“I Have a Black Dog” Review

Once again, I found myself in the self – help section of Plymouth Central Library, perusing what this small section could offer me next. Tired of looking at lengthy books with just text and no imagery, I came across this little treat, “I Had a Black Dog” by Matthew Johnstone.

Upon first glance, this book could be mistaken for a children’s book, quite similar to “Pain is Really Strange” by Steve Haines. With illustrations reminiscent of Alex Brychta’s illustrations in my childhood “Biff, Chip and Kipper books”, a medium that was normally reserved for younger generations revealed some complex adult themes.

“I Had a Black Dog” takes the reader through the writer’s experience of depression, how he felt whilst in the state and how he overcame its powers, as well as his relationship with his experiences looking back. Using simplistic language, Johnstone limits 1-3 sentences to each page. This gave me time to digest the significance of what was being said. Paired with Johnstone’s illustrations displaying emotional metaphors, the combination really demonstrate the feeling of suffering with depression.

In this book, “Black Dog” acts as a visual ambassador for depression, a term used by Winston Churchill. Each image shows the dynamic between depression ( the black dog) and Johnstone. When talking about how depression can affect your daily life, the dog is presented as an omnipresent being that permeates everything. There’s seemingly no escape from this condition. He uses metaphors such as the dog being a pair of glasses you see the world through; you cannot see the beauty through them, they won’t let you. The cycle goes on and on until you reach a point of being entirely consumed with depression. At this point, Johnstone goes on to talk about treatment, about how there’s no perfect cure and how openness and honesty with those you love as well as medical professionals can really benefit your recovery. The dog starts to become smaller and less imposing.

What I liked the most about this is how Johnstone doesn’t pretend the depression goes away. Once its there, it never properly disappears. It may appear again at a moment of weakness or stress, but we are better equipped to make the black dog “heel”. I have been a sufferer of depression on and off for around 10 years now and have tried all sorts of different medications and counselling forms, but each bout was for a different reason, so had to be treated differently. It’s not one size fits all.

Overall, what I really love about this book is its simplicity. As Stephen Fry says,

“This book achieves what other books take 300 pages to say”

At first, I was stumped a little by its illustrative form, but on reflection this makes the most sense. As a depression sufferer, I read through this book and identified with pretty much everything that was being said. I was also, in a way, relieved at seeing the images. I thought, “Finally, someone actually gets it”. I don’t doubt that a lot of people I have spoken to about the condition truly understand how it feels, but it is so refreshing to see it right in front of your eyes.

In the acknowledgements, Johnstone writes about how this book was never really intended as a self-help book, but a visual articulation of what it is to suffer with depression. He is not a psychologist, psychiatrist or specialist in this field. This is something I feel is really missing from the material available for sufferers of fibromyalgia, or generally chronic pain and chronic fatigue illnesses. There are sites such as “The Mighty” that use readers comments, opinions and ideas as part of their material, as well as dedicated social media groups that share advise, but after following these since my diagnosis, I feel tired of them.

The information we are given is either from medical professionals that do not suffer with the condition and have no personal understanding or attachment to it (of which isn’t very accessible), or perpetually negative examples of the suffering we face with this diagnosis, of which I feel smothered with.

After reading this book, I have a clearer idea of what it is I want to produce this year and what question I am asking. I am currently working on rewriting my proposal for when I start this term, giving me a clearer goal.



Johnstone, M., 2007. I Had a Black Dog. 2nd ed. London: Robinson.

Johnstone,M. 2017. Reviews and quotes. [ONLINE] Available at: http://ihadablackdogreviews.blogspot.co.uk/. [Accessed 22 September 2017].

Black Dog Films | Matthew Johnstone. 2017. Black Dog Films | Matthew Johnstone. [ONLINE] Available at: https://matthewjohnstone.com.au/courses/i-had-a-black-dog/videos/. [Accessed 22 September 2017].


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