Winston Churchill called it his “black dog” in an old letter to his wife. Depression, or low mood, that is. It’s a classic symbolism of depression. And my black dog is snoring on the couch right now after another failed trip to the park. And that’s ok. We have many future days to throw the ball and make fetch happen; knowing this is helping me keep Mr. Churchill’s kind of black dog away.
When the Black Dog Creeps Up on You: A Classic Symbolism of Depression
It’s been a really brutal seven months. In January, my 16-year-old daughter had a hyponatremic seizure. She was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa and spent a month in the hospital to become medically stable. Since then, we have been practising Family-Based Treatment (FBT), which is currently the most effective treatment for eating disorders. And it’s exactly what it sounds like. Under the supervision of a (wonderful) medical team, we are treating her. Food is medicine and it must be dispensed copiously (recovering from Anorexia requires A LOT of calories) and frequently (three meals and three snacks per day, every day). Anorexia is really scary. One in five will fully recover. And one in five will die.
I used to think eating disorders were a matter of choice and control. Now I know better. I’ll share more about that another time because I’m certain most people have the same misconceptions that I did. But right now I want to tell you about Mickey.
Mickey is a 10-week-old puppy. He’s mostly Labrador Retriever, and about an eighth Bernese Mountain Dog and an eighth German Shepherd. He is our family’s first dog and he is SO. MUCH. WORK. When you’re a full-time caregiver who is also working full-time from home, you don’t need more work. Trust me on this. You also don’t need less sleep. I’m pretty sure getting a puppy right now was a mistake. But I’m also pretty sure that caring for Mickey is bringing me joy (in between the frustrating moments, of course). And caring for Mickey is bringing me something I’m too afraid to acknowledge most days. And that’s hope.
In its role of symbolism for depression, the black dog follows you through your day and wrecks the everyday things that usually make you happy. He’s always there, looming. My black dog has brindle paws that look like socks. I’m happy if he follows me around because if I can’t see him, chances are he’s chewing something he shouldn’t. The symbolism for depression black dog chews up good thoughts and feelings. Mickey actually gives me those.
The book I Had a Black Dog, His Name Was Depression by Matthew Johnstone does a wonderful job of illustrating what actual, clinical depression feels like. The video on YouTube is a quick watch. Anxiety was always my shadow but I eventually learned to embrace it and use it to propel me forward. But lately, something was making it harder and harder to get out of bed. Something was making it harder to move, harder to function. Part of me was afraid if I actually stayed in bed one day, I’d never be able to get out. Now, thanks to my black dog, I get up because I don’t want to have to clean up pee or poo.
I ten trillion per cent don’t want to advocate for pet ownership as a cure or treatment for depression. Mickey is a new family member we were considering for a very long time. And, like a new baby or other huge life decision, there is never a good time. Overthinking is my specialty. So here we are, it’s sink or swim. And we know Mickey can swim because he jumped in my bestie’s pool last week
Everyone in my family is taking turns supporting each other. We’ve been fortunate so far in that all of us are not down at the same time. Mickey is helping us stay focused on a common goal, which is a happy and well-behaved dog. His wagging tail and puppy kisses make up for the constant vigilance and difficulty falling asleep. I have googled “When do puppies get easier?” many times so I know these tough days will be brief even if they feel like forever.
If you struggle with practicing mindfulness, keeping a careful watch on a curious puppy keeps you in the here and now. If you don’t want to leave the house, needing to walk the dog gets you out the door. And if you feel like the world is against you, seeing that tail tap the floor when you come near is proof you matter to someone, even if that someone recently ate his own poop.
The pandemic has been very difficult for all of us. And some of us thought we were faring ok until disaster struck. Tough days are absolutely de rigeur for everyone. But if your tough days are starting to outnumber your non-tough ones, or if they feel tougher and tougher to get through, it’s time to acknowledge that maybe your black dog is showing up and his tail isn’t wagging. Medication, mindfulness, rest, and exercise are all options to try. I won’t be so trite as to say, “Get help.” Because help can be hard to find and is pretty expensive. But I will say, acknowledge it and accept it and start to work on it. Maybe don’t get a dog although I’m grateful for mine. But if you have one, I’m sure he’d love to go for a walk right now.
- Understanding and Finding Help for Depression – Ontario Mental Health Association
- Depression – Here to Help BC
- Find Mental Health Support – Ontario.ca
- Mental Health Support – Canada.ca
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