I’ve had so much interesting feedback after last week’s post about depression, dreams and the creative life that I’ve decided to make a diversion from my usual themes of dreaming and writing, and talk about my own black dog.
He first showed up when I was a child and, by the time I was eight, I had a secret collection of things I could use to kill myself with. I couldn’t, of course, keep my depression secret. It involved whole days of crying, hiding or refusing to get out of bed.
The doctor decided the problem must be hormonal, so at the age of eleven I was put on the pill, to try and regulate my hormones. It didn’t help. I graduated to antidepressants in my mid teens, and a psychiatrist I saw briefly at nineteen added sleeping pills to the mix.
Nothing helped, and I didn’t doubt for one moment that sooner or later my black dog was going to kill me. Maybe he would have, if my big sister’s black dog hadn’t killed her first.
When someone close to you commits suicide, suddenly it isn’t abstract any more. You can’t tell yourself that nobody will care, or that they’d be better off without you. You properly understand the concept of never coming back.
My sister killed herself with prescription drugs washed down by wine – a fact that seemed proof positive of what I already suspected – the drugs were not the cure. I stopped taking them.
Then things got really scary.
I was in therapy with a psychiatrist for three years. It was a holding-space. The black dog hadn’t killed me, but he might as well have, because all that time focusing hard on every bad thing that had ever happened in my life, mysteriously failed to lift the darkness.
So there I was, clear of chemicals and all talked out with the talking cure; just me, all on my own, with this big black dog.
What happened next might surprise you – it surprised me. I discovered American self-help. It was all American in those days – here in Britain, the idea of self-help was eyed with suspicion as flakey, self-indulgent and unscientific.
But actually, these books drew on ideas you could find in various religious traditions; they were timeless wisdom repackaged for a secular age. The suggestions I came across in books such as Love is letting go of fear, You can heal your life and Feel the fear and do it anyway were life-changing for me.
What it boiled down to was observing your mind, understanding its behaviour and modifying it. And taming the mind turned out to be taming the black dog.
Now that science has caught up, these ideas have become mainstream, wrapped up in shiny new Cognitive Behavioural Therapy packaging. I’ve written a number of children’s self-help books based on CBT, because there’s nothing complicated about it; it’s mostly a question of awareness.
My black dog still shows up from time to time, but not very often and never for very long. I think that’s what happens with any dark thing in the soul – when you embrace the darkness, it becomes less dark.
I wish I’d been kinder and more patient with my black dog from the start but then maybe I simply wasn’t able to be – patience may be one of the gifts he has brought me.
This is just my story, of course. Other people will find prescription drugs and psychotherapy more helpful than I did, although both can have serious side-effects. I would add that, although my years in therapy didn’t help me handle the black dog, they did bring me benefits and insights for which I am grateful.