'Betty and the black dog' by Varg Vargas on salvaged Indian wooden cabinet door, spray paint and found objects.

A few times a year, for no emotional reason, out of nowhere, I get depressed. My “medicine man” theory is that it is tied into my gut and there is certainly some science to back that up. My genetic bad stomach is often acting up around the same time the depression shows up and the chemical difference along with the symptoms of the tummy trouble generates the glum. Again, just my theory.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression, his “black dog” and though it wasn’t he who originated it (Wikipedia credits his childhood nanny), his use of it helped spread the metaphor. It seems to me the use of the black dog probably sprang from British folk lore in which black dogs were used to symbolize more than anything else, apparitions and death. Both metaphors are apt. The ghost symbol fits because the condition seems to be controlled by something else, something unseen and beyond control. The death symbol fits because life seems not worth living. More on the latter a few paragraphs down.

During my unfortunate descents into chemical depression, I am allowed by the Universe to walk around in the skin of a person who can’t just “snap out of” their mood by going on a roller coaster ride or for a long walk on the levee or buying a pair of boots.

It’s pretty terrifying.

The most disheartening aspect of the black dog is the immediate awareness of it upon waking. In the first few moments of the morning (or early afternoon), I know it’s there. It’s not a physical feeling like a headache or a sore throat. It’s not within my five senses. I feel it, but not on my skin. It’s a presence, like something pressing down on me. This is a pretty accurate image.

I call the first few minutes of any day my “coming to terms.” Overnight, I have departed this Universe and ventured out into the ethereal and, upon waking, returned again. In that first 15 minutes, the Universe is recreated again and I sort through what has been unsorted. Is it all the same? What’s different? Where will I go. What will I do? What has happened? For the depressed person, this space is occupied by the black dog convincing them that getting out of bed would be the worst thing they could possibly do. There is defeat from the onset.

So they eventually rise and the black dog follows. They walk around with what I call “the filter.” A mask over everything that makes it all shit. A very dangerous, utterly uncondensed philosophy that consumes everything. All colors are desaturated. All enthusiasm is unwarranted. It’s all a cliche. Everything is finite and meaningless. Songs ring flat. Supper can’t be indulged. Company is a hardship, awkward. Relationships strained. Most bitterly for me, I see the Earth is as it will inevitably will be, a lifeless ashen rock. Then, just behind the bright faces of my friends and family are the images of their fetid, rotting corpses. Children are not the hopeful energetic inspirations but rather wheelchair bound and broken.

And this is everywhere. The black dog is a loyal dog. It follows.

Gratefully, I am only visited by it perhaps twice a year, sometimes less and never for very long. Whatever brings it, takes it away and I have not been able to conjure up why it enters or leaves. Some suggest probiotics will balance out the production of serotonin in my lower GI tract. Imagine that. I swallow little sprites that I go into my gut and fix my soul. Our Universe is so folk. We think sometime sit isn’t but it is.

There are so many others for whom the black dog is a regular visitor.

Its wiser, more knowing companions know it well. And they endure it with a bedrock truth that its effect on them is just a spell. A “spell” that is something they are under the influence of but also a “spell” that is something that will go away with time. They will eventually “come around” but certainly can’t “snap out of it.” But after many years and many visitations, they never do really overcome it as much as they simply just endure. They often bravely forgo medication because it makes them robots, incapable of feeling anything at all.

But younger people, whose human spiritual development has been arrested because of this black dog, who perhaps don’t have the spiritual armor against it, who perhaps don’t have supporting figures in their lives, who are misunderstood, who are self medicated, seeking solace, who have been victimized, whose failure to thrive proceeds for decades, for these sons and daughters the black dog’s visitation is most delicate and critical. They forgo medicine for ego, convinced nothing is wrong.

I have so much empathy for them all. To help me cope with this, I made “betty and the black dog.” Beware the black dog brothers and sisters.

3 Responses to “On ‘betty and the black dog’”
  1. Romy Kaye says:

    The black dog came to me in that terrible nightmare early Sunday morning. He is still here and he is hungry… apparently for chocolate.

  2. Mom says:

    The Black Dog is part of your family— going back as far as the “Flying Monkey” and 2 crazy Uncles” etc. on the Maternal side. On the Paternal side… suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction. Your Momma Loves YOU

  3. rickngentilly says:

    emerse your self in leadbelly music to remind you that some one had it worse than you. take a deep breath and enjoy your joys. art comes from bad and good times. no shame in that game. and finally keep the straight razor away from your ear , it’s been done. good luck pal.

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