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Depression, the “Black Dog” and why it’s okay to feel ill at ease

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Standing on the sidelines of my daughter’s soccer game the other night, I found myself in conversation with a good friend.

“How was your vacation?,” I asked.

“It was wonderful. Playing in the pool. Relaxing. Just being together as a family…it was just wonderful,” he looked off, a bit wistfully, into the distance. “But when the week ended,” he continued “though I had found myself being truly intentional – I mean really present to each moment of that week – I still asked myself, ‘Where did the time go?’. I even found myself a little depressed.”

I nodded.

“Yeah. I get it. You had the black dog.”

He looked at me blankly.

“The what?”

“The black dog,” I repeated.

His eyebrows remained raise. And I guess for good reason.

I guess I have used this term so often and so casually that I just assumed everyone knew what I was talking about. Uh…nope.

The “black dog” is a term of uncertain coinage. The eighteenth century English man of letters, Samuel Johnson, once inquired of his friend and biographer, James Boswell, “What will you do to keep away the black dog that worries you at home?” And in a letter to a friend, Hester Thrale, Johnson would observe, “When I rise, my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking.” Sir Walter Scott, the eighteenth century Scottish novelist and poet, once privately wrote, “Something of the black dog still hanging about me; but I will shake him off.” And perhaps, most famously, British Prime Minister and Adolf Hitler’s fiercest enemy, Winston Churchill mentioned the black dog in a 1911 letter to his wife Clementine about his cousin, Ivor Guest’s wife. “Alice interested me a great deal in her talk about her doctor in Germany, who completely cured her depression. I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.”

Whatever the origins of “the black dog”, it is Churchill’s use that has always stuck with me. The black dog is a metaphor for a melancholy, a mild depression, an ill-understood angst that walks onto the scene for good reason, or sometimes, for no reason at all. Forgetting the cottage industry of self-appointed historical psychologists who try to pin Churchill with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or severe depression with a presumed self-medicating alcoholism, the black dog of Churchill (or, for that matter, Johnson and Scott) is less likely a colorful characterization of psychopathology than a universal doldrum we can all experience from time to time.

Churchill experienced the black dog – these bouts of bothersome, but not paralyzing melancholy – in the wake of his life’s major trials. His dismissal from the high position of First Lord of the Admiralty over the Dardanelles fiasco in World War I, his loss of political office in the 1922 election (the only two years he would be out of office between 1900 and 1965), his time spent in the political wilderness in the 1930s when he served as an oft-dismissed Cassandra regarding Hitler’s ominous rise, and the shocking loss of his Prime Minister’s seat in the summer of 1945 just after winning the war in Europe – all served as reasonable moments where the black dog came to visit. Upon losing the 1945 election (in which the populace threw out the Tories more than they threw out their beloved Churchill), Clementine tried to console her crestfallen husband saying that perhaps the loss was a blessing in disguise. To this, Churchill rebutted,

“If it is a blessing, it is certainly very well disguised.”

And yet at other moments in Churchill’s life, he could be found, with furrowed brow and sagging jowls, staring intently at pine logs crackling and hissing in a consuming fire.

“I know why logs spit. I know what it is like to be consumed.”

These were melancholic moments – visits from the black dog – without clear reason, but moments that lingered, barked and growled nonetheless. However, during these times of dejection and despondency (of clear or uncertain origin), while Churchill ached and grumbled… he never despaired. He painted, he wrote, he laid brick, he complained. But he never despaired.

The black dog, in my humble (yet perhaps a little clinical) opinion, is not clinical depression. It is not that immobilizing, bone-wearying hopelessness found by those sadly afflicted with depression. Though it can visit for a season, it is not an intolerable, ever-present companion. Instead, the black dog is a part of everyone’s experience. It is a universally normal for each of us, from time to time, to cope with a bit of melancholy…whether we can put our finger on the exact cause of it or not.

The black dog walks through the lyrics of Danny Boy as the longed-for son returns to offer a Hail Mary at the grave of his departed mother or father.

But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
And I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an “Avé” there for me;

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
and I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!

And the black dog prowls in the underground Rhapsodic Theater dangerously operated by the future St. John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
But the black dog also shows himself on Sunday evenings before work begins again and on long, reflective car rides home to impatient responsibilities deferred for an all-too-short family vacation. The black dog is the companion of forgotten friendships and unfulfilling employment. It reminds us of the passage of time and fleeting nature of life. It prompts – sometimes painfully – about purpose and meaning and sacrifice and direction. The black dog has visited saints and sinners, heroes and villains in moments both incomparably important and indescribably mundane. And the black dog even visited Jesus Christ as he trekked to the tragedy of Lazarus, as he shook with sweat in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he gazed at The Rock betraying him for the third time and as he uttered on behalf of his fallen children, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

The black dog was there.

And yet, that isn’t always bad.

Because this melancholy visitor is a reminder. It reminds us of something that we yearn for in our discomfort. It reawakens within us a primordial dissatisfaction with our state of being. It lets us know that something is a bit cosmically amiss and that we aren’t supposed to find ourselves completely satisfied while we are here on earth. It tells us that, in a way, it is okay that we feel a bit ill at ease. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton brilliantly described this unsettled sense and gnawing languor that comes with the black dog:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” (C.S.Lewis)

“The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why… I could feel homesick at home.”
(G.K. Chesterton)

If we take a moment to think about it, the darkness that comes with the black dog reminds us that there is a light. And it is an inextinguishable light. It is the cooing baby after the pain of childbirth. The warmth of the graveside Hail Mary after the initial pang of loss. It is the sense of the soul’s liberation in spite of a curtained clandestine theater. It is a wife’s consolation in the face of a humiliating loss. It is brilliant Easter after the blackest Good Friday.

Indeed.

So come, black dog, come.

You are no threat to me.


Photo credit: Pixabay

Tod Worner
Catholic Thinking
Tod Worner is a husband, father, Catholic convert and practicing internal medicine physician. He blogs at A Catholic Thinker.
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