Tag Archives: black dog

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?



A dream of darkness

A few days after I last blogged, way back in May, I went to Iceland. I’d always been drawn to the North, so Iceland had been on my must-see list for decades, but what made me actually go this year was a series of dreams I had around the time of my mother’s death last November. They were ‘big dreams’ – dreams that had a momentous quality, a deep sense of mystery and meaning.

They were a call to ancestors, to the place beyond death and, specifically, to Iceland. So like all dreamers, who have learnt how and when to listen, I followed the call of my dreams.


Being in Iceland felt, to me, like being in a dream. I had completely underestimated the size of the island, and the sparseness of the population; I had not expected the vast tracts of volcanic deserts and inaccessible mountains. I hadn’t noticed that the key on my map had only three kinds of terrain – places where something’s growing, places where not much is growing, and places where basically nothing is growing at all, which was about 40 percent of the land.


Ice, water – and fire too. In Iceland, the hot water in your shower smells of sulphur, because it’s piped straight out of the volcanic ground, and when you’re walking in some places, you can hear the gurgle of water boiling and bubbling, breathing out wafts of sulphurous steam, and then the earth feels like a living being. You can absolutely understand why Icelandic people believe in earth spirits – you can believe it yourself.


Land of fire and ice, and of light and darkness too. I visited several art exhibitions which explored the creative sensibility of the peoples of the North, shaped by long dark winters and summer months of continuous light. They made explicit how this environment can drive a psychological rhythm between extremes of celebration and isolation, of joy and depression.

I felt these extremes in myself, the whole time I was there. On the surface, excited and enchanted by everything I saw and everyone I met, but sensing all the time, the darkness moving underneath. A few days in, I had this dream:

The car is packed for the next stage of my journey and I’m having a last cup of tea with my hosts. Looking out over Rekjavik through their big window, I see a sudden darkness coming across the sky – clouds?

I see black clouds rising along the edge of town, pouring up into the air from the ground, and as I watch, a sudden column of sparkling fire shoots up, exploding in a great shower of sparks, orange and red, filling the thick black cloud that’s covering everything.

‘What is that?’ I gasp.

‘The volcano’s erupting.’

Black soot is falling everywhere, covering everything, but it doesn’t matter. This is what I’ve come for. The darkness. Not just fun and distraction. I always knew it.

It was the beginning of what has been, for me, a difficult summer. I went to Iceland following the kind of dreams that will take you deep into your own darkness, as well as bringing you, eventually, to wonder and light.

I had expected to meet the black dog, but black dogs come in different shapes and sizes. This one turned out to be huge and hungry, feral and strong, and he was never going to settle for living in my house like a sad old labrador for just a few weeks or months.

It’s been a long and exhausting trek through his cold darkness but, last week, I woke one morning with a great sense of relief, after my first full night’s sleep for months, and a bright thought filled my mind like a sunrise, ‘It’s over now.’

I’m sorry I was away so long, but very happy to be back. 


Depression, dreams and the creative life

A few weeks ago, I heard author Matthew Johnstone talking about his experience of depression on the BBC World Service, and it got me thinking about the link between depression, dreams and the creative life.

Strikingly, Matthew said he would not change anything – his depression was part of him. Rather than try to kill the black dog, he had learnt how to tame it.

Matthew Johnstone’s book

In the West, we treat depression as an illness, a malfunction in the brain which needs to be cured with chemicals or brought under control by psychological explanations.

Depression challenges all our cultural values. It makes us antisocial in a world where naturally solitary types are labelled ‘poorly socialised’; it makes us still, in a world of manic activity.

Depression stops us from having what we want – which boils down to happiness – and we believe we should always be able to get what we want, because this is a secular world. Without God/fate/mystery, we expect to have control over our own lives.

Nobody would choose to feel depressed, but that is precisely the opportunity depression brings. It brings us to a standstill on our chosen track and, by stopping us from having what we think we want, it opens us up to something new and unexpected. It makes our life bigger.

It’s a well-documented fact that people dream more during periods of depression. Often these dreams are particularly vivid and memorable; they release a torrent of new images which, if we pay attention, can open doorways into new places of the mind, and inspire new directions in life. The loss of these life-giving dreams may be one of the most harmful side-effects of antidepressant drugs.

Many writers label their depression as ‘writer’s block.’ Suddenly the story they thought they had all planned out is stalled, or they can’t find any ideas for the next one. But this is the gift of the black dog for writers – it forces you to be still and receptive, so that new insights and inspirations can come in.

Writer’s block is simply impatience, which means literally the inability to tolerate suffering, delay, toil or vexation (from the Latin word meaning ‘to bear’)

Depression can feel dark and frightening, like a big black dog, but kicking him will make him mean. Don’t try to kill him, but don’t underestimate him either – if he hangs around your house, you need to tame him.

I think the black dog is a special danger for children and young people, before life has given them the perspective of time or put support systems in place. That’s why I wrote my children’s book, ‘How 2B Happy’, in which the very first principle is that we can’t be happy all the time; we have to accept unhappiness. But we can deal with it, and discover what gifts it brings.

In my last two posts, I’ve been talking about synchronicity, and needless to say several blog posts on dreams and depression have come to my attention this week. Toko-pa has written a passionate piece here, in which she talks about ‘the intelligence of our melancholia’ http://toko-pa.com/2007/03/08/bleed-joyfully-a-fresh-view-of-depression/#comment-497 You might also enjoy this piece from ispeakindreams http://ispeakindreams.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/the-beauty-of-our-dreams-healing-within-dreams/

Has a period of depression ever led to a breakthrough for you?