'Ring a bell and I’ll salivate.’
So sing the Barenaked Ladies in their track, BrianWilson.
They’re making a reference, of course, to Pavlov’s dog. While Anna Pavlova was busy inventing a meringue dessert, her dear old relative was training pooches. Okay, I might be short on historical accuracy there, but Ivan Petrovich’s experiments with conditioned canines form part of the foundations of modern behaviour therapy.
In essence, this Russian scientist dude would sound a buzzer at every mongrel mealtime until eventually the dogs associated the noise with the arrival of their Chum. To the extent that they’d drool in expectation whenever they heard the sound, irrespective of whether any food showed up.
As a direct result of these experiments, a Black Dog arose to avenge the cruel use of his brethren in scientific research. He escaped Pavlov’s lab and to this day he roams the globe, seeking human prey. Even as he stalks fresh fodder, he rarely leaves his previous victims alone. He remembers where he buried the bones and digs them up now and again, to worry and gnaw at them and keep his teeth sharp.
Pavlov’s Black Dog. That’s how I’ve thought of him for a few years now. Because before he broke out of the lab the bastard seemed to have learned a few tricks from his master. He conditions us – and by us, I mean anyone who has suffered with depression for any protracted period.
‘It’s a matter of instinct, a matter of conditioning. It’s a matter of fact.’
So goes the song.
And that’s pretty much how the Black Dog operates.
It’s our natural instinct to respond emotionally to all the shhhstuff that hits the various fans in life. And lord knows, plenty of lives are plagued by more crap than could ever be produced by one dog.
So if it keeps hitting fans and keeps getting flung our way, those negative emotional responses become automatic. Embedded in the way we think and feel. Notions that we’re ‘not good enough’ or we’re failures in some way become, in our heads, fact.
You can probably achieve similar results on prison inmates. Subject them to the same daily routine, day-in, day in (they’re prisoners, they don’t get days out). Come day of release, you can expect a significant number of ex-offenders to carry their prison behaviour with them into free society. Which will often lead them back guess where.
Depression is a prison sentence for our brains. We’re primed to react the same way, no matter how trivial the trigger. Heck, sometimes we don’t even need the buzzer to sound or the bell to ring. We’re already feeling it, chained to the post in the Black Dog’s yard, choked by the collar.
Speaking for myself, as a writer I routinely send out manuscripts to agents and the like, meeting the inevitable publishing-industry walls and it’s easy to see how repeated rejections could get you down a bit. To the extent that, if I’m being honest, I send them out a lot less routinely than I’d like. That, I should add, formed no part of my personal triggering incident – I think the original root causes of my depression are historic and ancient enough now to be largely irrelevant. But negative experiences will of course reinforce the Black Dog’s conditioning and it (too) frequently gets to the point where I can’t handle the slightest disappointment in life.
Which, clearly, is never going to work, because a life without disappointments is about as likely as world peace.
Sparing the details, last year was a particular nadir for me. And I don’t mean Nadir Sawalha. This coming year might be no different, but as is invariably the case around this time in the calendar I am full of intentions to turn things around.
Question is, what’s to be done?
A Black Dog’s not just for Christmas, it’s for life. Well, that’s how it feels. Is it like alcoholism – you’re never actually cured? (Couldn’t say with any certainty, because I’ve never been a bona fide alcoholic.)
Regardless, there’s only one viable option, as far as I can see.
It’s time to train the Dog.
CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) has had some success for me in the past, but like a gym membership it’s too easy to lapse. It’s all about catching those negative automatic thoughts and combating them with reason. Easier said than done and just like at that gym or for anyone battling weight problems you have to persist and stick with it to see any results. All too often if we don’t see those results, we grow impatient and we give it up as a lost fight. With that in mind, my reason currently tells me that to treat an invisible disease I’m going to need visible results within a reasonable timescale. Which translates to tackling external factors which may have a knock-on effect on the internal
Hence, I’ve begun this January by dealing with my home environment. That means cleaning, tidying, general de-cluttering. Chucking out stuff I don’t need and purchasing a new item or two that, in theory, ought to provide some tangible improvements in lifestyle. Fairly obvious stuff, I know, and it’s not going to win me a Nobel prize for psychology. But hey, Nobel = no bell = no, er, salivation. And early indications are that it is making a (modest) difference.
Money, I appreciate, is not always an option for everyone – I had to dig into savings and do myself out of the huge 0.1% interest I could have had from the bank. So purchases might be out of the question, but I can recommend small changes. Small is, in fact, key. When you’re training for a marathon you don’t run the full 26 miles right away. Long-term conditioning can’t be overcome with anything but long-term efforts. And even when it came to something as simple and trifling as the sorting and tidying I really had to compartmentalise the operation, break it down into manageable stages. There are days when even small tasks feel pointless and too much like hard work, so a coping strategy is essential, as ridiculous as that may sound. As of today, the job is nowhere near done, but improvements are already discernible. By picking a single room as my weekly focus I ought to have environs I can feel better about by the end of February.
That sounds realistic and do-able to me. Even allowing for down days.
The Black Dog, I think, festers in dirt and disorganisation. He loves a mess. So, in theory, I’m making him less welcome. Less at home.
None of this may work. None of this may hold, but we’ve made a start. And I mean to report in to this blog every month, to track progress and share results for the benefit of, well, me – and others who are more familiar with depression than they ever wanted to be.
At this stage, I couldn’t even tell you what the next steps are in this twelve month programme. At the very least, I want to be the one ringing the bell or buzzer and not feeding that bastard pooch. By the end of the year, I really hope to be able to report just one thing:
Black Dog Down.
Time will tell. See you back here in a month.
Visit Black Dog Tribe for more information on depression and other mental health issues.