black dog photo

The other night I was awakened by the sound of a furious barking dog outside my house.

After 30 minutes of constant barking, I stepped outside and saw the neighbor’s black dog running around as if in a panic, trying to get into his home. No one came to the door.

Eventually the police were called, and they tried in vain to catch the skittish dog. The dog would approach the officers, and then run away frightened. He was afraid of the very people who tried to help him.

I have to admit, when I woke up to the sound of the dog barking so loudly for so long, my first feeling was of annoyance. This dog interrupted my sleep.

But when I actually saw him, I noticed how afraid he was. He wasn’t aggressive. He simply could not find his way in to safety.

Winston Churchill famously called his depression  a “black dog” that would follow him and remain by his side. The dog would stay with him for days, months, or possibly even years.

The black dog outside my house reminded me of how many people experience a recurrence of their mental illness. They see it as something that has escaped and is running lose, and they feel powerless to regain control over it and put it back. Some are even ashamed and embarrassed, too ashamed and embarrassed to ask for help.

One of the horrible things about several types of mental illness (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders come to mind), is that many times they may seem to be confined and under control.

Their presence is not screaming out. It may be in remission, or what I call ‘paused.’

It may even be somewhat forgettable.

But then it comes out in full force, reminding you of its glaring existence. It can’t be ignored anymore. The illness has recurred, often with a vengeance.

When a client has symptoms that reappear, we will look for triggers. A reemergence of depression may be connected to a particular anniversary of a difficult time or a loved one’s death. It could be triggered by a confrontation at work or an article in the news.

In the dog metaphor, someone may have left the front door open on a rush to work.

Other times a client’s relapse comes seemingly out of nowhere. The fence doesn’t have a hole and the dog was in the house, but he manages to escape anyhow.

No matter how it appears, the black dog of mental illness is loose and you feel powerless to stop it.

The constant noise can’t be ignored. It seems impossible to catch it to put it away where it belongs.

Relaxation techniques may fail to work when anxiety covers you. Medication, although taken regularly and correctly, hasn’t held the depression back.

You feel helpless. The dog has escaped and you fear it will never be under control again.

Often mental illness can be isolating.

You want to fight the battle on your own. You might not want to bother anyone and ask for help. But like the dog running loose in the dark, you don’t have to fight your battle alone.

The police officers were able to safely catch the black dog and hold it until its owners came home. The dog was once again in a safe and secure place, but it couldn’t get back there on its own.

Mental illness is many things; it is frightening, it is strong, it is incessant. But it is not so powerful or so strong or so incessant that it cannot be controlled. It just needs to be helped to be contained.

Mental illness is that it is not your fault. When it reappears and runs rampant, you didn’t purposely leave the gate open. It’s so important that you remember this. It’s not your fault, so don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Many times people are afraid that they are not “too” sick to reach out. They might question if they have the right to call a suicide hotline or go to the ER or call a crisis line.

There is no shame in having a mental illness. Let me repeat that. There is NO SHAME in having a mental illness.

You should never feel embarrassed to ask for help. You should never feel like your problems aren’t serious enough to get help for, or that you will be criticized for reaching out.

Black dogs are not easy to catch, but they respond to gentleness and the assistance of others.

You are not alone. You don’t have to fight this alone. You deserve assistance. You will not feel like this forever.