What IS The Black Dog of Depression?

Ah, metaphors. Without them, we’d be adrift in a landscape of cement without an actual tree or honest-to-goodness purple unicorn to disrupt our perspective. Sounds boring and harsh, doesn’t it?

The main problem with metaphor or simile or hyperbole is that other people may not have any clue what creative types are talking about.

If you have been hanging around people who describe Depression, you may have been feeling this very thing about The Black Dog. What is this dark canine? Where did he come from? Why a dog?

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The Black Dog is a description for Depression. He is the faithful animal that will not be trained, a dark and hulking shadow to our lives. Much betters writers than I have who have done better research than I say that associating negative feelings with a gloomy, unwanted creature has been happening for a very long time.

The most popular attribution is given to Winston Churchill. Annoyingly, writers say things like, “Churchill often cited ‘a black dog,'” or, “Churchill referenced ‘a black dog…'” In trying to pin down an actual quote, I found this snippet about a new German doctor Churchill had seen, from The Churchills, by Mary S. Lovell:

I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.

But The Black Dog has been around since long before Churchill. Think of stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or centuries of fireside folktales about hellhounds in British tradition. J. K. Rowling even used these to describe her characters’ fears of The Grim in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The Black Dog has been around for a while, mostly in association with an omen of bad tidings.

One of the best methods of explaining the old rascal is in a video released by The World Health Organization:

I love so many things about the video, but a favorite line of mine is:

Depression is an equal-opportunity mongrel.

Some animal lovers out there may feel a big defensive on behalf of dogs. Most dogs are lovable, goofy idiots whose main goal in life is to get you to dote on them. Not like those cats…

Given the history of the metaphor’s use, the name makes sense. Man has long used dog as a companion, hunter, guard, and helper. In sensing a creature to be ever-present, even at the foot of our own beds, the idea of this foreboding creature being a dog is not so far-fetched.

The most important question to ask, however, is not one of the three I posed earlier concerning its history. It is How do I deal with my own black dog?

At the end of the video I included are a few very simple pieces of advice. Therapy is number one. Medication, exercise, sleep, journaling, and talking openly with friends are all mentioned.

Hmmm… those sound a lot like the tips we’ve discussed in my Cure for Depression series.

We can learn to live with Depression in a positive way. We can leash our shadow, diminish his presence, and even be rid of him altogether some days. As Matthew Johnstone says near the end of his video:

I learnt not to be afraid of the black dog, and I taught him a few new tricks of my own.

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Living with Depression is not easy, but it can be easier.

If you’re not certain whether you have depressive symptoms, The Black Dog Institute of Australia has a basic quiz online. Whether you fill it out or not, I recommend that anyone who wonders ought to get in to see a counselor.

Life has happy moments, too. Don’t let your black dog or purple unicorn stand in front of your view. And that’s something worth fighting for.