As I wrap this little sequence of ruthless self-exposure up, various omissions and oddities have occurred to me, so the easiest thing is probably to string them together in a miscellany that’s almost Pauline in its randomness (though naturally without his claims to authority).
- Walk alongside to listen well: I cannot emphasize this enough… it combines the offering accompaniment (over time), with the willingness to listen carefully (over time). I actually think this is what friendship should be all about anyway – and I certainly don’t claim to offer it perfectly. But there are few things more restorative than being truly heard. Oh, and did I mention that this takes time…?
Offer gentle questions rather than definitive statements or comparisons: it’s the key to good conversation skills anyway – but all the more so for the black-dogged. To have someone show an interest makes such a difference (even if their experience makes the black dog seem alien).
- Tread gingerly near the wounds: if the black dog were a physical wound (however minor), this would go without saying. Whether after a broken foot or ingrowing toenail (ew), we’d all take care not to tread on the victim’s toes or leave a trip hazard. But an invisible heart-sickness can seem to evoke less thought… as if it’s incidental or barely relevant. I realise that it’s tricky (especially for mask-wearers like myself). One way is to listen out for the vocabulary the black-dogged person actually uses (even if it seems odd or unlike anyone else’s). And be carefully not to just bring the subject up in passing only to move on to something completely different. I’m not saying avoid the subject altogether – but if you raise it, be prepared to stick with it … perhaps for a while…
- Consider grief as a useful analogy: this may not work so well in (sub)cultures which avoid talking about it, but I think grief and bereavement are good analogs for the black-dog. Platitudes and quick-fixes are less than helpful. And just as nobody expects someone in the midst of grief just ‘to get over it’ quickly, so it is with the black-dog. And I can completely relate to the way C.S.Lewis opens his extraordinary memoir A Grief Observed.
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.
- Companionable silence is a gift: here’s what is so infuriating about all this. The black-dogged-one always craves the greener grass. To be alone; to be with others who leave them alone; to be with others who protect them; to be with others in the cave; to avoid cave-dwellers like the plague; to be with others who engage with the black dog; to be with others who avoid the black dog altogether. You see. It’s a nightmare, isn’t it. You can’t win. And nor can the black-dogged. And sometimes, the best is to just to be with someone who’s getting on with their own stuff, but who’s just there. If and when the need arises. It’s not awkward, but companionable, silence. And to be honest – I just love it. Words are superfluous then. Just being is enough. Oh how often I long just to ‘be’.
- Leave the causes to the experts (on the whole): the astute will have noticed that I’ve never talked about my own black dog’s origins. Primarily because it’s none of your business!! Of course, trying to understand the causes and underlying vulnerabilities is crucial for finding a path through (if not out of) the cave – and in fact, when I started seeing a counsellor, my hope was even less ambitious (to find a vocabulary for what was going on) – but it needs to be done with care and expertise. But I’m not sure it’s the automatic concern of the supportive friend. Far better is taking things as they are (not were) and going from there. Or perhaps even just being right there.