The Black Dog: A Family Pet

The Black Dog, a metaphor for the ‘illness’ or ‘disorder’ that over 300 million people are living with. Globally, it is the number one cause of suicide.


Depression.


For those suferring from depression, it can be the most isolating time in your life. You’re afraid of talking about it. You’re worried no one will understand. You put on a smiley front during the day, but as your head hits the pillow at night, you are all alone. Alone in your swirling thoughts. 


The Black Dog is not just your one and only pet that casts a shadow over your day. It is far more than this. This dog can spread like a parasite, latching onto all members of your family (and friends). This dog can bark unpredictably, reminding everyone that yes indeed that dog is there, and it needs to be dealt with. But how? No one likes to speak up about this dog, which only encourages it to stay longer. 

This dog becomes the family pet.

 How do we get rid of it?


I am fortunate that I have never been diagnosed with Depression. Though I have come close. And I understand that it doesn’t mean I am immune to it in the future. My father was the one in my family that brought The Black Dog home. So here I will draw on my experiences living helplessly with the dog’s owner.  

My father was known as a chirpy, intelligent, accomplished, poetry lover. He didn’t let anything weigh him down visibly. He smiled kindly with his eyes, as he would push his spectacles back onto the bridge of his nose every minute. He showed a very kiwi “she’ll be right!’ attitude (which I believe has a strong correlation to experiencing depressive symptons – but that can be a blog another day!) So when I received a call from my sister one afternoon, informing me he was brought into hospital after trying to run his car down a hill to end his life, I was shocked. 

From that day, we housed a Family Black Dog for 5 years.


For years, the relationship with my father dwindled. I felt like his controlling mother. I would tell him off for not leaving the house, not cooking food, and not showering. All of which would belittle him further, and make his Black Dog grow stronger and stronger. But worse of all, I told him off when he stopped taking his antidepressants. 


I am not proud of the way I treated him. But, in those moments I was too confused and frustrated. This family pet was taking over, and I wish he could just kick it to the curb so we could get on with our ‘normal’ life again. I was embarrassed. 


I am very stubborn. So when my nature-loving friend blurted out haphazardly one evening over dinner, “Why don’t you just take him for a drive. Get him outdoors” I was very dismissive and skeptical. “He will say no“, I replied shortly, trying to end the conversation. 


“Well, don’t give him a choice.”


I slept on this for the next few weeks. The idea kept creeping in. Finally, I decided I would give this intervention a shot. Afterall, I had run out of other options. So I sent my father a text message: “Dad, I am taking you on a road trip, up north, for a few days. Pack a bag of clothes. And a book. I will pick you up at 10am on  Monday. Seeyou then.” I purposely gave him no more than three days notice, as I knew he would think of a plan to get out of it. 

As I turned into the driveway that morning of planned depature, I was surprised to see my father standing by the letterbox with his duffel bag, ready to go. I was definitely nervous about the whole thing. I hadn’t been able to spend more than 5 minutes in his presence since his diagnosis. How was I to deal with days alone with him? So, as we headed for the road, my father in the passenger seat, and his Black Dog hidden in the boot, I was ready for the challenge. 


We drove, in silence most the way. We stopped by the road to watch seals laying on hot rocks. We stopped a lot, because I said I needed to stretch my legs (which wasn’t entirely true). But I wanted him to see as much as he could, take time to breathe in the fresh air. I knew he would never have suggested it himself, not wanting to inconvenience me. We took a short walk to find a waterfall. We saw dozens of baby seals playing under the water. We rolled the windows down to let the breeze hit our faces as we continued our journey. We never looked at the time.

 
After a surprisingly pleasant few days away, it was time to head back home. About an hour away from home, I pulled over. “My legs are numb. I am really tired from driving. Can you drive us back?” My father was startled. He hadn’t driven for 5 years, since that car incident. In fact, the police took his driver’s licence off him so he couldn’t. We swapped seats. After a few nervous bunny hops, we were away. 


Turns out, giving my father the responsibility of driving us back was a huge turning point. Not only did he feel a sense of worth and value again, but it was exhilarating for his body and mind (as well as mine!)


From that moment, a few things began to happen. My father started cooking, walking, working and writing again. He wanted to pay for our coffees (which I let him do). He looked physically healthier. But most importantly, he felt mentally better. He threw his antidepressants away. 


I believe the simple act of going to get a prescription drug can hinder recovery from depression. It makes the user feel like they are sick, and need a stronger and stronger dosage each time. Taking medication can mask the underlying issues. It can block the mind from feeling and expressing emotions – sadness and happiness. Of course, this is my honesty and I know there are people that do feel better from taking medication.

A few months later, I get a call from his doctor. “He hasn’t come in for his medication. We’ve contacted him numerously.” Thank goodness, I thought.

It seems we left The Black Dog on the road.

My dad sent me this letter. (If you can read his writing!)

 

Take Home Notes: There is plenty here but I will try to narrow them down for you. For those close to someone suffering from depression:

1. Treat them like an equal. They need to feel valued.

2. Give them some responsibility. Big or small.

3. Antidepressants may not be the answer for everyone. What if your antidepressant doesn’t come in a pill form?

4. Nature helps.


Important: If you are suffering from Depression, I still do recommend you seek professional advice. I just want to recognize that there are different ways of getting better.


Thank you Johann Hari, for his controversial yet insightful book ‘Loss Connections’.

Thank you to my family and friends for their ongoing support.

 

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