From Samuel Johnson to Winston Churchill, famous men have likened their depression to a black dog. The saying is centuries old – though now most strongly associated with Churchill and his depression, having a black dog on your back was used to describe sulky children, before it became a description of melancholia.
For myself, I prefer to think of my depression as an attack of the blue beasts. Where Churchill’s expression conjures up images of him grappling with a Rottweiler, I like to think of my blue beasts as being rather more like smurfs. And by thinking of depression as being like a blue cartoon character, I feel as if I can already do battle with it.
For the war with depression has become for me, a battle of words. Black dogs—even the words sound as if they are running through treacle. That elongated ‘bl’ at the very beginning. Followed by the short attacking ‘ack’. Then another hard consonant ‘d’, and the long slow ‘oh’ of a vowel. And to end it all a hard ‘g’. Hard, short sounds fight against the longer and slower syllables. The sounds drag me down with them.
Blue beasts are rather different. There’s no attack in there. Nothing harder or shorter than a sibilant ‘s’ which whilst it may hint at a snake in the grass, still seems preferable to a battle with a Rottweiler. And these words matter to me.
Living with depression is like living with a rather odd lodger. Imagine you invited someone to live in your home. They started with the occasional ‘why did you put that there?’ Then ‘why did you put that there? Are you stupid?’ Once you have become acclimatised to this and think it’s normal, the lodger grows in confidence. Are you stupid? Are you mad? Why didn’t you do that? Why don’t you do more? You’re so lazy. Lazy, you are. You should have written that. You should have sent that off. You shouldn’t sit there watching the telly, go and wash up. Lazy. Lazy failure. You’ll fail. Don’t do that, you’ll fail. You see, you’ve failed, I told you not to do that because you would fail.
Why didn’t you do that? Why did you fail at that? You big, fat, stupid failure. You know you have no friends, don’t you, it’s just me that lives with you now. I hate you, but I’m all you’ve got. I hate you. I really, really despise you, you and your stench of failure.
You normalise this. Everyone has a rude lodger, don’t they? Well it’s not actually the lodger’s fault. She isn’t rude, she’s telling the truth. This is how it’s always been, that rude little person in my living room. But something at some point can trigger a realisation that it really isn’t normal to put up with this. At this stage you try to make the lodger move out. The usual polite channels do not work. So when the lodger goes to the shops, you change the locks.
This works for a bit. But then the house seems empty. There’s no-one to talk to, no-one who understands you, you and your failure. The lodger may be a parasite, but in a bid not to lose her host, she has managed to convince you that you cannot live without her. In fact the reverse is true but it is a long time before this becomes apparent. So when the lodger comes knocking, you let her back in. At first, she behaves a bit better, but once her feet are under the table, the old ways return.
And so begins a long and tiring battle. For you know now, deep down, somewhere, that she is wrong. But you know now, deep down, somewhere, that she is right. And no matter what friends tell you, you have to find the answer for yourself in order to know that it is true. You can lock her out, but pretty soon she is back, tap tap tapping on the window and if only she really were Greta bloody Garbo.
And the real problem with this is that she isn’t a lodger in your house. She is the depression in your head. And now the pen must become mightier than the sword for the only way to get rid of her is to battle her with words. To turn and embrace her. To yell ‘Hello my little sunny lover!’ and hug her until she is out of breath. Turn and face her, turn and face her. Ask her why she does it. When she says you have failed, tell her you are OK. When she says she hates you, shrug and ask her why. If the battle is exhausting, do battle no more. Keep telling her you love her, until her hatred subsides.
For she is but a tiny blue beast, not a great black dog. She will always be there, but she can be diminished.