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Taming the Dog

Updated: Apr 22

Winston Churchill referred to depression as “the black dog” and it’s such a great visual metaphor. In fact, the World Health Organization made a wonderful video about the black dog and it does an amazing job of illustrating that concept. So I sometimes find it helpful to think of dark moments as my own hound from hell who’s gotten off the leash.

For me, visualization is powerful because it makes the situation manageable. The compression of sadness is overwhelming, but an animal can be wrangled. I can cope with that. Goals can be set and a plan will be carried out.

Dealing with, even not dealing with depression brings pain, but anticipating when depression might strike is its own special kind of hell. When I first began to heal, people kept using the word “recovery” with me and I rejected the term. It always felt more like remission. Yes, I was better that day, but I didn’t know what tomorrow would be. I felt too shaky and terrified to schedule even two days into the future. I almost had a rage when I was asked to set appointments or make future plans. Why couldn’t people grasp how much energy it took to make sure I held it together now, without forcing me to promise to hold it together tomorrow?

I began to realize the only way to face these periods of depression was like taming a dog. I really do have a little black dog! Her worst trait is she barks – a lot, not unlike that mean, negative voice during a depressive episode.

My “you’re worthless voice” is louder than any voice in the room, just like her barking.  But I can’t address either of these behaviors once they have begun; my voice never drowns theirs out. So I have to tame my dog.

I have done a WRAP Plan (thank you Mary Ellen Copeland!) This Wellness Recovery Action Plan is laid out to prepare me for when things start to go south. I have made a quotation book filled with positive quotes that bring me inspiration and a little pick me up. While this may not seem earth shattering, sometimes all it takes is just pushing my thoughts in a different direction and I can’t find the thought on my own. Luckily, I know me enough to know what inspires me! Sprinkled in my quotes book I have moments people have written about that I can relate to. I went back time and again to the person who found victory in being able to take a shower that day. It reminded me that sometimes victories are small, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful. (Plus, I was having a really hard time just getting up to take a shower!)

There are a few neurosurgeries that are performed with the patient conscious. They do this sometimes for brain tumors or seizures to be sure to preserve other bodily functions. I think most of us wince at the idea of this. Instead medicine is usually healthcare administering chemotherapy or setting a bone or preparing a dialysis machine. I don’t see too many doctors requiring patient feedback to give care. Yet in the one area where there is reality distortion (ie: everything is seen through a negative lens = depression) and decision making (ie: sometimes impulsive and with no forethought) is often affected, my doctors have relied heavily on my input for my health regimen. And while I have met people who are amazing at self-reporting, I am not always one of them. It deeply depends on (shock!) if I’m healthy.

So I have relied heavily on mood charting. By tracking my medication, my moods, weather, and stressors it gave me actual data to hand to my doctors. I felt taken much more seriously and that there was context to “I’ve been up and down.” I started charting when I had to make my own chart, but these days they have really great free apps that make mood charting simple and fast. I imagine these apps probably graph input and provide a wealth of information that can help isolate seasonal changes, rate of mood changes and environmental stressors. I still prefer the chart I made myself because it was so specific to what I wanted to monitor and thanks to Excel, easy to copy month to month.

Winston Churchill’s daughter insisted that his black dog was “kenneled,” which I guess was her way of saying he tamed the black dog. But I don’t think that’s true. For a long time I thought that was the secret – figure out how to put the dog away. But that’s not realistic, I will be sad. Sadness is fine. I just have to prepare to set boundaries for the sadness before it grows out of my control. And if I fail, I’m not a failure; just someone who needs to work on my plan. Which is true of anyone and everyone. Because the loudest voice in the room today may be the voice of depression, which is really hard to talk over, but if there’s a voice in my head that no one listens to, does it matter what it said?

By: Meghan Albright

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