‘Black dog’ as a metaphor for depression: a brief history
Apologies for my rather sudden disappearance from social media (feel free to share this page if you see fit) and withdrawal from my usual activities. I suffered something like a perfect storm of work, political and personal setbacks that, over a considerable period brought me crashing down a few weeks ago.
I am just about beginning to function again, but it may take a while before normal service is resumed – if it ever is.
I am, however, beginning to become hopeful of taming the black dog and managing its behaviour to avoid another meltdown on this scale again (this is my third major episode), and this is the reason I am writing this post – to share the source of this hope.
Depression is the scourge of modern living and the facts and figures speak for themselves: Mental Health Statistics
So, a quarter of you probably have some sort of idea what it is like to be a sufferer, which means three quarters of you haven’t a clue, because you really cannot know what it is like if you haven’t been there.
Because it effects people everywhere and of any background, it does mean great intellectuals and artists suffer at least their fair share (there is some evidence that rationalists may suffer more). Some have attempted to share and explain the experience.
The Manic Street Preachers ‘Black Dog’ song above comes from their ‘This is my truth, tell me yours‘ album that contains some other insights such as:
Another perhaps unlikely source of insight into depression is Ruby Wax. She has suffered a lot more severely than I have and describes it well here:
“I remember why depression is so awful now that I’m back in that land; there is no specific sharp, jabbing or throbbing pain, there is no feeling. This is the sensation people are after when they take certain drugs to forget but even then they know it’ll wear off. This isn’t recreational it’s terrifying. There is no one in your body to even register pain. There is nothing, empty space, whoever you were who lived in your skin has left the building, vanished. I can recall back in a fog that I had a fast mind, a quick wit, insight into others; it feels like I’m talking about a distant relative. People remind you that you’ve accomplished things I’m sure it’s true but then I was someone else not this thing. That what it feels like in reality I know it’s not true but this again is a symptom of the disease.”
However, she goes on to explain that, although she has not got a cure, she has found a way of managing and taming it – a way that has connected with me too:
“This time I’m not fearful about having the actual depression. Having studied it, I know this is what it is. I’m not fearful that I’m making this up and I can ‘snap’ out of it. That said, fear is a symptom of the disease; I feel I’m in full emergency mode because my chemicals are in full emergency mode, not dependent on any outside stimuli but because they have started to flood my brain and cause havoc.”
This starts to give a clue as to how to handle the ‘black dog’ of depression. There is something physiological going on in terms of chemicals at work in the brain. This is why medication can and does help. What medication cannot do, however, is help you manage the thought processes that can trigger, accentuate and perpetuate the downward spiral into a depressive state. This is where counselling and talking (cognitive behaviour) therapies have been developed, along with all manner of ‘alternative’ therapies. But there are a couple of major problems with most of these. Firstly, you only get a referral to such services once the depression has taken hold and is relatively severe. Secondly, they are often built around stuff that is easy to dismiss as wooly and/or mumbo jumbo. If you buy into it, like a good placebo, it is likely to have a positive impact, but for rationalists like myself and Ruby Wax, if we don’t understand it, we won’t buy into it and it will never work. This is perhaps why rationalists end up suffering more.
What we need is something that we can see having a scientific basis and underpinning, alongside something we can build into our daily lives to help avert and manage our depressions. Ruby Wax has done the due diligence and found something that is (all too) slowly becoming a recognised way forward. It is called MINDFULNESS-BASED COGNITIVE THERAPY (MBCT) – I’ll simply call it ‘mindfulness’.
Ruby Wax went to the extreme lengths of studying it for a Masters degree from Oxford University, where the whole concept has been developed (with others) by a guy who has become one of my gurus, Professor Mark Williams. I use the term guru quite deliberately as the the whole programme, as the Prof fully acknowledges, owes a lot to the ancient wisdom of Buddhist traditions in terms of mindful meditations. I have long acknowledged the Buddhist world view and traditions as vastly superior to other (religious) traditions, and I am happy to advocate MBCT as a bit like Buddhism minus the paraphernalia but bolstered by science.
I was first introduced to mindfulness and Prof Williams’ work by my GP quite a while ago. However, he threw me straight into undertaking the meditations and I quickly dismissed it all as more wooly nonsense and refused to buy into it. It wasn’t until I recently heard Ruby Wax advocating it, and joining up a few dots for me, that I finally bought into it properly and started to do my own diligent research.
Here’s Ruby’s TED talk.
Here’s her (a) book
(b) audiobook and
Here is Prof Mark Williams’ introducing the concept in a reasonably accessible way: Science Live lecture 2012. His calm, engaging voice helps inspire confidence and I recommend sticking to his publications and recordings.
The beauty of the 8-week programme is that it is easy enough to self-administer with the aid of one book and its accompanying CD (Audiobook format)
I am currently into week three of the eight week programme. Although it is impossible to say whether the small improvements in my condition are down to increased medication, or being signed off work, or the mindfulness guided meditations, or the love and support received from family and friends, or any possible combination of these factors – I can say quite categorically that the meditations are something I look forward to doing for the peace they give me for a few minutes at least (nothing offered me proper peace of mind before). I can also say categorically that I now understand the principles (if not the detail) of the science behind the whole approach, and thereby buy in to the whole strategy. It offers real hope of being able to cope much better with the mad world we live in.
What it all means for me returning to campaigning and politics remains to be seen. Being in the Green Party is swimming against the tide (the green surge has slowed the tide, not reversed it). Being an ecosocialist within Wales Green Party is battling against a further rip current. I became exhausted and drowned. I will not be rushing back to that environment. I have other more pressing priorities for when I am in good enough shape to take them on – namely sorting out my employment situation and properly attending to the wonderful people in my life that I may have taken for granted and neglected for too long. They have been my lifesavers and I owe them everything.
I fully acknowledge that part of the great depression that envelops many people is not having the support of other people around them. But at the end of the day, sufferers of depression, and indeed everyone living the rat race of a life we have created for ourselves, have everything to gain and nothing to lose from allowing mindfulness to give you that little bit extra control of your mind and the life your mind creates for you.
As Ruby Wax explains in her TED talk, we are simply not designed for the lifestyles we have created for ourselves. Material wealth and all the opportunity to ‘progress’ in the world does not create happy, well-adjusted people. Coming to terms with this truism and learning to enjoy the here and now has to be (at least part of) the way forward.
I have exhausted myself now. I will leave you with Ruby’s words, as she expresses it better than I can:
“It’s hard for me to write this and come up with words and sentences because it feels like no one is at the wheel of the ship – so who’s writing this? I’m pushing myself to keep going so I can remember what it looks like when it’s written down and for everyone else who suffers with this to say this is not your imagination, you are not being self indulgent (I’m fighting my mind on that one). It’s exactly what it says on the bottle, it’s poison, terrifying and a complete mummification in nothingness. This is physical and some part of your brain is trying, as it always does, to find a reason. For other illnesses when you feel sick there’s an explanation – you might say to yourself, “Of course I feel terrible I have an infection, a virus, cancer” (pick one). With dementia at least you might be the last to know that something is wrong, but with depression you’re completely aware and cognisant that you’re gone and what’s left of you is on auto pilot that tries to steer you into the bathroom and find food and that’s about it. I feel I’m on a sinking ship and this writing is an SOS signal.”
There is no need to send me a lifeboat, but a little patience while I get my shit together would be appreciated. Thanks.
PS – I just stumbled across this video from another of my idols: Rational and Rambling