The Black Dog

Matthew Johnstone labels depression as a ‘black dog’. ‘Just like a real dog it needs to be embraced, understood, taught new tricks and ultimately, brought to heel’. I have lived with a couple of black dogs but I have never had depression.

Labelling things can make them easier to identify, easier to absorb. It takes something intangible and gives us something to work with – a name, a face, a familiarity.

If you’re living with someone with depression I know how hard it is to find the right words to say. There aren’t many. So here’s what I’ve learnt not to say:

  • Cheer up/snap out of it
  • It’s all in your head
  • It’s not even that bad
  • There are people with worse problems than you
  • You’re being stupid/silly/irrational

Seriously, AVOID. When words fail you, listen intently and stop waiting for your chance to speak. Try to be understanding when they’re fighting internal battles that you can’t even begin to try and understand. Sure, it’s ok to raise a few eyebrows when they’re hysterical because they’ve picked up the wrong soup from the shop but what’s not a reason to be upset to you is another reminder of ‘why they’re a failure’. Be kind.

People with depression can be vulnerable, unstable, scared, impulsive. It’s these feelings that can lead them to take their own life. We’re not inside their heads. We can’t understand why they are doing the things they are doing or why they won’t listen. They’re also often the biggest comedians. They put on a brave face, channel their desperate pleas for attention through their biggest jokes, they constantly appear happy because they don’t think it’s ok to let anyone know they’re having a bad day. A person without depression knows its ok to have bad days.

Having issues and fears savagely eating away inside of them becomes a ticking time bomb and out of nowhere, unexpected to everyone around them, it goes off. Then the questions start…’Why didn’t think they ask for help’, ‘why didn’t they tell me how they felt’, or better still ‘I only saw them last week’, but these things don’t come with bright orange warning lights. When a person feels like a burden to everyone around them they don’t think straight, their judgment is hazy and hijacked by the thought that the world would be a better place without them. Depression has crippled their ability to communicate, intensified their stress and doubt to the point where they are living an internal hell.

So tell people you appreciate them, that they play an important role in your life, that they matter. And if you have a black dog that won’t be tamed, talk to someone. There is no person in this world that would not listen to someone they love or care about. Tell them how you feel. Unload the weights off your shoulders, unchain the shackles around your feet. It always gets better.