Living with The Black Dog.
I always thought the metaphor describing depression as the ‘The Black Dog’ was something peculiar and particular to my childhood growing up in the Midlands. It seemed to me at the time that this was a humorous way of giving a visual outward substance to a strange unseen internal thing; a Midlanders way of making light of something quite dark. A constant companion who barked and growled at your side, sometimes jumping up and biting you, other times lying quietly dozing at your feet. Oddly we had a black dog, a Labrador (called Shaddy) for many many years when I was a child, he always looked slightly sad; soulful brown eyes looking through you and into the distance, perhaps chasing something or other. Although the roots of the phrase itself can be traced back to a variety of origins, the phrase “The Black Dog” as a metaphor for depression is associates in a contemprary sense with Winston Churchill. Churchill famously used it to describe his darker moods, describing it sitting on his lap and haunting him. But I also chanced upon a reference to Dr Samuel Johnson (late 1700’s), poet, writer, teacher, from the Midlands (born in Lichfield part of the Black Country!) who suffered from the disease of manic-depression:
‘The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. The neighbourhood is impoverished. I had once Richardson and Lawrence in my reach. Mrs. Allen is dead. My house has lost Levet, a man who took interest in everything, and therefore ready at conversation. Mrs. Williams is so weak that she can be a companion no longer. When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking, except that Dr. Brocklesby for a little keeps him at a distance. Dinner with a sick woman you may venture to suppose not much better than solitary. After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect. Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this?’
In folklore and literature The Black Dog appears often, ranging from the nocturnal hellhound, a guardian, a gate keeper of the world of the dead, and it appears across cultures and time; in Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Norse mythology. I still remember vividly reading for the first time as a child about that giant beast, prowling, howling and snarling on the moors, the maker of horror and terror in your nightmares, Conan Doyle’s ‘Hounds of the Baskervilles’.
The art work I have been making is an inquiry to my own depression. The melancholy and daily sadness that sits heavy on my chest, the old faithful I’ve often called ‘The Black Dog’. I’ve tried for many years to seperate myself from this darkness and hide it away, cage it, this constant private guilty companion. Using humour and denial, I’ve managed to keep it isolated, on a leash, in a kind of quarantine. However, it was greedy, devoured all around and grow to be too strong, too powerful to be controlled and eventually it broke free. After recovering from its attack I’ve recently started to question our relationship. To think about how to transcend this way of being and examine the connections in the relationship to self. How does depression connect to my work?; how does it relate to my day to day thinking?; what role does it play in my creativity? The piece ‘The Black Dog’ (2017) is a study at the start of this process, considering the way depression connects to different parts of my brain. I've been thinking about the dog digging into my synapses, moving through the structure and different areas of the brain influencing my views and perceptions.