The Power of an Emotional Support Animal in Mental Health Recovery
It had been a particularly exhausting day and my mood was quickly spiraling out of control; cycling downward into that familiar, never-ending hole of despair and hopelessness. Thanks, bipolar depression.
On this day, I had been receiving treatment at a partial hospitalization program for my very active eating disorder and the constant therapy and social interaction was making me question my entire existence. I had spent that particular day in the program daydreaming about the sumptuous comfort of my bed and the feeling of releasing the pain and despair through tears falling down my cheeks.
When the day finally ended, I was able to escape the world to the confinement of my small studio apartment and the safety of home. It was a warm summer day and I kept the windows of my second floor apartment open. As I exited my car and locked it, I could hear the familiar and reassuring sound of dog tags rattling through my open windows. A smile overtook my face for the first time that entire day. I opened my apartment door and I was quickly greeted with a smiling, panting face and an exuberantly wagging tail. I fell to the floor and cried as my four pound Chihuahua licked the tears from my cheeks and reminded me that it was good to be alive.
Bowser and I had met when I began a rather impulsive search for someone, or something, to help alleviate my mental and emotional turmoil. I had been ending an incredibly stressful summer job working with children in a low income area, and a difficult semester of school was beginning. As the summer was nearing an end, I began to be accompanied by a “new friend.” I would frequently see him off in the distance, watching me. He seemed to follow me wherever I would go, and I didn’t feel safe anywhere. He had thick, curly, brown hair that covered his head and extended down over his face. His green plaid shirt was always recognizable to me, and it helped earn him the moniker, “the lumberjack.” He wasn’t a stalker, or prospective boyfriend material—he was a hallucination; a vivid and disturbing creation of my brain. My fear quickly increased as the delusion settled in, and I became convinced that the lumberjack had been hired by the pharmaceutical companies to watch me as they “poisoned” me with their medications in order to prevent me from developing a super power that I could use to overthrow them. The terror that I was experiencing was debilitating. The voices that I was hearing would make conversations and daily life nearly impossible. I would sit in class and, while the professor lectured, I would be praying that no one would hurt me. At work, I would close the blinds and hole myself up in my office, trying to force myself to focus on the task at hand. Rarely did any work get done and my boss would frequently have to tell me to keep the door open. The voices began to make sense to me as they tried to convince me that the only way to stop the madness would be to end my life.
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One day, I called off work and my supervisor became concerned. I was living on campus at the time so she called the director of residence life and he showed up at my apartment. I had been curled up in bed hiding away from the world at the time of the knock on my door. My apartment was pitch black with all of the blinds closed and lights off because of my fear of people seeing in. I had been leery of peeking through the hole in my door to see who was knocking and I opened it hesitantly once I had realized who was standing outside. He asked if he could come in as my head was swirling with thoughts and voices. I contemplated running away to anywhere other than my apartment. This wasn’t my first encounter with residence life staff intervening in crisis moments and he was well aware of my history, he told me that he had received a call from my supervisor and that he was going to accompany me to my therapist’s office. I knew that I didn’t have a say in the matter so I nodded my head and we left. I didn’t say anything the entire time, I had too much going through my head as the combination of the voices screaming and my own thoughts about how I could escape and run away were all that I could focus on. We made it to the counseling center where my therapist tried to determine if I was a danger to myself. I knew what to say to lie my way out of a hospitalization because I knew that, if I ended up in there then Wanda, the main voice that I hear, would never let me rest. That night had been terrifying and traumatic as I was up all night fighting off the delusion and hallucinations, the next day I told my therapist that I needed to be hospitalized if I was going to stay alive.
My first couple of nights in the hospital were miserable and terrifying as I was unable to sleep and the lumberjack had been accompanying me the entire time. After starting a new medication and resting in a safe environment things in my head had finally started to quiet down, I was able to leave my room and start socializing with the other patients. I started sleeping through the night, thanks to medication, and I was more trusting of the staff, allowing them into my reality so that they could help me.
Upon discharge from the hospital, I was much more stable then when I had entered. I returned to school with the proper documentation for me to resume classes, however that was not what the school had in mind. I ended up sitting across from the dean of students as she handed me an exit survey and told me that I had three days to leave the residence halls. I was destroyed. My worst nightmare had been unfolding in front of me. This school was all I knew, it was home for me. My parents had moved eight hours away a year prior to this and I had nothing where they lived now. I felt like I had been betrayed by the people that I trusted most, I had to leave my friends, my supports, and my treatment team. My mom drove the eight hours to pick me up and I felt like my life was over. As we arrived at my new home I felt a very distinct feeling of hatred in my gut, hatred and disgust towards myself for allowing this to happen and towards the school for doing what they did. I moved into the bedroom that I shared with my ten year old brother and started the life that I felt I was probably destined for, emptiness and nothing. I quickly realized that I needed a companion in my life, so I found Bowser. The moment I laid eyes on him, I knew we were made for each other. He was so small and shaking uncontrollably as I held him in my arms. He had come from a difficult situation and we were lucky enough to have been able to rescue each other. I was scared, he was scared and, scared together, we traveled home and began our new lives.
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The first few months were rocky, but we both persisted. I was still battling intensive mood swings, hallucinations, and delusions, and he was still learning how to communicate with me so that I would understand what he needed. Establishing routines and communication has proven to be the best path either of us could have taken. I quickly discovered that he was scared of people, so he would react whenever someone approached him. We worked on his socialization skills, but I was also able to teach him to still react, just in a more positive way. Teaching him to approach people and sounds has allowed me to watch and rely on him when I am having hallucinations to help me determine what is real. When I am with Bowser, I am able to reality test what is going on around me. I frequently talk to him and ask him if he is hearing or seeing something but I can just tell by his reactions if he is or not. If I am hearing a voice and his ears are perked up then that means that he is hearing it as well and it is not a hallucination. He is a Chihuahua, so he can be yappy, but that helps me because, if he isn’t reacting to a person or noise, then I can tell that it is not real. I am thankful that I have not had an episode serious enough for me to be admitted to an inpatient unit in the past several years. I have learned that stress and change can induce my psychosis so I have to be vigilant at practicing self-care and monitoring my stress levels in order to keep myself healthy. I do still hear Wanda occasionally and have seen the lumberjack a couple of times. However, I have learned my warning signs so that I know when to reach out for help and get a medication change before my symptoms become serious enough that I have to be admitted to the hospital. I know that during those moments when I am symptomatic, Bowser is there for me.
After a semester off of school, I decided to go back, armed with a new arsenal of tools and an amazing emotional support animal. Bowser quickly became my reason to live and fight for my dreams. I was in school, working on my bachelors in social work. My dream was to become a social worker so that I could use my experiences as a mental health consumer to help others and advocate for the needs of those with mental illness. I felt shame, fear, and uncertainty, returning to the same college campus that had previously told me I was unfit and unsafe to attend. I was, and am still, very determined to prove that I can thrive and be successful in accomplishing my dreams while battling mental health symptoms.
When my moods would begin cycling, Bowser was the motivation for me to get out of bed because he had to be taken outside. Whenever I would feed him, I knew that I should feed myself as well. If it was time for bed and I had lost track of time or I was trying to stay up to finish something, Bowser would stand next to the door of the bedroom and stare me down until I went to bed. If I was feeling either depressed, or manic, then he would be my walking companion, as we could take short walks around the block or long walks at a local park. Routine is crucial for someone with bipolar, as well as for a dog. Together, we were able to stick to a stable routine. He quickly became an important figure in not only my life, but the lives of the students around me as well. He was loved by many people while we lived on campus and he helped many students during times of increased stress. The power that an animal possesses to help their humans and the joy that they bring is indescribable. The transformation that you see on the face of someone who meets an animal is one of pure happiness when they get to experience the unconditional love that is offered. I felt as if I was already starting to do my part of making a difference in the lives around me just by offering a small piece of what I get to experience on a daily basis from the love of my dog.
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Bowser and I went on to finish college and I earned my degree in social work. The pride that I experienced when I received that piece of paper with my name on it is indescribable. I have yet to have the experience of walking across the stage because my school only does one ceremony per year, but knowing that I will wear that cap and gown fills me with joyous anticipation. I have defied the belief that many people had about me; that I would be unable to graduate college. That in itself is a reason that I smile every day. My mental illness is still a near-constant struggle as I work towards bettering myself and entering the job market. I spent five weeks studying abroad in Italy to finish out my degree, and the time away from Bowser proved to be incredibly challenging for both of us. I have realized that he is not just a dog, he is my lifeline. He continues to be there for me through every turn, every challenge and joy that I encounter in life. He brings me comfort and happiness that only an animal can; licking my tears, playing with my friends, snuggling up to me while watching a movie, or just sitting at the park together while I read a book and he chews a treat. He helps to give me the courage to be social as he loves to go on outings to the park or the pet store.
During the most recent battle with my returning depression, while I was struggling to get through the days at the partial hospitalization program, I would arrive home and his presence helped ease my discomfort. On nights where I feel lost, beaten, and hopeless, he knows best how to help me, when my depression or psychosis make life unbearable I have a lifeline that I can rely on to help me get through the difficult moments. One particular night, after a difficult day of therapy and constant pressure from the staff at the partial hospitalization program, I let the tears flow. When I was weeping, I stood up from my kitchen floor. Bowser looked at me and I looked at him, after locking eye contact for a second he turned and walked away. He ran to get his toy raccoon which he promptly brought back to me to initiate a game of tug-of-war. We spent that night playing together. It was the only time when I truly felt like I could laugh as he scared himself multiple times when his teeth hit the squeaker in his toy. I was able to go to bed that night, snuggled with my four pound ball of fur, with some semblance of hope for the next day. That is the most powerful gift, of hope for the future and a reason to keep on fighting. My emotional support animal is my hope and my reason to fight. Because of him I have had the strength to do things that I never thought would be possible due to my struggles. I feel empowered with him by my side to accomplish whatever it is that I set out to achieve.