People often refer to depression as “the black dog”, an association that was made famous by Winston Churchill’s description of his depression. The metaphor of the black dog is an interesting one. Dogs are often thought of as man’s best friend. We tend to think of them as lovable and loyal companions. However, when we talk about depression as a black dog, we are thinking of that dog as our worst enemy, rather than our best friend.
I like to think of a black dog as a good dog that’s gone bad. I imagine that black dogs start off as good, and get slowly more and more dark. Depression doesn’t happen over night. We don’t go to bed with a supportive internal dialogue, and wake up with an abusive one. Depression starts small, and gets bigger and bigger. Originally, our mind is our friend, just like the good dog. But over the years, if you suffer from depression, your mind turns against you, and becomes the black dog.
Dark, and destructive thoughts can swirl around in our heads for long periods of time, masquerading as good sense. The black dog worms its way into our lives, and before we know where we are it’s become a snarling beast that we can’t get rid of. Depression can sneak up on you, and so does the black dog.
Fortunately, you don’t have to have a black dog forever. Seeing your depression as a black dog is a good way of externalising it from yourself. Using this metaphor, you can imagine that the depression is not necessarily a part of who you are. You once existed without that black dog, and one day you will exist without it again.
If we listen to Sally Brampton’s (2009) depression memoir, we should “Shoot the damn dog”. I often feel like doing this. I hate my black dog. However, I’m not a fan of capital punishment. I like the idea of black dogs being sent to a prison, in which they are forced to interact with other dogs who are just as hateful as they are, and where they can spend years reflecting on what they have done.
I wonder what a prison for black dogs would be like. It would be a bad place to get a job as a guard, that’s for sure. The air would be thick with insults. Fights would be breaking out all over the place. They would laugh in the face of rehabilitation programs, and the books in the prison library would be chewed and shredded. Bowls of pedigree chum would be chucked at the walls, and the showers…well let’s not even think about what would happen in there.
But I’d like to think that after a period of several years, they would slowly return from the dark side, and remember what it means to be a good dog. They might start fetching tennis balls again, and searching for sticks. One day they might understand that the abuse they inflicted on their owners was wrong.
Brampton, Sally (2009) Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression, Bloomsbury Publishing.