How I tamed my black dog

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.

Children can have depression too

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.

Hiding in the dead planet – how I pictured my depression as a young adult

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.

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20 thoughts on “How I tamed my black dog”

  1. Hello Jen, Thanks for sharing this. It is a revelation to those of us who have never met the black dog lurking in the shadows. Much appreciated. It seems to point to something very very deep, whether genetic, chemical or attitudinal from our parents. So interesting and such a puzzle. The books you mentioned are indeed excellent, black dog or no!
    kind wishes, Tessa

  2. Hi Tessa – thankyou for commenting. I would add metaphysical/spiritual/karmic to your list of deep sources of this darkness – having been through the psychological and chemical approaches, I personally don’t think the conventional theories of depression cover it. CBT can help you to take control of it in daily life, but spiritual practice and experience through things like image-work and meditation can, I feel, transform it.

  3. What a touching post Jenny and I was so sorry to read of the tragic death of your sister. I could relate to so much here especially with being given drugs at an young age as a cure. Then like you I also had a lot of psychotherapy which was also extremely difficult as I felt like the sessions would open up a wound but I would be sent home to deal with it alone. Very scary and very risky.
    It takes courage to share from the heart like this and I’m so glad you have ‘recovered’. My your black dog be peaceful for a very long time.

  4. Thank you Carolyn. I think the risks of psychotherapy and the psychological approach generally are not adequately acknowledged – you’re right to use the word ‘risky.’ I hesitated to share from the heart on this subject, but it was that first post on your blog which inspired me. If people keep quiet about depression, it stays a taboo, or at least continues to be seen purely as an illness. Looking back now, it feels like an alchemical process in the self to me. A gift of depth. Writing that reminds me of a book I once read by Paul Brand, a doctor specialising in pain – it was called, ‘Pain: The gift nobody wants.’

    1. Thank you for commenting, Philippa – I wanted to say something about my own journey after I had written last week’s post, and I really wasn’t sure how it might be received

  5. Jenny, like others, I can only humbly say, ‘Thank you.’
    I identify with so much of what you say, though the reality of suicide has never come so close to me. But I was something like 9 or 10 when I came to the conclusion that suicide was nothing to do with ‘they’ll be sorry when I’m dead’ but everything to do with simply ceasing to exist, which is what I wanted (and still want, sometimes.)
    I’ve never had any kind of treatment for depression and still fight clear of it. A friend keeps trying to persuade me to go to the doctor and ask for Prozac (which helped him with anxiety) but I feel, rightly or wrongly, that a middle-aged woman from a council estate, with a working-class accent, saying to a doctor, ‘I’m depressed,’ is just asking for trouble! (I have friends who’ve spent time on locked mental wards for ‘assessment’.)
    Like you, Jenny, I found some help in the sneered at ‘self-help’ books – and also in the books on psychology that I read through shelves of in my teens. I found the Jungian ideas of ‘the shadow-side’ helpful.
    But thank you again for your post.

    1. Hi Sue – I think people always want their friend/loved one/ patient to take the pills because we all hate seeing other people suffer, but if I were you, I would hold your course and steer clear. I so relate to what you say here about it being nothing to do with ‘they’ll be sorry when I’m dead’; the received wisdom that it’s always an expression of anger feels just plain wrong to me. For me, the feeling was more that I was so barely attached to life, it wouldn’t really make much difference. I could be as still as a stone for days at a time, my mind totally disengaged, feeling nothing at all… so why not just let go?
      It seems to me that if depression is part of your psyche, it’s pointless asking why, as we do in our culture. ‘Why’ doesn’t give you any practical strategies for dealing with it. I think we have to say, this is me, and I have to learn how to handle it. Cue the self-help books and engaging with the shadow side. I think we should also ask, what is it for? Thank you so much for openness in sharing your experience here.

  6. But Yoga-stories, I’m intrigued. Do you mean you’ve NEVER been depressed? This seems as amazing to me as a friend’s remark that he’d never had a headache – never, he swore, in his whole life, had he ever had a pain in the head. I gazed at him in utter disbelief.
    It’s not that I doubt his or your honesty – it’s just that I cannot imagine a life in which headaches and depression have no part.

  7. I had a friend once who told me she believed people were broadly divided into two camps – on the one side, those who had never in their whole life thought about suicide, and on the other those who, however infrequently they might actually think about it, lived their lives in the consciousness of that possibility. She said those were the two basic ways of being in the world. I’ve never forgotten it and, like you Sue, I can’t imagine how the other way of being might feel.

    1. Jenny, once again, I think you are so right. I have no idea ‘why’ life so often seems a battle for some of us – while others have far harder lives and never even think of looking for the Exit. On the whole, I’ve had a pretty easy life; yet depression is never that far away.
      Dorothy Rowe argues (as I understand her) that suicide is ‘a refusal to live life except on your own terms.’ And that depression stems from the childish idea that, if we’re good, we’ll be rewarded – and then, when life isn’t fair, we feel hard done by and get depressed.
      I can’t really agree with either of these arguments (unless, of course, I’ve misunderstood her.) I don’t expect life to be fair, and I don’t think I had any particular expectations of it.
      I once wrote a story – Davie – which is about laying a ghost by inviting it in to join you for a meal. Interestingly, I’ve only just realised that the narrator of the story is depressed! – The ghost may, or may not, be an expression of her depression. She doesn’t actually lay the ghost – that is, get rid of it – but by inviting it in, she turns it from a troubling to a comforting presence. Isn’t it strange – I’ve only just realised what the ‘meaning’ of that story might be, as I answered this post, and I wrote it more than 15 years ago.
      The story’s in my ebook ‘Hauntings’

  8. Ooh… there’s so much meat in this comment, Sue – thank you! When I said ‘why’ I maybe should have said, ‘What is it for?’ What is the movement in the individual which comes from each episode, and in the life over a lifetime of episodes? How does our depression enable us to fulfil our potential/destiny? James Hillman has written a great book about this way of looking at things, called ‘The Soul’s Code.’ There, he’s suggesting we reintegrate into our ideas about psychology the notion of personal destiny, which is a relatively recent casualty of modern psychological theories. We only consider the push of the past in the formation of character, and not the pull of the future – but supposing we looked at everything that happens in terms of how it might move us towards our destiny? Brilliant stuff. Creative. I love experimenting with these ideas, not to find out what is right or wrong, but to experience how life feels from a different mindset.
    I’ve got a number of counsellor friends who really rate Dorothy Rowe on depression – my problem with her theories is the same as my problem with all the theories – I simply don’t believe depression is a one-size-fits-all situation.
    I love that another layer of ‘meaning’ has emerged about your story after all this time. Many dreams are like that. That’s one reason why I’m wary of imposing interpretations on dreams straight away, without allowing them to ripen. Fiction the same. So often, I’ve written a story completely from imagination and then had an ‘ah-ha’ years later. Imagination is always a step ahead.

  9. Thank you for writing this, Jenny. I’m so sorry to read about your sister.

    I have a black dog too (though at least it took until adolescence to surface; I can’t imagine trying to deal with all of this as a child). Like you I’ve tried different approaches – medication, talk – and though the down times still come along, I’m better at recognising them these days and have organised my working life so I can cut myself some slack when they do. I love how even-handed you are in this blog, though; what works for one person doesn’t work for another, and medication (side-effects, dosage issues and all the rest aside) was effective for me in the short-term.

    1. Hi Susie – it’s lovely to see you here on my blog. Thank you for sharing your experience. You put it very clearly, how you’ve got to know your black dog and can see him coming now, and organise things so that you can cut yourself some slack; I guess that is how we allow him to come in. Like Sue’s ghost in her story. And having found the drugs useful on the short term, it must be reassuring to know they are there should you ever need them again.

  10. Excellent blog Jen and very brave of you as well to share all this. I wholeheartedly agree with you about those self-help books. They certainly aided me in meeting my shadow self. The techniques outlined in their pages gave me skills for changing my life. It was important to not only read about it but to practise the exercises given. Overall I think the most important message I got was that it was me that had the power to change my life and that I didn’t have to wait to be saved by someone else.
    Astrology, yoga, meditation and exploring my spirituality have been instrumental in enabling me to trust in some larger plan and I’m now convinced that as long as I am willing to change I can handle whatever is presented to me.

  11. Hi Pat – that’s a really important point you make about not just reading these books but also putting the ideas into practice in your life. It’s not a quick fix, but a real discipline, a proper learning of skills. I think the main thing I, too, got from them was that feeling that I could change things for myself – well, that’s what ‘self-help’ means, I suppose! It’s curious to me how people who have never read any self-help/self-development books can view such a thing as an admission of weakness, rather than a positive engagement with life’s challenges. ‘Trusting in a larger plan’, I think, comes out of any deep reflection on the self, and life – the same as when you focus on anything at all, you have to see life as a miracle 🙂

  12. I take Zoloft, which helps tremendously, but mostly I have depended on my faith and on “reframing” my mind. It’s amazing how what you think effects what you feel and do. Angie

  13. Hi Angie – reframing my thoughts and the spiritual dimension – that’s what works for me too. Also, something I forgot to mention, but you’ve reminded me – trying to do things that will help, such as getting some exercise and eating good food. I’ve never heard of Zoloft – it might have a different name on this side of the pond I guess – but I’m glad it’s helpful for you. Thank you for commenting.

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