The Black Dog

The Black Dog

The Black Dog

For most people The Black Dog appears only once in a lifetime; for a few, more often. Very occasionally we see someone whose Black Dog never leaves them. Then we say it is poor karma. For many, the Black Dog sneaks in during the night. It may stay a few weeks or a few years. You won’t even necessarily recognise it until afterwards. It may hang about like an old skeleton in the cupboard. Almost all of us have had – or will have – a Black Dog.

Naturally we instinctively blame others, those who gave us the foundations of life – parents, teachers – and those who employ and work with us – bosses, colleagues. Some people blame a God. Many resort to accusing the DNA they inherited. The wise look in the mirror, not to heap responsibility for the Black Dog on themselves but because they realise that only they can dispel the mood, the angst, the pain. The sensible sit and ponder why, then plan.

You never fully recover from the Black Dog but you can live an ebullient, fulfilled and happy life if you want to. The effort required to do so is considerable. Most significantly it requires change, probably big change. From physical lifestyle to mental gymnastics, from self-awareness to seeing others as more important, we have to take risks with our comfort zones and make decisions that smack of bravado. Some of the best examples are stroke-recovery stalwarts. Others lose limbs but climb mountains. The BBC’s Travel Show is hosted by a man in a wheelchair, exactly the right message to send.

What should you do about the Black Dog when it appears at your heel? Like all demons, face it. It is probably not as bad as you think. But even if it is, you cannot pretend it isn’t happening. Awareness is a vital first step towards analysis. That analysis must focus on whether your own personality and actions invited the Black Dog in or whether you were the victim of bad luck. If the latter, at what point did your judgment falter and why? Put a reminder in your schedule that alerts you about the point or points of weakness you are subject to.

Forget blame, it is counterproductive and debilitating. Fear will haunt you when the Black Dog is at its most invasive. Don’t drug it away, spend a little time with those less fortunate than yourself. Shed self-pity as a worn-out coat. Mentors and coaches tell me (and I find it myself, working with clients) that devotion to someone with an even worse Black Dog changes the perspective and makes us forget our own agony. Black Dogs are real but they are myths, too.

There is an old, nowadays little-used word, that expresses the right way to dispel the Black Dog. ‘Coax’ is a cross between beg, order, command, seduce and love. Usually applied to others, its most potent work is when we use it on ourselves. Coax yourself into other, less debilitating activity. Churchill said he always had a Black Dog at his heel. With a risk capacity like his it is hardly surprising. He coaxed his Black Dog by doing two things, building a wall and painting. He laid the bricks for the wall at his home, Chartwell, Kent, England. HIs painting never challenged Joshua Reynolds but it challenged his Black Dog.

Two other remedies. Work out a plan of action. Something you can do however much change it involves. Activity – of the right sort – is a good spur to the Black Dog to settle elsewhere. At the same time, find your friend or friends. The one, two, three people who you can trust, who will devote time to help you think through how to execute your plan with the minimum of fuss. We are all of us surrounded by people who care about us. The fact that there are others who don’t isn’t a reason for revenge or hate but for pity.

Someone I have known for a very long time said to me not so long ago “Well, we all make bad choices occasionally and have to live with the consequences, don’t we?” It was said kindly, reflectively, gently, not bitterly or accusingly. In fact, it was an apology-closure in its own, slightly strange, way. A Black Dog went to sleep that day. But only to sleep, not to disappear completely. That, and other Black Dogs there have been, together form our character, determine the corrective choices we can still make, mould the steel that keeps us strong.

The Black Dog only rests when it sees we care for others.

May it then sleep forever.