The Black Dog that Lurks

black dog

For over a hundred years, people have used black dog as a metaphor for clinical depression. Winston Churchill said it. So did Sheryl Crow. Poets and writers mention it. Do a little research and you’ll find there is such a thing as the Black Dog Institute and the Black Dog Campaign. I was curious about the origin of this expression, so I read an essay about it that went (I believe) completely overboard to prove that our ancestors had a superstitious fear of man’s best friend, and that there were negative connotations to the color black (duh).

I think there’s a much simpler reason why so many people hit on the very same image to describe depression: because that’s what it feels like. It’s a dark creature lurking just outside your place of safety. You don’t claim him or want him. You didn’t ask for him to come and you don’t set out food for him. He comes anyway, though,  and paces up and down in front of your door. If you stay very still and quiet, locked inside your house, he might not get you. But he is blocking your path to the rest of the world, and to life.

I distinctly remember my first episode of depression. I was eighteen years old and a senior in high school. I had a new boyfriend. Nothing was wrong. And yet one day in French class, my favorite class, I put my head down on my desk and cried for the whole class period. About nothing. While never suicidal or overly dramatic, that day started me down a life path that included a lot of sighing, a lot of shrugging, a lot of staring at people blankly for a moment too long after they asked me a question. A lot of saying, “I’m tired.” It’s funny how negative things can occasionally work in your favor, because many times at work I was described as “calm, cool, and collected,” or “even-tempered.” People remarked about how I failed to get upset or take offense at various aggravations that occurred on the job. Well, folks, here’s my secret….it was because I didn’t care. I was so insulated in my own numb world that  daily squabbles and work-related crises barely made a ripple in my consciousness.

Times like that, the black dog is not lurking outside, he has come in and made himself at home. And just like a real dog, you get used to living with him. You might not like  him, but he is so firmly entrenched that you don’t remember what life was like before and you don’t know how to get him out. For years I tried to explain to people, “I get depressed the way you get a migraine. There is not necessarily a why. It comes to me and I am stuck with it until it goes away.” I’m sure I was never much fun to live with, and there were a couple of times when my frame of mind dipped so severely that I sought medication for a while, but in general I was just sort of an Eeyore every day, dragging through life.


And then a few years ago, there was a crisis. First of all, excuse me for mentioning it, but I started to have severe PMS, which I’d never suffered from in my life. Several months in a row, I threw a screaming fit at my husband without realizing the cause until afterward.  I eventually learned to watch for times when I was very angry about something that seemed perfectly rational to me at the moment and only later proved inconsequential. But before I could figure that out, there came a particular week that changed our lives.

We were already dealing with some trouble and some drama. Things were going on in our personal life…and he was out of a job at the time, so I was feeling the strain of that…plus my supervisor at work had been fired and then replaced with a recent college grad who had to learn everything from the ground up…just a lot going on. Every day that week, I spent my lunch hour on the phone with my husband, sobbing like my heart would break (and ordinarily, I’m not a crier). Long story really short: I quit my job, we burned our bridges behind us and moved to a new state where promptly everything went even further down the tubes…for a while.

But in the midst of the wondering-how-we’ll-survive strife, I noticed an interesting thing…the black dog had wandered off. I was worried, all right, and stressed and a lot of other things, but I was not depressed.  Maybe the Lord was saying to me, like a  parent says to a whining child, “You keep that up and I’ll give you something to cry about.”  I did have plenty to cry about for a year or so. But while dealing with real problems, real regret, real grief…the lingering malaise that had followed me around most of my life disappeared. And while we’ve since regained our equilibrium in our personal life, it hasn’t returned.

Advice about depression has limited usefulness. Going back to my comparison to a migraine, I might tell you a hundred ways to avoid a migraine, but that doesn’t mean it’s  your fault if one shows up anyway. You can, however, do your best to avoid known triggers.  I find it best to steer clear of tear-jerker movies, for example. I avoid news stories that sound especially disturbing. The Bible tells us to dwell on what is pure and good and lovely, not to wallow around in what’s sad and horrible, so I try to do that. And also, now that the black dog no longer lives with me, I’m better able to discern when he comes around, scratching at the door, trying to get inside. I recognize him for what he is, and do my best to run him off before he gets any ideas about staying. He’s not my dog, and I don’t want him around.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. outstandingbachelor
    Aug 25, 2014 @ 19:46:18

    Thank you for your post.

    Best wishes always.


  2. Gentle Joy
    Aug 26, 2014 @ 14:14:04

    Thank you for sharing your story on this….


  3. Maria
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 19:06:26

    Wow. My daughter-in-law had a horrible childhood and suffers from depression AND anxiety. Not as much depression since she had her baby; seems the hormones had an effect. Still dealing with a lot of anxiety though. We pray for her and her family constantly. Thanks for your story.


  4. Sweet-Water-and-Bitter
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 00:49:32

    Thanks everyone, for the comments and for reading. Maria, I had a really hard time with my youngest child, who was born when I was 37. I was, I think, dangerously depressed during my pregnancy. There were times I would see two doctors in the same week and I would wonder WHY don’t they see? Why don’t they offer to help me, or ask what’s wrong? Somehow I could not open my mouth to ask for help. I can’t explain it, but I just couldn’t. After my son was born, thankfully I felt a normal sense of love and attachment to him, but personally I still felt extremely low. This was one of the times I finally got some medication. My OB-GYN, who I loved, said to me that he had noticed at times I seemed significantly clinically depressed when I came into his office. He couldn’t tell me why he hadn’t ever brought it up.


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