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Understanding and Beating Depression: The Black Dog

The past has no power over the present moment - Eckhart Tolle

I find it a real joy to work with young people. They absorb information like a sponge and, when they ‘get it’, the moment of insight can be dramatic and heart warming.

‘We’re all worried’

I was contacted by the parent of a 17-year-old boy.

‘We’re all so worried about Ben.’ said the voice on the phone. ‘He’s very down and troubled. He often seems angry yet he doesn’t seem to have any idea what it’s all about. He’s dropped out of college now and stays in his room a lot. He doesn’t seem to have any real sense of direction. The whole family’s concerned about him.’

Meeting Ben for the first time, I was struck by his very low mood and energy. His eyes were downcast and, despite his youth, he seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

His continuum of well-being assessment* registered 53%, not quite as low as I had thought it might be, but still low enough to be concerned and wonder what was going on?

A boil that needs lancing

‘I’m depressed’ said Ben ‘but I don’t know why. It’s like a black dog that trails around everywhere I go and I can’t seem to shake it off. My GP says I need antidepressants.’

I wasn’t surprised by the GP’s statement. The medical model treats depression a bit like a boil that needs lancing!

The standard procedure is to assess the symptoms, consult DSM V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and then prescribe relevant medication, something they hope will raise mood or lower anxiety.

The drugs do seem to be helpful in around 30% of cases, intriguingly the same result you get for a placebo or sugar pill.

GPs don’t encourage their patients to take a holistic look at their life. Drugs can mask the symptoms and dampen down uncomfortable feelings but they don’t get to the root of the problem.

But simply removing the dandelion’s leaves won’t resolve your weed problem.

The black dog

I’ve come across the black dog of depression many times. The term was famously used by Winston Churchill, himself a lifelong depressive.

In the past I’ve tried using guided visualisation to either tame the black dog, put it outside in a kennel or even send it off for re-homing.

It never really worked and I wondered why for quite a long time.

But right now, just like an emotions detective, I was looking for the clues to the roots of Ben’s depression. The starting point was the continuum of well-being assessment which showed he was feeling unhappy and hopeless and was not sleeping properly.

It also showed he felt he wasn’t achieving much, was low on self-esteem and had no sense of control even though, on the face of it, his life was ok with a nice family and home.

The next clue was Ben’s reply to my question:

‘Can you think back to a time when you were not depressed, a time when you were happy?’

Ben was quiet for a while. He seemed to be rooting around in his personal memory stores. Finally he said;

‘Got it. When I was 12.’

‘So what changed in your life when you were 12?’ I asked.

‘That was when I changed schools.’ he said. ‘I remember I liked the new school at first but I started getting picked on by some of the bigger boys because I was very small for my age.’

‘How did they bully you?’ I asked.

‘They used to wait for me a break time, push me around and call me names and take my dinner money, that kind of thing.’

‘And how did that affect you Ben?’

‘I started hiding in the toilets at break. I didn’t tell anyone. I dreaded going to school. I’d wake up in the morning and feel okay for a while and then that sinking feeling would hit me in the stomach when I remembered it was a school day. It went on for a couple of years. They left in the end but I never seem to get back on track. I guess that was it really. That’s when the black dog first showed up and it’s never gone away since.’

Post trauma stress and pattern matching

‘It seems to me, Ben’ I said ‘you had a very tough time for quite a while as a young teenager, just the time when you’re looking for your identity and trying to find your place in the world. I’d say it’s a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder you’re suffering at the moment and probably some pattern matching too. You recently started a new college. That may have reminded you of your bad experience when you started a new school.

‘I never thought of it like that.’ said Ben

‘Well, you did what you had to do to survive that period in your life,’ I told him ‘hiding, retreating and staying quiet kept you safe and got you through, but those circumstances have passed. Those boys have left and moved on and probably now as adults regret their earlier behaviour. But you’re stuck in this pattern of being and responding. Hiding in your bedroom and dropping out of college is simply not appropriate for a young man of 17 who is about to learn to drive and needs to be thinking about what he wants from the next 80 years of life.’


In guided visualisation, we did an exercise where Ben imagined being back at school as a 12-year-old being bullied by the older boys. In visualisation I encouraged him to have his say, to speak out, to express his anger, misery and frustration at their behaviour. In visualisation, he was able to make the bullies smaller in size whilst he grew larger and more powerful when he could finally step into his adult self.

Looking at Ben, peaceful and relaxed, I was reminded of the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant that referred to the moment when our inner adult overcomes the inner child.’

We pick up scars along the way. Sometimes they are the scuffed knees from falling over, sometimes scars from operations and sometimes emotional scars. We should not be afraid of picking up these scars. They are signs we have lived and overcome difficulties. We can learn from them. They can help us become the people we want to be.

I told Ben about a program I had seen a little while ago on TV.

Grayson Perry, the famous artist was trying to express the true nature and identity of his subject who, on this occasion, was the formerly disgraced politician Chris Huhne.

He created a large and magnificent vase. It looked Chinese from a distance but, when examined closely, had various words, pictures and symbols which represented Huhne’s unique life and personality.

Just at the point where the vase was complete however, when it was beautifully glazed and fired, the artist took a hammer to it and smashed it into several pieces.

He now passed the broken pieces to an expert in the ancient art of pottery restoration and the expert carefully pieced the pot together again. The restoration was excellent and the cracks were barely visible.

But then he did something unexpected and truly extraordinary. Rather than try to hide the cracks, the expert restorer took pieces of gold leaf and traced the lines of the repair so that they now glowed and became a beautiful golden thread which ran all around and all over the pot.

The gold leaf became a celebration of the life of the pot; its original form, its fall into disrepair and its re-creation into something almost, but not quite the same. Something new and unique which did not try to hide its history.

Old friends

Our emotions are our oldest friends, always trying to help us, even if we do not always understand what they are trying to communicate to us.

The black dog was trying to draw Ben’s attention to a life which was not working. The black dog sent him to the GP and finally brought him to me.

Finally, the black dog, Ben and I sat down together worked on the problem until we found the solution, helping a young man free up old repressed emotions, releasing him from the past and sending him into the future with hope rather than despair.

Turns out the dog truly is man’s best friend.

*The continuum of well-being assessment form is an outcome measure I have constructed to audit unmet emotional needs and assess and monitor subjective units of distress.

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.