At the dog park a swirl of dogs tumble in a joyful play fight through the spring mud. Their snugly dressed owners stand to the side watching the action and occasionally jumping out of the way when energy of the dog hurricane breaks apart their little huddle. Mud splatters on fur, golden, white, brown and, less often, black. All other things being equal, statistics from animal shelters show people are somehow reluctant to adopt black dogs into their families.
I found out about this phenomenon when my cousin adopted Koda, a black dog with a gentle nature. Found wandering the streets of Yellowknife in sub-zero January temperatures, Koda spent almost a year and a half living in a cage at two shelters, first in his hometown, then Vancouver. Learning about how people’s subconscious biases affects their choice of pet made me think of another black dog most of us would prefer not to bring into our homes – depression.
Google “black dog” and you’ll find references to mood disorders as well as pets. It turns out the expression “black dog” has it’s roots deep in English culture, dating back to Roman times. Folklore labeled black dogs, as well as black cats as unlucky. Winston Churchill used the expression to describe his bouts of depression; the saying has continued to resonate with suffers throughout modern times. In New South Wales, Australia there is even a “Black Dog Institute,” specializing in mental health issues.
Perhaps the term resonates with those who, like me have had their lives shaped by depression because it gives a concrete form to something so difficult to define and yet so impossible to ignore. Like a pet that may spend hours sleeping but will need food and attention from you at regular intervals, depression offers a lesson in paying attention. In the days before I learned to wake up to the world this lesson felt forceful, brutally tearing apart the illusion that I was in control. Now when I look back over the pain and the healing I have experienced over the past ten years I can see depression as a patient and persistent teacher, walking with me every step of the way, nudging me gently or shoving me firmly in the direction I needed to go. There was no way this teacher was going to leave my side until I had radically shifted my understanding of the universe.
Depression as teacher; this metaphor allows me to shift my relationship to an experience that our culture mostly sees only as an affliction I didn’t always grasp the lessons the first, or the fifth time but now when the messages come through I open to them as lessons rather than disruptions to my well-planned life.
Gratitude for this teacher is not something I can preach to those in the thick of the hurricane of uncontrollable emotion. I know how intense it can be, and I cannot blame anyone for wanting to avoid it, to go home with the white dog and live happily ever after. The most I can offer is to signal to others, standing here on a grassy patch in the middle of the quicksand. A white flag is easier to see but the one in my hand is black and I’m holding it with love.