(Image copyright the World Health Organisation)
The black dog is often used as a metaphor for depression. Winston Churchill is sometimes mistakenly thought of as the creator of the phrase, although he did use it in his private writings. It would seem to be much older than that, I’ve seen it stated it was the Roman poet Horace who first used it.
It’s a metaphor that works very well, although as someone who owns a dog it kind of feels a bit unfair too on our loyal friends with wet noses. Actually, its me that is owned by a West Highland Terrier or Westie, a little white dog with character and attitude far bigger than her size! She has been very important as part of my depression management. Walking her is a great help and on many occasions she has sensed I am not well, coming to me and offering her belly up for a rub which seems the Westie way of saying ‘it’s ok’.
As the tenth post, this feels a bit of a milestone and I am feeling more comfortable with writing, so this post will try and explain what being with the black dog can feel like. I could not incorporate this in post 1, it didn’t feel right and I wasn’t comfortable enough with myself to do so. I have still hesitated to publish this. However staying true to my value on raising awareness, to share as best I can what depression actually means to me feels important, so here goes.
I’ll point out now this is how depression effects me. Others with depression will have different experiences and see things in varying ways. Someone shared with me the description of ‘flavours of depression”, which is a lovely poetic and wise description.
I actually picture depression as a rat, scuttling around in my head, rather than a black dog. The rat gets fed scraps by the illusions my mind provides through badly managed emotions, uncontrolled self-criticism and unfounded fears. When you shine a light onto the rat, it has to hide. But I know it’s there.
In the depths of a low period, it feels like I am underwater. My senses shut down, especially hearing, it’s hard to breathe and there feels a pressure around me, crushing my body. I imagine it feels like falling through water, it’s getting colder and darker, with dark shapes moving below me. There have been times that those shapes have tried to entice me to let go and join them, but something has always enabled me to re-surface, even if that was just not being to accept what my letting go would mean. At the peak (or should that be depth?) I had to be alone, curled up to slowly calm down. Now I use the breathing exercises to give the mind enough space to gain clarity and return to reality, often using whatever sounds are around to help ground me.
That is why music is so important to me and why the blog is called Breathe Underwater, based on a song by Placebo. I don’t know what the band were thinking of when writing the song, but it has a meaning of understanding and of hope to me, especially the slow version:
“I can’t breathe under water, but I’m coming up for air, I want to see another dawn.
I can’t breathe underwater, but I’m coming up for air, I’ve been floating here too long”
Not every day is like that and it’s been a while since the dark shapes were enticing me down. I can’t explain what can trigger a low period, it can come from something said, a misinterpreted action or from uncertainty , lasting from a few hours to several days. The strength of those periods has reduced through the use of some of the things I have posted about, such as mindfulness and emotion management.
I still get in the water, but I am learning to stay in the shallows.
There is another Placebo song which also means a lot to me, called Bright Lights. The song has a meaning to me of being able to see a future self, coming out from a dark place. From the opening line, which sums up how I used to cover up and act like everything was fine
“Cast your mind back to the days, when I pretend I was OK”
through to the refrain which sums up being human and alive.
“A heart that hurts, is a heart that works”
It’s also the song that I was told off by my children for playing too loud, a role reversal to be proud of! And yes I was dancing around the lounge in my imperfect and “flawsome” style, arms whirling and singing along, causing the dog to go and hide upstairs.
I hope insightful and I’ll repeat something from post 1 – I am not writing this for sympathy or likes, it’s about trying to help with understanding what 300 million people suffer with.
Please reach out for help, it really is ok to say.
Have a weekend of dancing, no matter how bad you are at it.
All lyrics copyright of Placebo. There isn’t an official video for the slow version of Breathe Underwater, this is the video of Bright Lights.