Blessed by Dog: How My Emotional Therapy Animal Helps Me Cope with Bipolar
I’ve likely been in here for hours when I wake up. I’m curled up on the bathmat after vomiting all of the vodka that I drank. My neck is stiff; my skin rises in gooseflesh. There’s a burning sensation rising up my esophagus. I have fresh cuts on my forearm and the outside of my thigh. I feel as I often do: awful.
In the other room, I pour myself another glass from the half-empty bottle, mix it with orange juice. Everywhere, I see sparks, coming off of the furniture, out of the walls, hallucinations that indicate how my brain is short-circuiting. I was diagnosed with Bipolar I in 2008. As far as I know, this is normal. I turn on the television, sprawl on the couch. I’m alone and not used to it.
I barely know any of the other students in my MFA program. This is my fault. I never speak in class. Other times, I’m too loud. I talk too fast. I’m too needy. And too honest—I can hear voices that others don’t hear, see things that other people can’t see. Some people think that I’m a person with a divine gift. Others think that I’m a trainwreck. I think that I’m on the wrong meds. Nothing works like self-medication, though. Temporarily, alcohol makes me a new, sparkly self.
I’ve lived in Boston for two years without my dog, Mia, because I couldn’t find an apartment in the city that accepted dogs over forty pounds. My mom, who lives in Texas, offered to take care of her. In Boston, my ability to function tanks entirely. While I force myself to attend evening classes at Emerson College for my MFA program, I spend most of my time alone on the couch in my apartment, drinking, binge-watching HBO and eating a steady diet of takeout. For the first time in my life, I’m overweight. I barely recognize myself. I can barely move.
When I graduate, I have no ties to hold me in Boston—no friends, job, or money. Mom lets me come to stay with her until I get myself back on my feet, so indefinitely. I move into the front study, where I sleep on the tiny child-sized bed that I used between the ages of two and five. The springs of the mattress stick into my back—somehow, they’ve survived the years better than I have. I’ve been napping again when my mom enters the room, Mia in tow.
“Here. Walk your dog.” Mom hands me the leash and leaves the room. I look at my dog, who is on the other end. She sits, places her forepaw on the bed. She’s a sixty-pound black fluffy mutt with mournful brown eyes, who looks like a whole spectrum of dogs, depending upon how the light touches her. I adopted her from a rescue organization in New Orleans when I was twenty-one. It was an impulsive act, one I’ve never regretted. I get out of bed. I’ve been under the covers all afternoon, already wearing my bright red parka because when I’m always cold.
We head outside. Less than a block away from our house, I’m out of breath. In my parka, purchased before I gained sixty pounds, I feel like a sausage that’s about to burst its casing. Mia walks serpentine, moving from one side of the sidewalk to the other, sniffing.
Mia and I develop a daily routine. I wake up and brew coffee. We take our morning walk. This one is short—twenty minutes, tops. We return home and I feed Mia her breakfast before I drink my coffee, usually watching the news with Mom. I don’t really know what I’m doing here, living with my mother at twenty-six, but I don’t know what I want to do. I have a master’s degree in poetry, but I haven’t written in months. My words are at the bottom of a very deep well with a stone covering over it, one which I can’t move. I tutor at the local community college for four hours every weekday. When I return, I let Mia out in the backyard before we both eat lunch. We snuggle in bed as I devour countless novels, and then we take a second one-hour walk before dinner. Our walks increase in length and I cut my portion sizes. I eat healthier. I begin to tell myself a new story about what I want going forward.
Routine is therapeutic, the backbone of mental wellness. Each thing accomplished is a victory. Anything as small as a shower or a cup of coffee can stave off negative feelings. It prevents me from returning to negative habits, like drinking. If I drink, I wake up late. Lateness is catastrophic. Everything needs to happen on time and in the right order.
In three years, I lose eighty pounds. I recognize myself in the mirror again. I teach a few classes at the local college. It seems simple, but I began to put my life back together just by walking my dog. In 2017, I move to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona, this time for a Master’s in Education.
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It’s around this time that I get the documentation necessary for Mia to be my Emotional Therapy Animal (ETA). An ETA isn’t a service dog, although it’s close. She’s more than a pet because her presence helps me function. She’s not a service dog since she doesn’t have the rigorous training necessary. According to the law, an ETA is considered a “reasonable accommodation.” With a letter from a psychiatrist, an ETA cannot be denied access from any living situation. Thus, Mia and I can move in to the graduate dorms on campus. We settle in to life in Tucson, our walks taking place early in the morning and later in the evening to avoid the heat.
It’s not long before the stress of my Master’s program becomes a problem. It’s an entire degree packed into one year, along with two semesters of student teaching. Additionally, people who I believed were my friends betray my trust. I find a lump in my breast and it’s months before I hear whether it’s cancerous or not. I fight the urge to drink, sometimes failing. I’m returning to my dark place—I’m so sad that I have a stabbing pain in my chest. I often find myself sitting on the floor of my apartment, sobbing. Regardless, Mia walks over to me, and places her head up against my sternum—her equivalent of a hug. Running my fingers through her fur, my tears subside. She licks my face, and bats at my shoulder with a paw and pants. She needs to be taken for a walk—something I can do. I put a hoodie on, covering my head, in hopes that no one will talk to me.
In the dorm, Mia’s presence is highly visible. I’m often stopped by other residents, who ask me why I’m allowed to have my “pet” with me. I make these teachable moments. I explain that she’s not a pet, but an Emotional Therapy Animal. Usually, the line of inquiry ends there. Sometimes, it doesn’t, and they ask what my disability is. I’m told that I “don’t look disabled enough.” My spiel is this: I have Bipolar Disorder. It interferes with my life on a daily basis, so it’s considered a disability. One person tells me that bipolar is imaginary—by changing my mind state, I can fix my problems. I tell him that he must not exist either, since he’s clearly a problem.
I open my eyes—Mia’s face is about an inch from mine on the bed. I don’t know how long she’s been there. This is how she wakes me up when I sleep through my alarm. She wags her tail, lets out a soft “wuff.” It’s long past time to get up. I ease myself up in bed, glancing at the clock on my dresser—it reads 9:00. I’ve been hitting “snooze” since 6:00.
“I’m coming,” I promise Mia, who dances backward as I swing my legs off of the bed. I walk into the kitchen, where my coffee has already been brewed, starting at 5:45. I throw a sweatshirt on over my pajamas, put Mia’s leash on and head outside. The morning sun heats my skin. Mia walks quickly, her nails clicking on the sidewalk as she moves. Although I’m sleepy and my limbs feel leaden, it’s good to be out of bed, doing something.
Without Mia, I’d still be sleeping. I’d be missing the deep blue of the desert sky, hugging the tops of the mountains. It’s the small things that I need to appreciate, because my mood is never going to be perfect. But I’m up and accomplishing something, and it’s all because of this fluffy mutt, who’s currently walking up to a complete stranger, trying to finagle free pets.
“I’m so sorry,” I tell the woman, who smiles.
“It’s okay,” she assures me. “I like dogs.” She gives Mia a scratch behind the ears and then waves Goodbye.
“Have a good day,” I call to her, observing social niceties, which feels surprisingly good. On my own, without the dog, I would have avoided eye contact. Mia plows onward, excited by everything and everyone that we pass.
In the news, I’ve heard many horror stories about ETAs. This has not been my experience. Mia helps me with self-care. I keep a regular routine due to her needs. Because of her body clock, she reminds me when it’s time to eat. I’ve added things to the routine, such as showering daily. Moreover, Mia helps me live a life that I feel is worth living. It’s because of her that I don’t give up. When Mia looks at me, she looks at me with utter trust, love. She knows all of my faults and doesn’t hold them against me. She teaches me how to find joy in being present and awake, to let the sun shine down on my skin and to reach for the things that elude me.