At My Heels

We all know I’m often followed by a black dog who tells me everything I do and everything I am is worthless.

Honestly, I’d be nothing and do nothing, and probably lie curled on the floor of my room for eternity, if it weren’t for another canine in my menagerie.

We’ll call him The motivator.

The motivator snarls and growls at my heels day and night. He’s like the slave that stood behind Caesar at the triumph, reminding him that he’s still nothing, but with a side of sharp teeth and slavering mouth.

When I was writing and no one would buy me for over ten years, I knew that I would be happy if only someone accepted one of my short stories.

Well, that happened, and that same afternoon, after enjoying success for like ten seconds, the dog started growling and biting my heels, and telling me I needed to be professionally published.

I think I enjoyed the check for my first professional sale for an hour or two, as the dog snarled and growled I must immediately start working on selling a novel.

And so it goes. I mean, for winning the dragon I got fried ice cream, so I enjoyed it for…. 15 minutes? (In my defense I was in Meeker, CO that weekend, and there really wasn’t much more available in the way of fun.)

Right now the dog is mad enough with me — February has been…. difficult to get anything done in — not even sure why. There have been very minor health flukes, but …. very minor. It’s mostly just me, being stupid, I think — that I feel like I’m at risk of being eaten hole.

The dog stresses me, and makes me run when I could rest. He makes the idea of retirement impossible. The idea of resting on my laurels highly unlikely.

But looking at my colleagues who just gave up, oh, sorry, were happy after one short, one book, one award (or even nomination) I both envy them and bless the dog.

Because without the growls and snarls, I’d be closer to what the black dog says I am: worthless. Never did anything. Never will.

Now, if I can finish the stories I have on hand before my heels are gone, that would help. And if I could get the dog to stop snarling I need to be cleaning house while I’m writing, or that I’m wasting time when I am actually cleaning house because I should be writing, that would help too.

I am aware if I do, it will be due to the snarling dog. Almost all of us who achieve anything or do anything have one of these puppies, from the same litter.

It would be wonderful to produce in a burst of ecstatic self-confidence. And maybe some people do that. I don’t know. Never met any.

For the rest of us, we curse and bless the snarling dog.

Without him, we’d be happier. But without him we’d accomplish nothing.

90 thoughts on “At My Heels

  1. ponders at random
    Why do we call it ‘the black dog’? Stereotypically, dogs love their owners and think they’re amazing no matter what they do.
    Why not ‘the black cat’? Cats think their owners- servants?- are never good enough. That attitude seems more in line with the black dog phenomenon.
    Or I’m overthinking this. Like that’s never happened before.

    1. Just some thoughts about that.

      There is a Folklore “Black Dog” in Britain that is said to appear before a person’s death.

      As for why a dog not a cat, I suspect it’s a dog because a dangerous dog can be more dangerous than a cat.

      1. That would depend on the dog. And the cat.

        Oooh, a Pomeranian! And such a pretty spotted kitty! 🙂

        1. Right,
          Q: what does a Maine Coon call a Pomeranian?
          A: a chew toy
          It is good that most Maine Coons are VERY gentle tempered. The thought of an angry 25Lb+ cat is a bit terrifying. Essentially that’s a bobcat. And there was a trend for a while of people having pet Servals This seemed a VERY bad idea. Although in truth our “domestic” cats have only been hanging out with us 9000 years or so and its only in the last 2 or 3 centuries that we’ve really been applying animal husbandry to them. Mostly we just let them cohabitate with us, reproduce freely and chase vermin. Unless raised with people from an early age they revert to their wild Felis Sylvestris ancestors behaviors very quickly. Trust me you do NOT try to handle adult ferals directly they are tough critters.

          1. A HS acquaintance had an ocelot. A bit intimidating, but it never attacked anyone.

            But my “spotted kitty” was intended to evoke one of these:

          2. We had two Maine Coons for a good (very good) fourteen years or so. (Same height; one weighed 11 pounds and one weighed 28. We called them Fat & Flat Cats.) Fat was amazingly even-tempered and would cuddle up to the unused side when I nursed my baby. Even when she got grabby. The only time I ever saw him complain was when she got a handful of whiskers, and I really can’t blame him.

      2. There’s a number of black dogs. One tale tells of a man who was unwillingly accompanied through a wood by an enormous black dog he could not scare off. Then some bandits are captured, and before execution, they tell of a man they would have killed to rob except that he had this enormous dog with him.

    2. Cat only cares that you are ignoring them/not feeding them. When you need to write they see the keyboard as the most comfortable spot in the house.

      They may join you in doing a thing, but almost never hound you for failing in it. If nothing else, they would get bored at it.

    3. Black Dog for depression entered common usage in the 1826. The Urban Dictionary says it might be from Irish. Or it could come from the grim, the spiritual dog of ill-omen. Winston Churchill made it popular (the term, not the malady.) I’d incline to Drak’s folk-lore origin, as it is about the time that Gothic novels and stories were becoming popular, along with a resurgence in interest in folklore.

      Hunting dogs will track for miles, constantly following the person or other animal. Cat’s don’t do that. So dog is a more realistic image than cat.

  2. The trick is to have a big huge fluffy white Great Pyrenees in your head that growls at the Motivator to back off at those times where you seriously DO need to take a break. Then lets him back at you when break time is over.

    (I don’t have any of those. All my mental dogs are either black dogs telling me I suck, or fat farting couch potato dogs that tell me ‘well, you suck, but just sit here with us and we’ll hang out.’)

    1. > “that growls at the Motivator to back off”

      So you’re saying we need a DE-motivator dog? Okay:

      …What do you mean that’s not what you meant?

  3. I sic Ralph the sheepdog from the Looney Toons cartoons on mine. Time to relax, get Ralph send the dog back a bit. Ralph’s all about taking care of his charges.

  4. I grew up down in the Florida piney woods. We shared our rock pit swimming hole with a five foot gator. We’d look and be sure where she was, out of the water, before we got in. When she’d slide in we’d get out, sit on the high bank and watch. Oddly enough our swimming hole gator never ever came up in discussions with our parents.

    Wandering, playing in the pines I learned early on to step atop, not over, the log in the trail, look on the other side to assure no rattle snake there before putting a foot down.

    I guess my dispirited (Dang, he got away again.) animals taught me early on to go for it, whatever it is, but check it out before you put your foot in it.

    In retrospect most of my black dogs, real or metaphorical, were cold blooded and/or scaled, ahead of, lying in wait for me, not behind me snapping at my heels. They, of course, to an extent defined, but not delimited my world, perhaps because after coming to Alaska I learned if you’re gonna be a bear, Be A Grizzly Bear!

    4 to 6 inches of fresh snow yesterday (33 inch snow pack now in the uncleared parts of my yard.). I better get out and do some plowing, if I want to do any prowling beyond the garage door before the end of April.

  5. I’ve been having the same dream regularly for decades now. I need to go somewhere but i fritter, fritter, fritter and then wake up. I never get where I’m going. the details differ, but the pattern never changes. Story of my life — fritter, fritter, fritter. I suppose my life will come down to shoulda, coulda, woulda.

    Then again, I’m still married to my wife, our children live productive lives, are mostly sane, and still talk to us, I’m in good health, well fed, and financially comfortable so I really shouldn’t complain. in fact, I have nothing to complain about.

      1. Every time I get a really good case of the black dog I try to remember that. I mean, what do I have to complain about? Everyone should have it as bad as I do.

  6. Captain Aubrey would get the Black Dog after winning a naval battle in which many died…interesting way of telling us he had a great soul…But it didn’t stop him from doing his duty…

  7. I have a black dog. (Worthless, Short, fat, ugly, stupid) And a gray dog. (Nobody likes you, everyone thinks you’re a fake. You ARE a fake, they find out soon) And a Wolf (Oh, you think Lupus is going to let you have energy to go out tonight? Mwahahahaha!) Not to mention three gray cats (Toonas! Make more toonas, human!) So I know whereof you speak.

      1. Lupus is a problem. I am not letting it define me. The black dog of depression and the gray dog of anxiety do not define me, neither does the wolf of lupus. F*’k them all! They told me when they diagnosed me with Lupus that I had five years to live…. forty years ago. LOL. I figure the longer I live, and I’ve outlived the doc that made the diagnosis, God gives me a gift, and I have to use it well.

        1. Yeah, I have the auto-immune, which PROBABLY isn’t lupus. Though as cute symptoms multiply sometimes I wonder what the heck it is.
          It’s been trying to kill me for sixty years and a few months, assuming it didn’t try before I was born, of course.
          It can go on trying. I won’t let it win. I’ll go when I’m good and ready and have written at lest twenty of the forty or so books waiting.
          So, there.

          1. I also have probably-not-lupus autoimmune stuff and was supposed to be dead 5 years ago. Part of the reason I admire you so much: You know that every day is a gift but it’s also a struggle and it’s better to go down with twin matched fingers toward the Fates. 🙂

          2. A prior Rheumatologist explained that auto-immune disorder is like a deck of cards, each a symptom.

            Draw 3 to 7.

            If you have one set, it’s eczema. A different set is psoriatic arthritis. Yet another is Lupus. Some overlap and you get a combo.

            From time to time, you may draw another card or two, or rarely, to discard one. Medication may inactivate a card. Or draw a different or additional one.

            Sometimes the combination is “novel” as in “WTF is my body doing now?”

            The whole field is poorly understood. A very honest Rheumatologist admitted each patient is a trial and error quest, empirically determined.

            Oh, and many of the treatments are large complex protein molecules. Your immune system will thus learn to recognize them as foreign, and make you immune to the treatments.


            Thus combos of immune suppressants like Methotrexate and something else, like Humera or Rinvoq.

            So far, the Rinvoq has worked well for me, without the usual 6 months to a year then fail. Also cleared up some nuisance skin issues as a bonus.

            And the punchline? It was about the last thing normally indicated for my particular “hand”. Yet -BAM- did it ever work well.


        2. I recall a George Burns bit… someone asks about his drinking and he replies that he has a glass of wine with meals, and so on. And his smoking, and he says he smokes a couple cigars a day. And his… relations with women, and he replies that he enjoys their company… “And what does your doctor have to say about all that?” “Oh, he’s dead.”

  8. I call mine less of a motivator dog than either 1) the Hound of Heaven driving me to do something particular for reasons I have no clue about [but might learn later], or 2) that darn Calvinist sense of duty and responsibility.

    1. The Hound of Heaven shows up rarely and is always welcome (if somewhat terrifying upon first appearance.)

      The Motivator, on the other hand, speaks in the voice of my obnoxious bio-father and I would be much saner without it. Maybe I could find a reasonable substitute at the pound…?

      1. The motivator…. Greebo might have been a part of the motivator. Or maybe a willing slave of the hound of heaven.
        My motivator has a “tall corn accent” and a voice I recognized the first time I heard it in recording. I don’t know why.

        1. Mine sounds like every nightmare DI that ever stalked a recruit. Maximum volume, zero sympathy. Except when it whispers.

          The whispers scare me.

        2. I suppose it would take a divine Dog to make a cat cooperate.

          I don’t know what I’d call my Motivator, other than “ugly as a Chinese Crested”. It’s the voice that tells me I haven’t worked enough after a 12-hour day, and that tells me I deserve it (and why) whenever I’m unhappy. I would like it to go away. I haven’t been writing professionally long enough to know how my brain works there, but in other fields I create when I’m happy. Damn dog makes that difficult.

    2. but ma’am, I’m not Calvinist. So what dour sense of duty and obligation pursues me?
      Except that of course Legionaries don’t cry. And maybe some dour ancestor reminds me vitam impendere verum and that I stand guard, and one does not desert a position of honor.
      Besides, the damn dog assures me, the Lieutenant wouldn’t like that.

      1. “Besides, the damn dog assures me, the Lieutenant wouldn’t like that.” The damn dog always knows what to say to each of us. The Reader wonders if it is actually one of the devils from the Screwtape Letters in dog form.

      2. You might be an Augustinian . . . 😉 I suspect if you look somewhere in Catholic teaching, there’s something about vocations that demand to be filled, and the importance of labor and duty. [Paging St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Benedict of Nursia, please pick the white courtesy phone]

      1. The Reader believes Black Dogs are immortal and only breed to match the growth of human population.

  9. “You worked nineteen hours already? That’s cute. There are TWENTY FOUR HOURS IN THE DAY, NUMBNUTS! Get back to work!”

    My motivator might just be psychotic.

      1. My sympathies. Sometimes I think if I was half the man that voice expects me to be, I’d be superhuman already and lifting engine blocks with my pecs, sleeping once a week whether I needed it or not, and finishing tasks before they even appear.

  10. Simple secret is to relax and do only what you are supposed to do. It is just as important to know what not to do, as to do. If I try to do too much, my body/subconscious makes me pay a price.

    That second dog is guilt. Never let guilt guide you, it is an untrustworthy guide.

    To do this perfectly requires perfect listening. When you hear from God, you know it is God when your response is: “You want me to do WHAT?” (or not do).

    Depression can be our body’s way of telling us to stop. Depression can kill.

    1. Aye to the last. Had a round with the black dog a few decades ago, over what proved to be solvable problems once I rose out of the fugue. Poured the last bottle of booze down the sink (never could drink Jaeger again), and had an exciting time making sure that I didn’t attempt any, er, “final” solutions. (God had a rough sense of humor–said round happened when the usual people I’d reach out to were all out of contact. Made it, and maybe learned something. Made contact later, then decided to a) seek pro help, and b) work to get the underlying issues resolved. Both happened. Seems the Heavenly Clue by Four works a charm.)

      Never had as rough a time since, though there’s now people (two and four-footed) in the household who keep me going when the idiocy goes over the top. (Looking at you, Federal and State juntas…) Then there’s the Boss with His humor.

        1. There’s a difference between the black dog and the black pill. In my case, I applied what the 12-steppers call “step 0”. Namely, “This shit’s gotta stop.”

          I found help, and decided that for my own sake, I was going to work my ass off to get out of my mental hole. Part of that was learning how to people, and the lady I met was somewhat similar. We’ve been married 21 years now and neither of us has killed the other. (We’re still introverts, though both of us like dealing with people in small doses. We found a system that works, and a place where we can deal with the limited number of people we want to. Rural life for the win, for us.)

          1. I am envious of your success. I have been alone for decades. I’ve run out of ideas for things to try. Having lost all off my social groups to wokeness over the years makes the isolation much worse. Add to that the fact my career is over and I’m seeing mental decline is tough. I have no one to help me as my brain continues to fail and the isolation is more than I can bear.

            1. I don’t know if this helps at all, but I am very sorry to hear that. Prayers have been sent up on your behalf. In the mean time, I hope the blog provides some sort of meaningful interaction, despite being only online.

        2. Never take counsel of your fears. Because the bastard is lying to you.

          Know that it’s -only- power is lying. It can’t actually do anything. It cannot win, knows this, and wants as much damage done by its lies as it can manage, before it’s inevitable defeat.

          Never quit. Don’t give the lying bastard the satisfaction. And Hope is real, if you turn away from that lying bastard.

    2. @ Presbypoet > “When you hear from God, you know it is God when your response is: “You want me to do WHAT?”(or not do).

      Late to the thread, but wanted to say – exactly so!

      I know Cosby is supposed to be cancelled, but his Noah skit was totally on target.

  11. I’m not sure how jealous I am.
    My dog is lazy, very cuddly, and does NOT want to leave my lap. So warm. So fluffy.

    Now, I’ve had external forces drive me. Generally when somebody’s told me that I can’t do something. But after I’ve proven that I can? (Shrug)

  12. I do seem to be supervised by my black cat Hiccup. He comes into the office and checks on me and the goes and lies on the bed and watches me. He does tend to doze off though so he is probably not the most effective supervisor (Though I’ve had less useful 2 legged ones…). His main concern is that given my wife and daughter have escaped for the day he doesn’t want to lose the last resident of the house that has thumbs and can open the magical disks of nutrition (cans of fancy feast cat food).

  13. Sarah, tell the black dog to chill out.

    Your blog and the Dark Ship/Good Men stuff probably helped me weather the treatments and surgeries I received for an aggressive, high-grade, state 3 myxofibrosarcoma. And a day before my 24th Wedding Anniversary, I expect to tell folks I am 5 years 10 months cancer-free.

    So tell the mangy apne (or daughter) of a bitch to back off, because your fans have no fear of your EVER being inadequate.


  14. The only company I have these days is the black dog. Wish it was different, but at this late date, I doubt it will change.

    1. Ham radio. Talk to the world wide wadio.

      Volunteer work. Help shut-ins. If shut in, how about a phone calling circle?

  15. Churchill referred to his bouts of depression/melancholy as “the black dog”. I always thought it was appropriate….

  16. I call mine The Monster That Lurks in the Shadows.

    It slithers about, hissing “Quit.” “Why bother?” “You cant.” “Gone.” “Lost” “Nevermore.”

    Sometimes, I have to curb-stomp it. Usually, I can tune it out and focus on positive signal. Jesus commands us not to despair. Good signal. Wilco.

    As far as hissy-face goes, “don’t give the prick the satisfaction”.

  17. Dear digital niece O’ mine, you have one, count em, one black dog.
    You and every soul ever born.
    You also have a host of loyal readers waiting “AHEM!” patiently, I SAID PATIENTLY DANG IT!, for the next product of your inventive writer’s mind and fingers.
    That dog does not stand a chance.
    And speaking of product, my inbox appears rather empty at the moment. Does kindly Ol Uncle Lar need to find a gentle motivator to nudge his favorite niece off the dime? I have access to black powder should it be required.

  18. > “We’ll call him The motivator.”

    Not sure I like the name. It feels like a “motivator” is something I’d find in a robot or car engine.

  19. I want to crowdsource something here.

    If I want to set up a new free e-mail account, what’s the best service to use these days? I know Sarah’s got like three and is apparently having trouble with all of them, so…

    1. It’s not free, but I’ve heard good things about ProtonMail. I still use AOL for my e-mail, but I don’t recommend it. DayJob is through Gmail, and you know what that means. (Clumsy, sometimes unreliable, full of bloatware, and tracked by everyone.)

      1. Proton mail has a free option, which I’ve now set up an account on. Thanks.

        Next request: I’m trying to join the AtH Discord with a new account. Would someone please send an invite to WizardGuy47 AT proton DOT me

        Also, what was Sarah’s ‘nym on the Discord? I managed to get this new account verified (Discord was screwing with me on the old one) and I want to test if I can send her private messages now.

  20. The gray dog of anxiety I mostly keep at bay by offering up my fears and anxieties for a good cause (the spiritual well-being of colorful but less than saintly public figures and entertainers seems to work particularly well; alive or dead, doesn’t seem to matter much, maybe because God, the One accepting or rejecting the offerings, is outside time).

    The black dog of negativism used to be a lot worse when I was younger, but nowadays is sometimes surprisingly helpful. He’s the one who says it’s okay to experiment with weird genre mixes “because you don’t have an audience to disappoint,” or not to worry about whether I’m making a bad impression on people when they probably have their minds on other things, and so on.

    The Red Dog of Angry Achievement can be kind of unhelpful, because he doesn’t care what kind of achievement. He’s helped me with every writing project I can call completed, but he’s just as willing to help prod me towards internet squabbles or another level of Creeper World Evermore or endless wrangling with the Daz interface or (in past decades) with the latest Elder Scrolls or Castlevania games. And he doesn’t help as much in prodding towards housekeeping as I would like.

  21. The hot setup is to turn Motivator Dog loose on the Black Dog and let them duke it out. Then you shoot whichever one survives. >:D

    Then you get a -real- dog and you start enjoying life again.

    Not a big fan of barking “motivators,” really. Internal, external, all the same. I know what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’ll get to it when I’m damn good a ready.

    Also not a fan of deadlines. It’ll be done when its done, and not before. Production and efficiency are over rated concepts in this day and age. Life is not a freakin’ factory.

    1. Barking motivators? Hmm. I get stuck with the Barking Moonbats.

      I still think the DC NFL team should have used that as their team name.

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