The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive [away], though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me…When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking… Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from a habitation like this?
~~ Samuel Johnson
Maybe it prowls around your bedroom at night, scaring away sleep.
Maybe it nips at your heels while you commute to work.
Maybe it feels like it is breathing down your neck every second of the day, and you never know when it will seize you in its jaws to finish you off.
Whatever your experience of depression may be, it can feel like a constant, often malevolent companion. Perhaps this is why 18th Century writer Samuel Johnson dubbed it “the black dog.” Like a bothersome stray, it can be hard to shoo away. Like a stalking wolf, it can lurk in the shadows, waiting for its chance to take you down.
Perhaps there’s a reason why legends of monstrous black dogs abound. From the beasts that terrorized the characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles to Mahakanha in Indian mythology, there have long been stories of people being plagued by black dogs. These tales, as with all legendary monsters, are most likely manifestations of the very human fears that have tormented our mental health for millennia–maybe for as long as we’ve been domesticating actual dogs, if not longer.
From Monster to Metaphor
For those of us that struggle with mental illness, especially depression, the black dog metaphor is very apt. We can indeed find ourselves haunted by a spectral dog that preys on us. It can be huge, a gigantic lapdog that crushes us under its weight. It can be a vicious cur that seizes our brains in its fangs and won’t let go.
But the thing about metaphors is that we don’t have to be forever at their mercy. We can actively take control of the narrative underlying our metaphors using the various cognitive behavioral therapy techniques championed by positive psychology. We can put in the conscious work to analyze, question, and rewrite the thoughts and beliefs we’ve written about the story of our depression.
So, if we’ve given our depression the form of a black dog, we can work on reshaping the dog’s manifestation. Instead of a threatening wolf-like beast, perhaps we recast it into the form of a sedate Black Lab or even Toto from the Wizard of Oz. The purpose is to take charge of our perception and craft it into a less threatening breed.
As with all such reframing of our thoughts and feelings, it’s most effective when we make it a regular practice. In combination with traditional professional therapy, we can shift the black dog into a domesticated shape that is more easily confronted and managed. Ultimately, metaphor can be a powerful tool in our arsenal to fight mental illness.
Another Type of Cave Creature
I’ve written about facing and embracing the monster within our “inner caves.” The black dog of depression is one of the creatures that can lurk in the darker places within us.
I want you to try and coax your black dog out of its shadowy lair. I want you to take a good look at it, study its form, and imagine it to be a less aggressive breed. At the same time, remember you’re its owner. How would you correct the behavior of a disobedient pet? Would you hit it, and possibly make its behavior even worse? Or would you try to thoughtfully train it through patience, persistence, and understanding?
Once you’ve made consistent progress to domesticate your black dog, you may find it to be an unexpectedly useful companion. On the often difficult road of adventure that is life, we can always use more company, even the sort of company that sometimes causes us trouble. You can put the black dog to work for you for once. Use it as a reminder of who is the master in your relationship (that’s you, by the way).
Think of what the black dog may have taught you about yourself. Specifically, consider how you have risen to the challenges it has presented in the past. Take pride and confidence from the moments you have overcome your depression, and therefore domesticated the black dog. Give that troublesome pooch a belly rub, keep working to show it you are the leader of the pack. That black dog may just become a tamer traveling partner on your path toward mental health.
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