I had a black dog, his name was depression was created by Matthew Johnstone in collaboration with WHO. The video he created and uploaded onto youtube has been seen by more than 6 million people. The story is driven by metaphor to a moving transformation in the final scene.
Matthew imagines depression is like having a black dog. This black dog turns up out of the blue, changing his life. Matthew uses 'black dog' to describe how his unwelcome visitor drags on his shirt to sap his energy, 'chases away' his confidence, 'chews' up his memory, wakes him up in the middle of the night, and eventually hijacks his life.
Metaphors are everywhere
Metaphors are used so commonly they become ingrained into our thinking, and so we often don't realise we are using them. Things we think of as purely descriptive, such as science, are often rich in metaphorical language.
For example, in medicine, we may find ourselves 'fighting' cancer, 'battling' depression, and looking for the 'magic bullet' in our search for the latest 'weapon' against illness. In The Trouble With Medicine's Metaphors, Dhruv Khullar questions the usefulness of medicine's military metaphors.
The metaphors we use influence our understanding, and the solutions we choose. So what happens when a metaphor you are given entails a 'war' with yourself?
Narrative Therapy developed by Michael White & David Epston, challenges the use of dominant narratives, such as medicine's military metaphors. They argue that when these dominant narratives are imposed on us, they limit how we can respond. Instead they argue, it is the ones we develop ourselves through personal experience, which are best placed to help us.
With a military metaphor, our options become surrender, retreat, defeat, stalemate or victory. Matthew's 'black dog' allows for a startling and moving transformation to occur. 'Black dog' is first calmed with pills. Then we learn he gets exhausted and can't keep up if we go running. We can trick him by making him 'chase a stick', so he will go away for a bit. We can learn to train him, and make him 'come to heel', or put him on a 'lead'.
In the final powerful scene we are presented with an image of our protagonist smiling at his black dog, who is gazing attentively upwards. This scene reminds me of my relationship with my childhood dog. What I see on the face of a cartoon character is compassion for a companion. To me, Matthew's 'black dog' feels like a story which arrives at self-compassion.
The meaning I get from the story - compassion for an unwelcome companion - arises because of the metaphor used, and the way I understand my relationship with my childhood dog. If Matthew had used a military metaphor, I would have instead understood depression as an enemy to be beaten.
The 'keeper of the lens'
Dhruv concludes his piece with who he believes should be in 'charge' of metaphors in the doctor-patient relationship,
Just as patients are the deciders of the character and duration of their treatment, they deserve to be the keepers of the lens through which they view their illness.
Source Dhruv Khullar in The Atlantic
The metaphors we use, and how we narrate our problems matters. The right story is so often the one that seems to fit. The one where we go, "that's just how it is." This is the one which points us to where we need to go.
Narrative Therapy 2nd edition by Martin Payne, 2006
Image by Maja Lampe