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Michael Perry: We've come a long way treating depression, but that black dog still hunts

Michael Perry: We've come a long way treating depression, but that black dog still hunts

Lately I have been spending a little more time than I’d prefer walking the black dog.

Not even walking, really. More like we eye each other from opposite corners of the room, both thinking: “Oh. You again.”

I am rich in reading but poor in remembering. This leads to knowing a little about a lot, but not a lot about any one thing. I do a lot of nodding in recognition but very little in-depth explaining unless the source materials are at hand.

Keep that in mind when I declare that the term “black dog” was coined as a euphemism for depression by the poet Horace, is cited in medieval literature, and was perhaps most famously invoked by Winston Churchill.

In my distant past I worked on a mental health unit. I sat in on group therapy sessions, I answered the suicide hotline, I wrote up heartbreaking nurse’s notes. As such, I know the depths of my depression are but a dip in a teacup compared to what so many endure.

I take the black dog seriously, but he doesn’t have the run of the place, and he’s never had me by the throat. But when he’s around I don’t take my eyes off him.

I also have blessed countermeasures at hand: My wife, a solid source of comfort and counsel; my children, who uplift and propel me in ways they may never know; and neighbors like Denny down the hill, who is my therapist without knowing so.

Just two days ago I was motoring morosely along when I spotted him placing an envelope in his mailbox. I hit the brakes and lowered the pickup window.

“If that’s a check for me, I’ll just take it now,” I said. “Save ya the stamp!”

“Ha!” he said. Then, waving the envelope with one hand while pointing at his house with the other, he said. “I’m mailing this so I can keep that!”

There followed some goofball back-and-forth, and Denny wouldn’t know it and doesn’t need to hear it, but when I turned up the hill toward our farm I was lighter in my heart.

That is no doubt tied to the fact that some of my current darkness is drawn from the general determination of a large portion of our population to cast each other as irredeemably idiotic. I have to guard against that myself and find talking to the neighbors helps.

I don’t mean to suggest the black dog is easily brought to heel. I’m thinking right now of all the farmers we’ve lost to suicide.

Across all ages and professions I hope openness about mental health continues to grow. We’ve come a long way since I was writing up those nurse’s notes, but so much work remains.

The dog is dark, but today I got off light. After a cold gray morning the sun busted out and illuminated the tiniest slice of green peeking from a bud on a branch outside my window. It was a work of natural art, a metaphor, a reason to wait around and see what comes next.

I hope you can feel the sun. And if the black dog is blocking it, you need not face the darkness alone.

An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio”( Read more from Michael Perry at

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