22 August 2012

My Metaphorical and Actual Black Dog

This is a post that I've been umming and ahhing about writing for a while now and hopefully the title may give you an indication why this has been the case.

For most people who know me - both in a personal and business capacity - they probably wouldn't think that many things get me down in life.  I tend to focus on the task ahead and 'crack on' and it has to be said, I'm a pretty hard taskmaster (more so on myself than others).  I'm definitely goal orientated, which has meant that generally when I set my mind on something - and to quote NASA - failure isn't an option.

Life, however, sometimes has a way of pulling the rug from under your feet when you least expect it, as I've discovered over the years.  I've always been a bit of a perfectionist (actually, who am I kidding, not so much of the 'bit') and set myself pretty high goals, which in turn can add a certain amount of pressure to everyday life and impact on health, as I have found out over the last few decades.

1 in 4 people in the UK are likely to experience a mental health problem in the course of a year and of these depression and anxiety are the most common.  Despite the fact that mental health problems such as depression are relatively common place they still remain a taboo subject.  Often they are simply swept away under the carpet, ignored like the elephant in the room or worse still, seen as an admission of weakness.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill famously likened his depression to a black dog and this is what my post title alludes to. I have had several bouts of clinical depression over the last two decades.  These aren't cases of  'being down in the dumps' or 'feeling blue'; these are mind numbing, self-esteem and confidence robbing periods, where 'normal service' cannot be resumed and my decision making capabilities seem to evaporate into thin air.

When work colleagues have learned of my depression (I'm pretty open about it), I tend to get one of two reactions: one being - "I'd never have thought you would suffer from depression, you just don't seem the type"  or two - embarrassed silences and people hastily changing the topic of conversation.  Depression doesn't discriminate - age, gender, race, 'class' or social standing are no barriers.

Depression is personal and is not the same for everyone.  I can only describe my depression as a perpetual fog that surrounds me and deadens the world I inhabit. No sunlight makes it through this fog and without help, it won't lift. Over the years this has meant extended time off work (each time progressively less, but nonetheless not just a few days off work) and both medication and counselling to help ease the symptoms.

These periods have lessened over the years, as I've become better at spotting the signs, preventing and managing the causes, however at times I still find myself on the precipice of the abyss -  some days leaning more towards it and others leaning away.

During my last period of depression, back in 2009, the black dog that had been following me suddenly became real and surprisingly a turning point. There is plenty of scientific evidence of the benefits of owning a pet and no matter how bad I felt, the hounds needed walking. They gave me a reason to get up and get out of the house and were a constant source of non-judgemental companionship.
Magic, aka Jasper, at the greyhound charity kennels

I also found that helping out at the kennels of the local greyhound charity I volunteered at, was very therapeutic.  It was at these kennels that I fell in love with a real black dog who to me was the pooch equivalent of Prozac. Magic, as he was then known, was a 5 year old handsome, if not a little snaggle-toothed, black greyhound. He'd finished his last race about a fortnight before coming into kennels and there was something about him that drew me to him instantly.  Within minutes I was smitten and knew that, subject to Mina & Stevie's approval, Magic had found his forever home.

Thankfully both Mina and Stevie approved of Magic and he came home with us in May of that year, just after a week's holiday with hubby and the two hounds in Cornwall.  Magic became Jasper - so named after the character in the Twilight novels who had the ability to calm and influence emotions - and has been a calming (and at times very cheeky) character ever since.

During the last three years since Jasper joined me, the tide also seems to be turning with more (high profile as well as 'ordinary') people being open about experiencing depression.  There are some great support organisations too.  I received a great deal of help from Mind, found the Black Dog campaign from SANE to be inspirational and am an avid follow of the Blurt Foundation on Twitter - @BlurtAlerts

I no longer see my depression, or mental illness, as a failure on my part and I take steps to keep my mental health in the best shape I can.  This does not mean I'm immune to the odd relapse (a bit like physical health and not going to the gym) but the 'latent muscle memory' is there, providing me with coping mechanisms and the tools to get back on track.

Writing this blog post is cathartic and sharing conversations with like-minded friends has proven to be a godsend along with letting go of my 110% perfectionist streak (for some things - not all - but for a good number of things).

In my experience once you open up and let people know that (a) you have experienced depression and (b) it's nothing to be ashamed of, it's amazing what comes back.  So many people I speak to have experienced their own black dog and most people are extremely supportive and understanding.

So, if you have ever experienced depression, anxiety or any other mental illness, please don't feel you're alone.  Depression doesn't need to be an invisible illness and the chances are if it hasn't touched you, it will have touched someone you love or care for.

References:  Mental Health Foundation: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-statistics/
SANE, Black Dog Campaign:  http://www.sane.org.uk/what_we_do/black_dog/bd_faq/
The Blurt Foundation: http://blurtitout.org/
Mind:  http://www.mind.org.uk/


  1. You're very brave Susan to be so open about your depression, but I do think that's the best way to deal with it. I either had depression or Post Traumatic Stress after I gave birth to my daughter (very long story!) and it is just debilitating. I'm glad Jasper and your other animals help you cope. Mine do too.

    1. Thanks Julie - I didn't feel particularly brave writing the post but felt it was about time I was open online about how depression has impacted on my life over the years.

      I'm sorry that you've experienced it too but am glad that your pets help you.

  2. As you know, my own actual black dog has helped no end in my own battle with my metaphorical one so I really relate to this. Recognising that the fog is starting to descend now means I also know it will go away again. A very well written piece :) xox

    1. Thanks Lisa - it's uncanny how our real black dogs have helped us both and long may they continue to do so. x

  3. How brave of you to be so open Susan. I have suffered on and off with clinical depression for over 30 years, including suicide attempts. I have lost (been paid to leave) a very good job because of it and this was a huge knock to my confidence. I still struggle quite badly and don't seem to be able to find the support I need. I haven't had much joy with counsellors and because of my congenital heart condidtion I am limited to the types of drugs I can take. It's a battle I am fighting everyday and each day is and mountain to climb for me. But I try and find something everyday that makes me smile, a beautiful sky, one of my pets behaving daft, a pretty flower, a friendly smile, there has to be light at the end of the tunnel...

    1. Thank you for reading the post and commenting, Sylvie. It is hard when you're struggling with depression and particularly when your confidence is knocked (I'm sorry to read about your treatment in a previous role).
      There is light at the end of the tunnel but sometimes it's more of a blinking/on-off light rather than full sunshine... but eventually sunshine does come through more and more. x

  4. Thank you Susan. Your depression sounds very similar to mine. I don't think anyone can really understand it unless they have experienced it themselves (which I would not wish on anyone) but posts like yours all help to increase understanding.

    I have a lurcher called Minha! Since my ex's black puppy died and we did not know we were supposed to show the dead body to her before burying it, she has been highly suspicious of black dogs. Seems appropriate! I am not always well enough to give her the exercise she has needed and wonderful people have always appeared to do this when I have not been able to but, as she gets older (she is now 11), she gets about as reluctant as me to go out, especially in the rain. I got her in an attempt to act on advice to get more exercise (doesn't work for me) but ended up learning about unconditional love. Would not say I am totally converted from a feline to a canine lover but Minha is exceptional - undoubtedly a thing of beauty which is a joy forever to me, even when I am deep in the fog of depression.

    Thanks again for sharing your story,


    1. Thank you Sarah. Yes, I truly believe that unless you've experienced depression, it can be difficult to understand.

      What a coincidence that you have a lurcher called Minha! I have to say that my Mina (along with all my pets) has been a constant companion - even in my darkest hours - and the unconditional sense of love from her has been a saving grace to me.

      Thank you for commenting and I hope that your depression improves.


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