I had an interesting conversation with my (very lovely) GP recently who, while discussing some symptoms I was having, suggested I was either “severely depressed” or “extremely stressed” (or “both” – lottery win). I tried to explain to her that, actually, I was in a “good place” and didn’t ‘feel’ depressed (I’m omitting discussion about stress, that’s for another time). She laughed kindly, patted my arm and said “Jennifer. You’ve been walking that dog for 22 years now, you know you don’t need to be unhappy to be depressed. It just doesn’t work like that.” Long story short, a few blood tests suggest that B12 (not dog-walking) is my main issue (for now), but it did get me thinking about this big dog that has now become a widely recognisable metaphor for depression.
I remember around 4 years ago, I saw a little Australian cartoon that compared having depression to having a big black dog. A dog that goes everywhere with you, ruining everything, repeatedly digging up and burying the joy of life. It has been viewed, to date, over 6 and a half million times and shared over and over again by people who finally felt that they had a way to explain to others how it felt to live with depression. It was relatable and sensitive, thought-provoking and sad, especially when you consider over 6 million people watched it, suggesting there a lot of dog-owners out there. There is even a Black Dog Institute.
But the ‘black dog’ has been around for a long time. Winston Churchill talked often about having a “black dog on his back”, an expression he had picked up from his childhood nanny. And the dog itself has been used for centuries in writing as a way of connoting all things frightening and unpleasant, so it is easy to see how the blackness of a hungry, vicious hound could represent the snarling vortex of depression. But, interestingly, the black dog in the cartoon is not a rabid, foaming hound; it is actually fairly lovable and soft round the edges.
And this is what is so clever about it, I think.
Because I love dogs. Even big black ones.
Dogs come in all different sizes, breeds and temperament. Some like company, finding it unbearable to be alone; others like to be lone wolves, finding it difficult and stressful to socialise, unable to cope and becoming uncharacteristically aggressive when faced with lots of new faces; some are excitable, jumpy with boundless energy, which they never seem to be able to control, while others are lethargic, have to be dragged out of the house and would happily lie in bed all day eating biscuits and nibbling shoes intermittently. Some are very tiny, and look like they couldn’t cause anyone any harm but are unsuspectingly ferocious and people don’t want to visit your house because of them; other dogs are huge and people cross the street to avoid them because they see a big dog and are not sure how to react to it, so they err on the side of caution and avoid contact, when all the dog wants is a pat on the head and told he’s a “lovely boy”, so that he can wag his tail accordingly.
The thing is though, the ‘black dog’ can be any of these dogs on any given day. (Or all of them).
Sometimes your dog is the palest of grey, and is a very well-behaved miniature tea-cup chihuahua (is this an actual thing?) that you could easily take with you anywhere you wanted to go – even if dogs weren’t really welcome, because it would just sit quietly in your pocket like a good obedient, biddable wee dog.
Sometimes though, miniature tea-cup Chihuahuas (I’m just going with it) can be a bit yappy, demand attention and, like all dogs, they need a little fresh air (albeit while wearing a teeny tiny jumper and looking cute as hell) and you find that wee pale-grey, easily concealed puppy in your pocket is beginning to attract suspicion from those around you, who realise you are hiding something and don’t believe you when you tell them you’ve got “nothing in your pocket, okay? Jeez.”
Sometimes you go to bed without a dog but when you wake up, bingo – you are the proud new owner of the biggest St Bernard in canine history. So you lie there, unable to move, this huge beast that is soundly sleeping on your legs and you just…can’t…quite…budge…so you have to lie there all day waiting for the big dog to move a little so that you can finally drag yourself out from under him and out of bed.
You may have a baby. And then, whether or not you’ve ever had a dog before, you find yourself in the possession of the biggest and blackest of bitches – she makes ‘Zuul’ from ‘Ghostbusters’ look like Kipper. And she brought all her crazy ass bitches from the park, where they would usually spend their days running around, catching frisbees and enjoying the open space. But now they all run around your house, unable to cope with the confinements, constantly looking for an open door to escape out of, running frantically up and down the stairs causing havoc and chaos, anxious, unsettled snd scared, chasing each other, barking loudly and continuously, while proving entirely impossible to catch (because there are just so very many of them, all different size, colour and breed). Not to mention, you have a baby to look after. Damn those bloody dogs.
Sometimes, you want to go somewhere. Spend time with friends; socialise. But your dog is not welcome – people don’t like your dog. They don’t understand why you devote so much of your time to it. Can’t you just leave it behind for once and not let it get in the way of a fun night? So you leave your dog outside. But you get so stressed trying to pretend that you don’t have a dog, aware of its big, sad doggy eyes outside in the rain, peering in at you while you try to enjoy your night, that you panic and leave, picking up the lead on the way out to walk the dog home.
Sometimes your dog goes to live elsewhere forever (it is for the best); sometimes you think it has gone away forever but has just gone to the kennels for a wee holiday. But when (and if) it comes back, it comes back huffy, demanding and needy because you lived happily without it for a while. And you start to realise that, well, you and this dog, you’re in it together. You start to realise that this dog has chosen you as its owner for a reason. This dog, its ever changing size, colour and breed is part of who you are. And that, whether the people round about you like your dog or not, your dog is always going to be sniffing around, marking its territory and sleeping on your legs or obediently hiding out in your pocket from time to time.
I grew up with two (very real and literal) Cocker Spaniel’s – black and white in colour, one male, one female. And, metaphorically speaking, I couldn’t think of more fitting pets for me to have had. Black and white and all shades of grey in between. My kind of dog.