This week we talked to Kaye Blegvad, author of the incredible “Dog Years: An illustrated Book About Mental Health” her experience of living with depression, including friendships, genetics and stigma.
How did you come up with the idea of a naughty black dog to represent your depression?
I wish I could say the black dog as a metaphor was my idea, but it’s actually a really old one – apparently it dates back to Roman times. I knew of it from quotes by Winston Churchill, who referred to his own depression as a black dog. I remember hearing it as a teenager, and it really stuck with me. I find it helpful sometimes to use metaphor when trying to explain these fairly abstract feelings – describing depression in simple terms is pretty challenging, and getting some distance from the emotions can help make it clearer to others, as well as helping me understand the situation better myself.
How did your black dog affect your friendships when you were a child and then later as a teenager and now and adult?
I was a pretty insular child. I had friends, but I often felt on the outside of the group, and spent quite a lot of time alone. As a
teenager I had several pretty intense friendships, and often with other people who’d also struggled with depression or similar issues, with whom I didn’t have to explain. But the main impact I think that depression has had on my friendships is to do with the ability to socialize, as it forces you into a world that’s slightly separate from others. At times it has felt impossible to reach out to friends, or even leave my room. Most often it is that depression sucks every ounce of energy, and it feels like I can’t “afford” the energy required to see people, even if I would love to. So I have often been quite an absent or unreliable friend. On the whole, I’ve been lucky that my friends are understanding.
Do you wish that your family/friends had known about your dog sooner?
I talked to my parents about it pretty much as soon as I understood that something felt definitely “wrong” – it wasn’t just teen angst, I was really feeling things that weren’t normal at all. I’m lucky that my parents were understanding and took me seriously. I’ve also always been pretty open about it with friends – as a teenager I would say I was an over-sharer to my close friends. So I don’t think there was much of a delay between me realizing about the dog, and others knowing about it too.
We were interested to hear that you feel you were born with your dog. Our team explores the role of genetic factors on depression, and on treatment response. Do you have views about whether and how such information should be used?
I certainly don’t know much about the scientific basis of being born with a dog. But I do feel that there is something intrinsic in
me that makes me prone to this – perhaps I am inherently depressive, but not necessarily inherently depressed. My family has a long history with depression, and some of that feels pretty likely to be genetic. Also, I’ve never felt like my depression was really “about” anything. It has always been amorphous and abstract, which makes it feel like it comes from within, rather than from outside sources. I know depression is different for everyone, and some people certainly have a concrete “root” to it, whereas others seem more chemical based. If a certain type of treatment can help even a few sufferers, that seems worth pursuing to me.
Are there any signs that indicate someone that is good/bad for your dog?
I guess it’s much the same as people who are good/bad for you in general. I think I’ve gotten better at identifying certain things that don’t mix – beyond avoiding people who just seem explicitly cruel, which is a bit obvious, there are people who have behaviours which are triggering, or who just aren’t very sensitive or interested in the feelings of others. If somebody gets offended or angry when I have to cancel a plan due to depression, or double check the details due to anxiety, it’s probably just going to become a spiral.
lt does feel like the stigma is reducing. I don’t know if that’s because I’m getting older and therefore the people I’m around have more life experience and are more likely to understand, or if there are real shifts in social perception. I’d like to think the latter. I have appreciated seeing many awareness campaigns and movements about it in recent years, and I’m sure that’s having an impact. For myself, the more I’m aware of how many people suffer in similar ways, the less self-conscious I feel about having my own dog tagging along.
Has this stigma had an effect on your depression?
I think the stigma gets internalized, and I probably view myself through that lens more than other people do. It reinforces low
feelings and can cause a spiral. I had a (bad) therapist tell me “depression isn’t very attractive” once, and that feels like it’s written in neon lights everywhere when I’m feeling bad.
Do you have any advice for young people out there who are wondering where to turn?
My main advice is just: tell someone, ask for help. Do not be afraid to reach out. See a therapist if you possibly can. Do not keep the feelings inside. And remember that you are not alone – those words might seem empty but try to really feel them. There are countless people out there who know what you’re going through, who will understand you, and even if you don’t know them yet, you will find them.
Is there anything you’d have liked someone to tell you when you first began to recognise you were suffering from depression?
Hmm. This is hard. I can think of what I’d have liked people not to have told me, which is “it’s just a phase”. A lot of people tried to dismiss it as hormones or teenage angst, which set me back quite a lot in feeling like I would actually be able to get effective help. I knew perfectly well that what I was experiencing was not what most of my peers were experiencing. But it took quite a while to have adults believe that that wasn’t just me exaggerating. I think it’s so, so important to take somebody seriously when they tell you that something feels wrong. It took them a lot of courage to tell you in the first place. Do not brush it off.
Is there anything that you have found particularly helpful?
The predictable answer: therapy and medication. Therapy has helped me understand what’s going on better, and be able to intercept or examine thoughts as they appear. Medication allows me some space from depression so that I can be present in therapy, and be present in life in general. I also find working very helpful – throwing myself into a project that I believe in has been very good medicine for me. And I also find mindfulness meditation and yoga helpful – more with regards to anxiety than depression, but the two feed off of each other so much that it’s hard to disentangle the effects. I try to meditate for ten minutes every day (though I often do it more like once a week) and that seems to clear some extra space in my mind where calm or happiness could slip in.