- Naming the Black Dog
The expression “black dogs” has less cultural currency here in the States than it does in England. In England and continental Europe, the image of the black dog has haunted literature and folklore. It signifies ethereal visitants, harbingers of death, and keepers of the gateway to the underworld. More recently, the phrase has been employed to describe the experience of depression. Perhaps the most famous usage in this context comes from British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill battled with depression all his life and personified his dark moods as his “black dog.”1 The idea of black dogs representing depression capitalizes on their sinister folkloric history and provides an expressive metaphor for the ghostly, shadowy, and tenacious presence of depression in a person’s life.
I have my own black dogs, and I’ve had them since they were puppies.
Sometimes, they’re fairly well-behaved: they’ll pull at their leashes and maybe growl a little at strangers, but they’ll be generally easy to restrain. Other times, they’ll fret and whimper outside my bedroom door, keeping me awake at night and waking me far too early in the morning. They’ll press their cold noses against my skin and force me to stare into their fathomless black eyes. Sometimes it’s all-out war, and I actually have to try to outrun them before they overpower me and sink their teeth into my throat.
My dogs feed off emptiness and fear, but it is one of their peculiar characteristics that the more you feed them the thinner they become, and the thinner they become, the larger they get.
But let’s not over-work the dogs here, indefatigable though they are. They’re a useful metaphor; they express well the spectral, haunting nature of depression in the evocative vocabulary of the fairy tale. However, they can’t really communicate the internal experience of depression. [End Page 56]
This might get closer:
Walking down the corridor on a typical morning, I’ll meet a colleague.
“Good morning! How are you today?” he’ll say.
“I’m very well thanks! How are you doing?” I’ll reply.
Of course, what I really want to say is, “Actually, today I feel leaden and sluggish. I keep forgetting the words for everyday objects and the names of people I know well. Today is one of those days when I can stare at a bunch of change in my hand and know that coin is a dime, be sure it’s a dime, but secretly fear that the rules have shifted overnight, and if I try to use it as a dime, people will think I’m crazy. I feel like the skull at the banquet, the dead fly at the bottom of a bag of candy. And how might you be?!”
But that’s just such a conversation killer.
The major symptoms of depression read like a nightmarish grocery list of things you really don’t want to stock in your cupboards: disturbed sleeping patterns, over- or under-eating, withdrawal from and loss of interest in social activities, and so on. These are the familiar, outward signs, but what I find really interesting is the internal mental state of the depressed mind. For me, its key characteristics are a dizzying sense of unreality and thought patterns driven by obsessional thinking.
The sense of unreality invaded me when I was very young. Once, at school, I remember my math teacher, in an effort to explain some impenetrable equation to us, asking the class to think of something that was impossible. I struggled—I really did. There were, of course, myriad things that seemed highly unlikely: pink rain falling, a man turning into a snake, but I discarded each of these implausible scenarios as being not quite implausible enough. What if some unexpected chemical reaction within the clouds turned the rain pink? What if some unknowable sub-molecular force re-engineered a man into a reptile? This thinking can certainly be explained by childish imagination, but now I also see it as symptomatic of my depression. Even then, I found myself in a world full...