Saturday, 15 September 2012

Guest post ~ My Metaphorical and Actual Black Dog

Today I'm featuring a guest post from fellow blogger and greyhound owner Susan McKeon who writes the Diary of a Canine Convert. We both have black dogs, metaphorical and actual, and when I read this post on on her blog about her experience of depression it echoed my own so closely I asked Susan if I could share it. I'm delighted that she said yes. 


This is a post that I've been umming and ahhing about writing for a while now and hopefully the title may give you an indication why this has been the case.

For most people who know me - both in a personal and business capacity - they probably wouldn't think that many things get me down in life.  I tend to focus on the task ahead and 'crack on' and it has to be said, I'm a pretty hard taskmaster (more so on myself than others).  I'm definitely goal orientated, which has meant that generally when I set my mind on something - and to quote NASA - failure isn't an option.

Life, however, sometimes has a way of pulling the rug from under your feet when you least expect it, as I've discovered over the years.  I've always been a bit of a perfectionist (actually, who am I kidding, not so much of the 'bit') and set myself pretty high goals, which in turn can add a certain amount of pressure to everyday life and impact on health, as I have found out over the last few decades.

1 in 4 people in the UK are likely to experience a mental health problem in the course of a year and of these depression and anxiety are the most common.  Despite the fact that mental health problems such as depression are relatively common place they still remain a taboo subject.  Often they are simply swept away under the carpet, ignored like the elephant in the room or worse still, seen as an admission of weakness.

Winston Churchill famously likened his depression to a black dog and this is what my post title alludes to. I have had several bouts of clinical depression over the last two decades.  These aren't cases of  'being down in the dumps' or 'feeling blue'; these are mind numbing, self-esteem and confidence robbing periods, where 'normal service' cannot be resumed and my decision making capabilities seem to evaporate into thin air.

When work colleagues have learned of my depression (I'm pretty open about it), I tend to get one of two reactions: one being - "I'd never have thought you would suffer from depression, you just don't seem the type"  or two - embarrassed silences and people hastily changing the topic of conversation.  Depression doesn't discriminate - age, gender, race, 'class' or social standing are no barriers.

Depression is personal and is not the same for everyone.  I can only describe my depression as a perpetual fog that surrounds me and deadens the world I inhabit. No sunlight makes it through this fog and without help, it won't lift. Over the years this has meant extended time off work (each time progressively less, but nonetheless not just a few days off work) and both medication and counselling to help ease the symptoms.

These periods have lessened over the years, as I've become better at spotting the signs, preventing and managing the causes, however at times I still find myself on the precipice of the abyss -  some days leaning more towards it and others leaning away.

During my last period of depression, back in 2009, the black dog that had been following me suddenly became real and surprisingly a turning point. There is plenty of scientific evidence of the benefits of owning a pet and no matter how bad I felt, the hounds needed walking. They gave me a reason to get up and get out of the house and were a constant source of non-judgemental companionship.

Magic, aka Jasper, at the greyhound charity kennels

I also found that helping out at the kennels of the local greyhound charity I volunteered at, was very therapeutic.  It was at these kennels that I fell in love with a real black dog who to me was the pooch equivalent of Prozac. Magic, as he was then known, was a 5 year old handsome, if not a little snaggle-toothed, black greyhound. He'd finished his last race about a fortnight before coming into kennels and there was something about him that drew me to him instantly.  Within minutes I was smitten and knew that, subject to Mina & Stevie's approval, Magic had found his forever home.

Thankfully both Mina and Stevie approved of Magic and he came home with us in May of that year, just after a week's holiday with hubby and the two hounds in Cornwall.  Magic became Jasper - so named after the character in the Twilight novels who had the ability to calm and influence emotions - and has been a calming (and at times very cheeky) character ever since.


During the last three years since Jasper joined me, the tide also seems to be turning with more (high profile as well as 'ordinary') people being open about experiencing depression.  There are some great support organisations too.  I received a great deal of help from Mind, found the Black Dog campaign from SANE to be inspirational and am an avid follow of the Blurt Foundation on Twitter - @BlurtAlerts

I no longer see my depression, or mental illness, as a failure on my part and I take steps to keep my mental health in the best shape I can.  This does not mean I'm immune to the odd relapse (a bit like physical health and not going to the gym) but the 'latent muscle memory' is there, providing me with coping mechanisms and the tools to get back on track.

Writing this blog post is cathartic and sharing conversations with like-minded friends has proven to be a godsend along with letting go of my 110% perfectionist streak (for some things - not all - but for a good number of things).

In my experience once you open up and let people know that (a) you have experienced depression and (b) it's nothing to be ashamed of, it's amazing what comes back.  So many people I speak to have experienced their own black dog and most people are extremely supportive and understanding.

So, if you have ever experienced depression, anxiety or any other mental illness, please don't feel you're alone.  Depression doesn't need to be an invisible illness and the chances are if it hasn't touched you, it will have touched someone you love or care for.

References:  Mental Health Foundation:
SANE, Black Dog Campaign:
The Blurt Foundation: