What can you do when the black dog comes calling?

What can you do in the depths of depression? Nothing. That really is the point. You may be able to keep functioning for years, keeping the lid on the echo chamber of your heart, but if you fall through, your reason and senses, your energy and willpower, your connection with other people, everything that normally sustains you will be gone.

This is a terrifying experience and, while it’s still horribly fresh in my mind, I’d like to say a bit about what helped me, in case it happens to you.

When you fall:

  • be kind to yourself. Be aware that negative thoughts, especially about yourself, will rise like scum. Let them bubble over and be gone. Don’t drink them in.
  • explain to others what you need – they may not understand that detaching yourself feels frightening for you, and doesn’t even slightly mean you love or need them less. You need them more, but you need them to allow that distance, and hold the space.
  • bear it. Have faith that it will pass, because everything does; that’s the nature of life. It might come back, but then it will pass again.
  • believe and be alert. Look for treasure in the darkness, and be ready to embrace the opportunities it brings for balance and transformation.

After the crisis, as you begin to feel life stirring again:

  • try to connect with other people, especially in ways that may be helpful to them. At first, connecting with people you don’t know well could be easier, because you may still feel too fragile to cope with the powerful emotions you feel for your nearest and dearest.
  • surround yourself with beauty. This doesn’t mean you have to seek out beautiful things, but simply to notice the beauty in every single thing around you.
  • feel part of the natural world. In wild places, parks or your own back garden, feel the bare earth beneath you and the boundless sky above.
  • give yourself time. Don’t try to get back to normal as quickly as you possibly can, because a deep bout of depression changes you, and ‘normal’ might not be the same. In my experience, it will be better.

When I was able to get up again from my bed of tears, these were the things that helped and soothed me back to myself.

I couldn’t write books, but I could create new workshops, because I thought of them like gifts to other people. And as with every gift, I got back much more than I gave, in warmth and positive regard. I couldn’t walk far, but I spent hours on the beach or outside in the garden, just being.

Nobody wants a visit from the black dog of depression, but if he’s part of your nature, as he is for many creative people, trying to keep him out is fighting yourself. This is only my view, I should add. I know that other people prefer to hold the black dog at bay with drugs or therapy.

I would never suggest you shouldn’t seek medical or psychological help if you suffer from depression. I tried every therapy going throughout my teens and twenties, and beyond, and if anything had worked for me, I probably would never have taken the hard choice to stop trying to keep the black dog out, and learn to live with him. (I’ve blogged about ‘How I Tamed My Black Dog’ here)

But I’m glad I had to in the end, because through disrupting my known and normal life, he opens me up to change.

How do you respond when the black dog comes calling? Have you got any tips of your own to share?




18 thoughts on “What can you do when the black dog comes calling?”

  1. I have really appreciated reading your last two posts about ‘the black dog’. In response to your question ‘what helps you?’ I agree with what you say and add a couple more. I have a tendency to overstretch, to get carried along with more momentum than time, energies and resources can sustain, at such a pitch. So one of my new areas of learning is for managing my wellness – how to listen more carefully to my yeses and my nos, and factor in more spaciousness in my life, despite the temptation to tumble along like a wild mountain stream – all the time. It is fine (and actually vital, for me) if it is like this for some of the time, but not all the time. The other thing I learned years ago, after am entire year ‘out’, was a pattern-breaker called the lightning process, as I had become stuck in fight, flight, freeze mode. I needed something to help me shift back in to what I now think of as frontal lobe flow. I had help the first time, but now, if it happens, which it hasn’t for several years, I can even use writing to un-freeze myself. I write in detail about the sensations of being stuck, then the sensations of something very flowing, like dancing to a particular song. I keep going back and forth between the two, until I feel unstuck again. Of course, these are only my own experiences and I do not speak for, or advocate for others. We all have our own ways.

    1. I love the way you put this, Kate – I really relate. When I understood low moods had a balancing function for me, that’s when I began listening more to what I actually needed, rather than what I wanted, and I generally don’t get depressed now, as I make space when I realise I need to. I think I’ve been fighting life lately and didn’t want to listen. Thats when my black dog bites.

  2. Thank you for your blog Jenny and sharing your experiences – it’s all part of building communities that can sustain us – and yes, your work is a real gift.

  3. I know you didn’t create the imagery, Jenny, but I’ve always despised the term “black dog.” It literally gives ebony-colored canines a bad reputation, as animal shelters report that black dogs are often the least popular. But I don’t want to turn this into an animal welfare issue.

    Depression has been my constant and worst nemesis since childhood. I can recall being very young and having suicidal thoughts. My parents just couldn’t understand why I didn’t make friends as easily as they did. I was always too much of an introvert; a trait I didn’t learn to celebrate until about 20 years ago. That was about the same time I finally grabbed hold of my bouts with depression and strangled them into submission. They still sneak up on me on occasion; in particularly these past few months with the deaths of my father and my dog.

    But I always find a reason to shake myself out of those nasty depths and remain alive. There’s just too much I want to do with my life than to give up so easily.

    1. That’s interesting Alejandro – I don’t feel the image gives black dogs a bad rap as I no longer battle depression, and I really value the gifts it can bring, even though it’s uncomfortable company… to put it mildly. I hope childhood depression is better acknowledged these days – when your family doesn’t understand, it’s such a lonely place.

  4. This brought tears to my eyes, Jenny, partly because of the timing of it and also because you have a way of seeing things that, when you put them into words, makes something click into place with me. This bit in particular: ‘Nobody wants a visit from the black dog of depression, but if he’s part of your nature, as he is for many creative people, trying to keep him out is fighting yourself.’ I believe this too – it is almost like another voice we need to listen to isn’t it? It’s telling us something is wrong. I love, too, that you identify this as a source for change. It is, and that can’t be hurried can it?

    1. I’m happy to hear we’re still chiming with each other Abi, in our virtual conversations – and very glad the timing is good for you on this one. Another voice – yes – from a part of our self… and change can’t be rushed, as you say. I’m still at the stage of feeling everything has changed after my long walk with the black dog, but not knowing yet exactly how. It’s easier to be patient when he’s gone.

  5. Sorry to hear you’ve been having a difficult time, Jen, but so glad you’re sharing your wisdom with us. I always look forward to reading your balanced views and creative outlook on life. xxx

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