The Dog and The Mask

I’m not sure if it is a colloquialism unique to Europe or not, but I’ve often heard depression described as ‘The Black Dog’. I’ve used this phrase with some of my American friends over the years and they always are puzzled by what I mean. Maybe it is unique to the English speaking countries of Europe, but in a very real way it is a fitting title to bestow on depression.

A black cloud over the happy thoughts.

A black dog always nipping at your heel.

It is powerful imagery when you dig into it. As a person’s depression gets worse, grows in strength and control, they feel powerless beneath it. Just as you would be if a giant dog sat on you and prevented you from moving. Likewise when a person manages to come out the other side of depression the black dog is often described as being ‘under control’ or smaller in stature.

I believe that everyone, every single person, is born with a black dog. But the dog is invisible, utterly and completely, to their mind’s eye. Most people may even go through their entire lives and never realise that the dog is even there. Sure they may have doubts and fears, but never anything strong enough to cause the dog to appear.

Sadly for those few that do end up meeting their black dog in person it is an entity that is around forever more. You may conquer it when it grows to mammoth size, battling your way through so that it shrinks once again, but you will forever be changed. There will always be a black dog in the back of your mind, just waiting for you to let your guard down.

What’s all this waffle about, you may ask. Well recently some folk in work started listening to the podcast and a few of them commented on how they had no idea I’d gone through depression. I slightly corrected them and said that I was not ‘through it’ but was now in a better frame of mind to control the dog.

I’d slapped the yappy shit around the metaphorical nose with a rolled up newspaper of shaddup.

But I know it is there now, no longer an invisible thing trying to get my attention. So I have to watch it and go against everything I know about being a good dog owner: I have to starve my black dog so that it doesn’t grow up big and strong again.

The bit that most people found startling though was that they had not spotted it in me at all. Which got me to thinking about the dog a bit more. Not only do the bloody things hit you in the mental space, they also give people a sucky super power that I call ‘The Mask’.

The Mask is the face we put on when the black dog is wagging its tail and ruining your day, because the Mask hides all of that from the outside world. It is, if anything, the more dangerous aspect of depression. Being able to present yourself to those around you in such a way as to totally convince them nothing is wrong. Putting your best self forward, even though internally you need help.

I’m not completely sure what the point of this post is about, other than to highlight to those who have listened to our podcasts about depression after having kids that it may be a lot more common than you think. With the Mask it is very hard for others, even those who know you very well, to see that standing right beside you is a horse sized dog of misery.

Never beat yourself up over not spotting these things, the Mask is extremely efficient at doing what it does. Some folk may spot it slip or crack for an instant, long enough to see that a person might need a friendly shoulder to chat to, but you need to really be on your A-Game for that stuff.

I guess the closing point I’d like to make is that the Mask falls away as soon as the person figures out how to stop feeding the dog. And while you may not spot the Mask in place, never underestimate just how much a person appreciates being made feel normal when they tell you about the black dog.

A friendly chat can go a long way to starving the rat bastard back to puppy size.

– Derek

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