"The Black Dog" by Charlotte
“The black dog” is such a commonly used phrase to describe depression that I have to assume it’s one instantly people identify with. So it’s no surprise that when the comedienne Ruby Wax launched a new online community earlier this year, with the intention of creating a space for those with depression support one another, she named it the Black Dog Tribe (http://www.blackdogtribe.com/). On hearing the phrase, many people in the UK will think of Winston Churchill, since he famously used the metaphor to refer to his particular condition of mental distress, but the phrase has a much longer history than that. Looking around on the internet for its origins, I found an interesting article by Megan McKinlay (http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/McKinlay.pdf) which notes that several 18th century literary figures, including Samuel Johnson, the author Hester Thrale, and James Boswell, wrote of “the black dog”. However, McKinlay claims that “the menacing connotations of the black dog” had already been well established long before the 18th century, “via the folklore of Britain and Europe, the influence of Greek and Roman mythologies, and a growing body of literature in which black dogs featured as harbingers of death, or emissaries of the Devil.” (The Omen, anyone?)
If the picture of the black dog, forever padding at or snapping at the depressive’s heels, resonates with one part of the bipolar experience, what would be a comparable metaphor for elevated mood? I see my hypomania as being like a wild horse. If the horse gallops off with me on its back, the ride can be exciting, exhilarating, generating excitement and euphoria. Yet if I imagine that I am in control of the ride, I’m fooling myself; the truth is, once I let the horse run away with me, I don’t really know how things will turn out. It could be he doesn’t have much energy, so he slows down eventually, allowing me to slip from his back unharmed. But that’s the best case scenario. It might be that as that stallion gallops off with me, faster and faster, I slip from his back, crashing suddenly down to the ground. Those crashes can really hurt me; it is sometimes a long time before I can drag myself up from the ground and walk on my own two feet again. Worse, the horse might carry me off to somewhere I don’t want to go. His beauty lies in his strength and power, but that strength and power can leave me clinging to his mane in terror, or being dragged along behind, bruised, bloody and disoriented. It feels a little sad to even think of taming the wildness out of the horse by wrangling him with medication, cognitive techniques and the daily and weekly routines I’ve established. But it is the wild ride that brings me closest to what most people would think of madness, and I dare not take the risk.