So here’s the thing. I’ve been absent for most of the last two years. Partially due to covid and the changes in what I needed to do with my family, partially due to my return to study, but more than those, because of depression. Some of you may have heard of depression referred to as “The Black Dog”, and I find this an interesting nickname, as I have always thought of emotions as being rather like untrained pets. Sure you can ignore them, lock them away, or even let them run riot, but they will tend to make a lot of noise, chew things up that you’d rather not lose, and pee on the carpet at the most inopportune moments.
While depression isn’t a transitory thing, I could say that I have done the most work with my black dog over the last year. This has included medication, therapy and intensive therapy programs. I have to say, it’s a bit like taking the little black dog puppy to training class: It takes regular practice, heaps of learning, troubleshooting for particular issues, and continued maintenance. So I guess you could say that I have learned to walk the black dog.
This is a complex thing really. I need to do the basic care of the black dog: in the shape of regular mindfulness practices, self care relating to diet, exercise and boundary setting, and daily grooming (care of my body and environment). The black dog also needs vet visits if something isn’t going well. You could liken this to medication changes, changes in therapists, or perhaps tests and medical checks. The black dog also requires emergency care: if I experience a crisis of some sort. Like when my father died. I haven’t written as much since I lost him, because for a while, this was a catalyst for me needing to do more work with the black dog.
Covid affected the black dog in many different ways. One of my maintenance strategies is to walk on the beach. While I can’t do it every day, it is an energy source that works both as a semi-regular maintenance strategy and an emergency care strategy. I couldn’t access a beach during the highly restrictive lockdowns we had, for months on end. So my black dog unfortunately developed some destructive habits. Things like a broken down vacuum cleaner, which couldn’t be repaired for months during lockdown, and a lack of need to prepare my home for visitors affected my environment. The black dog thrived in this chaos, growing ever larger. Self care also became less necessary and accessible, thus my appearance allowed the black dog to control me ever more over time.
I was fine during the first year of lockdown, homeschooling and studying. During this time I rose early every day, ensured that the family got dressed and the house was clean and organised, and spent time learning and building confidence. During the second year of lockdown however, I lacked the energy to be able to argue with children bumming around in pyjamas, especially if I too was just in a dressing gown, and the cleaning wasn’t done as much, the expense of food made it less plentiful and cooking less fun, and there wasn’t a lot to look forward to, lessening over time.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like everything went down hill. Our family learned some very good skills in getting along, tolerance, communication and interrelations, which will carry on with us throughout our future lives. I also did some hard yards being stuck with my own thoughts, forcing me to face issues which my black dog had lived with for decades, but I hadn’t had the time or necessity to face. So from this I am emerging differently able. My black dog is much better trained now. The baseline of necessary care and treatment has become a much more integrated part of my life, and I spend much more time with my black dog walking calmly by my side these days.
You see, it’s not about winning the fight with your black dog. It’s about learning how to live with them. How to accomodate them, and how to bring them through the muddiest swamps of life without suffering from leaches, ticks and worms. It’s about maintaining health through a pandemic. About addressing mental health as a life requirement rather than something that can be buried for later. It’s about learning to face things and how to sit in discomfort. How to tackle problems instead of hiding or running from them.
So now I don’t avoid my black dog. I just walk him, and take good care of him. I recognised that he was an untrained pet, not an enemy. Now for the next chapter of my life.
How do you keep your black dog content?
What backstops do you have in your life for when your black dog loses control?