The Black Dog

black dog of depression


Depression – the ‘Black Dog’ – describes the state of having as persistently low mood over a long period of time, low enough to have a significant impact on virtually every aspect of your life. At its mildest, it doesn’t stop you living your day-to-day life, but it makes everything harder and less worthwhile. At its worst, depression can be life-threatening, causing anything from self-harm to suicidal thoughts and losing the will to live.

We all experience low moods and unhappy feelings from time to time, but when does this state of mind slip into depression? Days? Weeks? Months? If these negative feelings impact your daily life, returning again and again, and lasting for days on end, there is every chance you are suffering from depression.

What are the signs?

There are numerous indicators of depression and symptoms will vary from person to person. Any or all of these may be present at any one time:

  • Feeling restless, down, irritable, upset or tearful
  • Feelings of guilt or perhaps worthlessness
  • Feelings of despair, emptiness or isolation
  • Taking no pleasure from life in general or things you normally enjoy
  • A lack of self-confidence or self-esteem
  • At worst, thoughts of self-harm or suicidal thoughts

The ways in which these affect you will vary and will cause you to behave in different ways:

  • Avoiding social events and activities you usually enjoy
  • Finding it difficult to speak or think clearly
  • Losing interest in sex or physical contact more generally
  • Difficulties with memory or concentration
  • Smoking, drinking or using more drugs than usual
  • Problems sleeping, or sleeping too much
  • Constant feelings of tiredness or lethargy
  • Lack of appetite/weight loss or eating too much and gaining weight
  • Aches and pains with no obvious physical cause

If any of these resonate with you, rest assured you are not alone. Millions of us experience these feelings, yet find it almost impossible to confront them, and much less talk about them.

Face the music

In the 21st century, admitting to these feelings of negativity and misery are still, unbelievably, seen as a sign of weakness. The natural reaction is to push these feelings to the back of your mind, straighten up and hold your head high – the British ‘stiff upper lip’.

I know, because this exactly how I feel. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when these feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness first set in, but it was years ago, maybe even decades. As a father of two kids of school age, I feel a strong sense of responsibility towards them, as any father would, and I feel an overwhelming need to act as some kind of role model in their lives, trying to project a strong and confident personality. But I battle daily to keep the Black Dog out of my life; it’s increasingly becoming harder and harder to keep on top, but of course, I shouldn’t need to. I should be free and able to face my demons and talk about the issues with which I’m struggling.

Fighting to keep the negative feelings buried is a constant drain on my energy and emotions, and I’m left feeling ever-more hopeless – it’s as if I’m swirling around the plughole, desperately battling to stay on top, but getting closer and closer to being sucked down into the deepest, darkest depths. It definitely feels like a losing battle.

There’s no shame in being open

The thing is, I don’t feel any sense of shame in battling depression. I’m not, or at least would not, be afraid to talk about it, to seek help and support but I just don’t know how. I can’t seem to find a way to break the ice, nor find the right person to open up to.

Some time ago, I went to see my GP to try and get the ball rolling. He was only too quick to prescribe anti-depressant medication, a road I was wholly reluctant to follow. I never did take the prescription – it seemed to me the wrong way to approach the problem, treating the symptoms but never the cause.

There was no discussion about counselling or mental health support to discover why I felt the way I do. It was more a case of, “Take one of these daily to improve your mood and you will be fine.” Referrals to mental health services are increasingly harder to come by, as funding issues in the health service mean these services are among the first to be scaled back.

Anyway, the point is, by falling at this first hurdle, I only reinforced the feelings of despair and worthlessness, retreating further into my shell and pushing my unhappy feelings deeper down. It’s not been a healthy way to carry on. The feelings remain, casting a long shadow over everything in my life, while I fight to maintain a mask of control, direction and perhaps contentment. The mask covers something which is not really there, and the mask might be beginning to slip.

What is there to look forward to?

The way the world is heading makes for an extremely pessimistic outlook: the appalling war raging in Syria, with the unimaginable suffering of millions and millions of innocent people now left with nothing and nowhere; global warming, deforestation, fracking and the plastic horrors of our oceans; the needless fracturing of the United Kingdom through Brexit, the increasingly belligerent and isolationist behaviour and rhetoric of Donald Trump and the United States; public health epidemics such as heart disease, obesity in all ages, type 2 diabetes, cancer and more. There is so little about which to be positive.

It seems to me that we are regressing as a society, heading back to the dark ages of (mega) rich vs poor, fearing our neighbours and putting up walls rather than tearing them down.

I’m sorry for such a negative post, but if nothing else, I would wish it to be thought-provoking and just a little enlightening. It is ok not to be ok, and it is even better if you can talk about it – open up, let someone in. The problems we face are rarely as bad and overwhelming as we make them out to be, but that’s almost impossible to see from the inside. While a problem shared may not quite be a problem halved, a fresh perspective – from someone not saddled with your own emotional baggage and negative experiences – may open the door to change and freedom.

Mental health needs to be talked about. And there is no time like the present. In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted by phone on 116 123. Childline can be reached on 0800 1111.

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