book The Portable Henry Rollins (1998).

Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced … it is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts, but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different. J. K. Rowling (b. 1965), British writer, in an interview in the British newspaper The Times (2000).

When a depressed person shrinks away from your touch it does not mean she is rejecting you. Rather she is protecting you from the foul, destructive evil which she believes is the essence of her being and which she believes can injure you. Dorothy Rowe (b. 1930), British-based Australian clinical psychologist, in the book Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison (1985).

Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance. Andrew Solomon (b. 1953), American writer, in the book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2000).

But most days, I wander around feeling invisible, like I’m a speck of dust floating in the air that can only be seen when a shaft of light hits it. Sonya Sones, American writer, in the novel One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies (2004).

I wish all of my friends were dead, so I’d never have to pick up the phone. Johnny Stevens, American musician, in the song Serotonia from the Highly Suspect album The Boy Who Died Wolf (2016).

For me, [depression] was a realisation of how fragile we are as humans, in the most beautiful way possible. Stormzy (b. 1993), English musician, in a TV interview with British Channel 4 News (2017).

Anyone who has actually been that sad can tell you that there’s nothing beautiful or literary or mysterious about depression. Jasmine Varga, American writer, in the novel My Heart and Other Black Holes (2015).

I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare. Ned Vizzini (1981–2013), American writer, in the novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2006).

Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle. Often paraphrased as … Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. John Watson (1850-1907), British Presbytarian minister and writer, writing under the pen name Ian MacLaren, in a message printed in The British Weekly (1897). Sometimes misattributed to Plato.

Mental illness is a physical illness. You wouldn’t consider going up to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s to yell, ‘Come on, get with it, you remember where you left your keys?’ Let us shout it from the rooftops until everyone gets the message: depression has and nothing to do with having a bad day or being sad. Ruby Wax (b. 1953), American-born British-based comedian, in the book Sane New World: Taming the Mind (2014).

The hardest thing about depression is that it is addictive. It begins to feel uncomfortable not to be depressed. You feel guilty for feeling happy. Pete Wentz (b. 1979), American musician, speaking in an online interview at teamrock.com (2016).

You’re only given a little spark of madness and if you lose that, you’re nothing. Robin Williams (1951-2014), American comedian, in the live recording A Night at the Roxy (1978).

When I was a kid, I always assumed that [fame] was going to answer something – fill a gap. And it does the absolute opposite. It happens with everybody. I was so driven for so long, like a f*cking animal, and then I woke up one day and someone had given me a little gold plate for OK Computer and I couldn’t deal with it for ages. I moved down to Cornwall, went out to the cliffs and drew in a sketchbook, day in, day out. I was allowed to play the piano and that was it, because that was all we had in the house. I did that for a few months and I started to tune back into why I’d started doing it … I remember having nothing in the house, except a Yamaha grand piano. Classic. And the first thing I wrote was Everything in Its Right PlaceThom Yorke (b. 1968), English musician, in an interview in the British magazine Dazed (2013).

Finally, a big thank you to all those people who have inspired me to write this, some of them because they understand, some of them because they don’t comprehend but have tried, and some of you without knowing: you have all contributed in some small way. Alex, Becci, Brydon L., Brydon T., Connell, Claire, Clare, David, Eileen, Emma, Euan, Finlay, Helen, Holly, Judy, Karen G., Karen S., Karin, Kieran, Kim, Kyle, Laura, Liam, Lynette, Maggi, Margaret, Mary, Micky, Murray, Paul H., Paul T., Theo, Tobias, Vaila.