The thing about volcanoes is that they’re as immovable as mountains. Rock solid in fact. But of course that’s the deception of appearances. And in geological terms, they’re savage beasts, easily provoked to ire by invisible tectonic interference.

It probably seems a totally incongruous metaphor for the Black Dog – but probably only to those whom he’s never pursued. Because there is something so irrational, so mysterious, so dark even about so-called depression that it is as destabilising as a major geological event.

In fact, the most surprising thing to me is its physicality and … well… vigour (though that’s not quite the right word – its connotations are too positive). I commented on this before when discussing William Styron’s extraordinary Darkness Visible. And this is the main reason I find the notion of ‘feeling low’ such an irrelevance. We all have times when we ‘feel a bit down’, and often all that’s required is a hot bath, an early night, or taking the dog for a walk.If only that was it… But with the real dog, it’s almost painful to be encouraged by a well-meaning friend to try them (as if that’ll do the trick). We just know it’s not as simple as that.

Of course, I have found hot baths, early nights, and taking the dog for a walk to have had value, even therapeutic value – I’m not denying that at all – they’re all good. They might help take the edge of things, at least. But they’re akin to the bandage on a weeping wound caused by a tumour.

So what exactly does I mean about the physicality?

Van Goch - Dr Gachet (1890)
van Gogh – Dr Gachet (1890)

Everyone’s different, so naturally it presents differently. I can only describe what I’ve found – especially at the worst moments. Here are a few:

  • Adrenaline and a racing heart: this is perhaps more akin to extreme anxiety (which I suspect is the black dog’s close cousin) – but it is very difficult to handle if it is prolonged. Breathing exercises can help (which I’ve only just recently got into), and of course there’s medication. But the latter can be a bit trial-and-error. I was prescribed one drug back only last March for this – and I was the 1-in-whatever that was adversely affected by it. So for several weeks (until I’d got all the gunk out of my system I guess), I felt like you do immediately after you’ve had a close shave (like being suddenly yanked back onto a pavement from an oncoming vehicle) – except it was permanent. Relaxation is impossible. Self-defence the constant need. Exhaustion inevitable. All one’s energy is occupied with trying to hold it all together.
  • [Apparent] Passivity: so here’s the thing – it might look like staring into space, sitting morosely, or avoiding interaction. But in fact, it’s as likely to be a matter of keeping heads above water. The dread is what might happen if the energy to keep treading water runs out. And for me that’s been one of the hardest fears – I have this sense of swirling lava somewhere – but am terrified of the consequences of an eruption.
  • Lifting Weights: sometimes the passivity is caused by a sense of heaviness – literally. One’s arms and legs seemed to have gained density, or gravity has intensified – and so the mere act of going to the local shops can seem like an Everest assault. No wonder some folks can’t even get out of bed. Weirdly, that’s never been me. I don’t know why. I’ve never really been one for morning-long lie-ins. But there have definitely been days when if I lived alone (and not in a family of wife and 2 teenagers), I’d possibly sit in a darkened room all day. So it’s not simply a matter of anxiety or some kind of agoraphobia. It’s more complicated than that.
  • Jitters and Irritants: sudden noises or surprises can be really tricky. Since getting a real dog (which, as it happens, is black, and for partly therapeutic reasons!!), this mainly happens now when she suddenly barks at the postman! But it can take me considerable time to regain an equilibrium. It’s an overreaction of course. But then, nobody said this was how things should be.
  • Sleeplessness: insomnia is a classic feature – but it’s weird – despite attempting what the experts call good ‘sleep hygiene’ (essentially being careful what you do in the couple of hours before bedtime etc), I find I get into stupid patterns of wakefulness. It was fine when we lived in our flat – concrete floors meant that I could slip out to the sitting room to read without bothering anyone else. It’s muchtrickier now with a house of creaking floorboards and stairs. The result of course is deeper tiredness.

So far, so odd. Does it seem weird to you? Perhaps you think pills are the answer? They are for some things no doubt. But definitely not for everything. For the black dog is much more than a physical problem (even though, surprisingly, it is not less than one).

For me, it is at times like living in a dark, dank, deeply dispiriting cave. But feelings are the story of the next post… and I know you really can’t wait for that one… ?

In the meantime, here’s a little provocation – what if we offered the kind of advice sometimes given for depression to other types of affliction?

Depression - helpful advice

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