Living with a Black Dog


This excellently-illustrated book on Depression arrived in my post-box yesterday. Written and illustrated by Matthew (and Ainsley) Johnstone, Living with a Black Dog contains roughly 50 touching illustrations of what it’s like to live with someone who suffers from Depression. (Incidentally I’m not sure that depression warrants a capital letter like that but it does make it look more forbidding. I guess a Black Dog is also a lot more scary than a black dog 😉 )

Anyway, it’s easy to read and communicates valuable insights in a light-hearted way. Perhaps because it’s visual it appeals to our emotions more directly? Matthew has this to say (on his website) about the book: “I gave it to a friend recently to have a look at and he shared it with his wife and he said the biggest thing he got out of it was (a) communication, communication, communication & (b) the sufferer taking a bigger responsibility in getting well.”

I loved the illustrations of the black dog itself and the way the dog mirrored the characters’ situations. I also felt quite sad that the couple wave goodbye to the black dog at the end as it sails away into the sunset. Such a cute dog and they’re letting it go? (Perhaps there’s something in this about how we cute-ify our “dark sides” but it’s Friday afternoon so I’ll let that one go.)

In honour of such creativity (and because I’ve been meaning to tackle this subject for a while), I thought I’d do a quick scan to see what online resources are available on Depression. I’d be interested in any thoughts you have on the topic as well. For example:

1. Any well-known novels and movies that spring to mind on depression?

2. Any well-known writers and poets? (Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf are three that come to mind.)

3. Is it even helpful to separate out “depression” in this way, as something scientific to be diagnosed, rather than focusing on relationships?

Of course that leads to the inevitable question of what is depression and how it differs from distress (or just having a bad day or being down-in-the-dumps). I guess severity and duration are the keys here — and the DSM requires you to have five out of nine symptoms to qualify for a diagnosis of a Major Depressive Episode (MDE).

I also know that it’s not possible to do more than scratch the surface of this topic but I thought I’d at least start the discussion, in part because this is something I’ve wrestled with from time to time. A bit like Matthew, I’m not that comfortable putting it out there for people to see. And I’m also wary of labelling myself in a way which is not helpful. I clearly don’t have MDE now but I’m pretty sure that I would have qualified in my early twenties.

I also know that it’s difficult to talk about losses, even minor ones such as the loss of friendships. Perhaps this is part of what this is about. And another part of it is curiosity (from the personal to the more general) of the types of stories that are out there and the ways that people have of talking about loss and longing and sadness. (And then the myriad ways we have of defending against such feelings.)

There’s a sober topic for a Friday! Have a good weekend now 😉


17 Responses to Living with a Black Dog

  1. Pete says:

    p.s. I wanted to add that I’m still Spam so if I do leave comments on other wordpress blogs they’ll be in the spam queue. (Again with the spam? Oy vey.)

  2. That’s so weird about the spam. I read a review in the NYRB a while back about a father’s memoir of his daughter’s depression that sounded very good. Maybe someone else reading remembers the title?

  3. Found it: Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg.

  4. Emily says:

    i should get it for my husband so he understands how it is for us.

  5. openpalm says:

    thanks for raising the topic.

    I’d like to know the difference between grief and depression…what about grief that lasts for a really long time? what about pain that blooms from loss of the planet, loss of ideals, loss of family and friends, health, youth.

    Are some people better able to accept all this and make peace with it?

    I admire S.Plath tremendously. Her outrage and anger and existential rejection of the unacceptable have helped me out of american-everything-hads-to-always-be-wonderful-or-i-am-a-failure-happily-ever-after-disneyland-everyone-can-be-president denial.

    So where is balance? that would turn both denial and depression into something like wisdom?


  6. litlove says:

    Good books on depression: Sally Brampton’s Shoot The Damn Dog (slightly different emotional tone there, to your book!) is something every depression sufferer should read. She charts her journey through severe clinical depression back to tentative health, pulling no punches and providing lots of information. Also Churchill’s Black Dog by Anthony Storr, which is not just about depression, I think. Oh and Black Sun by Julia Kristeva, which is very technical and difficult but good, too.

    Finally, another brilliant book is Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with fire: manic depression and the artistic temperament. It’s excellent.

  7. couchtrip says:

    Lilian – Thanks for the link. Greenberg’s book sounds excellent – will add to the list.

    Emily – I think books like this are a good way of getting family members to understand what it’s like.

    Openpalm – Good question. I found this useful definition of depression at PsychCentral: “feeling sad and depressed for weeks or months at a time (not just a passing blue mood), accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, lack of energy, and taking little or no pleasure in things that gave you joy in the past.” Grief would often trigger a depression but be slightly different in that there’s mourning for a specific loss. Clearly the two are related though, since the work of depression would be to mourn previous losses and to slowly start taking more control of your life. I like your point about depression and wisdom as well.

    Litlove – I remember your review of Brampton’s book and those others look excellent as well. I knew you’d have great titles to recommend. Thanks!

    Incidentally, PsychCentral has some interesting-looking personal stories here (,3&intersect=1&depression=1) and also book reviews here (,3&intersect=1&depression=1&orderby=title&order=asc).

  8. doctordi says:

    I knew Litlove would be all over this like… glossy dog fur.

    Um, you already named the three authors I would have named, Pete, although Dorothy Parker also suffered from depression and it informed her writing pretty fundamentally.

    I’m interested in the link between depression and narcissism. I’d agree that the sufferer needs to take a bigger part in getting well, and I think narcissism can inhibit their capacity to do that in a number of ways. This is just from personal experience with depression sufferers, I’m not even sure if anyone else would agree with me. Anyway, hi Pete! And you haven’t been spammed by my account, so that’s one less blog to worry about!

  9. Pete says:

    Hi Di – Yes, I agree. Narcissists maybe take things more personally than they should (narcissistic injuries) and so might be more prone to feeling down about things. Would be interested to see if a moderate amount of depression makes someone more interesting (and a better writer) but a major amount of depression makes writing just too difficult. Obviously it’s more complicated than that but that would be my hunch. Yay re not being caught as spam by your blog.

  10. Pete says:

    Er Di – My comments are still going straight to your spam queue. Tedious. Yes. But I’m persevering.

  11. doctordi says:

    How do you know?? How can I get them out?? I’m not getting any message about it… I didn’t even know I HAD a spam queue…

  12. doctordi says:

    I found ’em! And I approved ’em! And you shall sit in the spam queue no longer!

    • couchtrip says:

      Di, if you’re still following this thread, I still can’t comment on your blog. I just didn’t want you to take it personally, OK? I read, I enjoy and then my comment is spam. WordPress are not helpful. So maybe I’ll just be the silent reader from now on!

  13. mmaaggnnaa says:


    I was wondering if you would be willing to blogroll my site about my own therapy-related experiences . . . ?? (Thank you in advance!)

    – Marie

  14. Effendi says:

    Surely you must include William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” here. Brilliant exploration of deep and debilitating depression.

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