As of this writing, I will be welcoming a puppy into our home tonight. Our family is totally freaking out about our new addition in the best way possible! And now more than ever, I believe in "furry antidepressants". Please allow me to explain…
In my late twenties, a decade before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I suffered the demise of a relationship that sent me reeling into my first full-blown clinical depression. A Paltrow/Martin-like conscious uncoupling it was not! My boyfriend betrayed me, but to be fair, he was literally not in his right mind when that all went down. This person who I had been faithful to for almost five years turned out to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Life is stranger than fiction.
Thank God I had my two dogs Tara and Shera to see me through during those dark months of despair. My depression hit me so hard that I quit my full-time special event production job. I applied for temporary disability to make ends meet.
I saw my first psychiatrist Dr. C at age twenty-six; he was the close friend of someone I knew and trusted. Although he reviewed my family history in which I mentioned my father's bipolar disorder, he didn't think I had any tendency for the same mood disorder. Dr. C diagnosed me with clinical depression and prescribed Paxil, my very first psychiatric medication. I took Paxil for about five months and I slowly but surely pulled out of that nightmare depression.
Aside from Paxil and therapy, what helped me most were my dogs. While I let just about everything in my life go to the wayside: job, cleaning my studio, cooking, etc. I couldn't lock up my dogs every day. I lived close to a beautiful field in Santa Cruz, California called Lighthouse Field. This dog-friendly state park bordered the Pacific Ocean and it overlooked a famous surfing point called Steamer Lane. There was indeed a lighthouse by the field: the Mark Abbot Memorial lighthouse, built in memory of a young man who tragically drowned while body surfing.
Lighthouse Field became my second home. Every afternoon, Tara, Shera and I explored the numerous park trails. I had plenty of time, and the habit helped to structure my day and give me exercise. I let Tara and Shera run off-leash to their heart's content. They absolutely loved that field and, along with my dogs' happiness, I appreciated the park's natural beauty.
Most of the other dog owners who visited the park were conscientious; the neighborhood in which the field was located consisted primarily of middle-to-upper class residents. Obviously that didn't always mean that those well-to-do dog owners knew what they were doing. Some of them couldn't care less about picking up after their dogs, which gave me "dog poop rage".
In any case, the field became a profound place of healing. As my dogs were the reason I made the commitment to walk there, I give Tara and Shera just as much credit as Dr. C, Paxil and therapy for helping me recover. Being outdoors in the fresh ocean air contributed to my depression lifting, while exposure to the natural sunlight helped me as well.
Ever since Tara died in my arms, and I held Shera as she was put to sleep, I've had a void in my life. I didn't fully realize this emptiness until a few days ago, believe it or not. Over the years since their deaths it was difficult for me to look closely at anything pet-related. When I was around other people's pets, I felt the loss of my dogs, even though I enjoyed petting the animals and being present with them as best as I could.
As soon as I realized last weekend that we were opening our home up to a pet once again, my heart soared. What makes this time extraordinarily special is that it's not just me who wants a dog so much - my two girls have been begging us for a dog for literally years. They are beyond excited. I know that when I see them shower our puppy with love and learn how to care for a pet, it will be an incredible experience for me and my husband.
One of my best memories growing up was spending time with our two Irish Setters. My Dad loved his dogs, and he passed that love for pets on to me. I think that when he experienced his bouts of manic-depression (as it was referred to when he had it) his dogs really gave him comfort. I like to think that wherever he is now, he's really happy to see me bringing a dog into not only my life again, but his granddaughters' lives as well.
Mental Health Warrior Kelly, who has become my friend through the blogosphere, often writes about the wonder of her dog Molly and how she has helped Kelly with mood challenges. Apart from that, Kelly won me over in a heartbeat when I discovered she created beautiful mental-health-based e-cards for depression, anxiety, and hope & support. She offers these cards for free through her website!
Here's the link to Kelly's popular, classic post 31 Powerful Life Lessons I Learned From My Dog:
It's time for me to reluctantly move on to the more mundane part of my day. I'll end with writing that if you, like me, have bipolar disorder and you have a pet, please give yourself a LOT of credit. It's hard enough to take care of ourselves, isn't it? But when you add a dependent creature into your world, your life becomes more challenging. I believe that anyone with bipolar disorder who has a pet, be it a fish, a rabbit, a chicken, a cat, a dog or whatever (but not a pet rock!) is helped by that pet very much, in all kinds of ways.
I really do feel that caring for a pet is more therapeutic than most of us realize. Pet stewardship is not all honky dory - I didn't miss cleaning up dog poop during my pet-less years, and I didn't miss the other pet "liquid emissions "and stressful trips to the vet. But this time around I know it will be worth it to have these inconveniences if it means having more love in our home. I know my Dad would want that for us.
Dyane Leshin-Harwood is on the International Bipolar Foundation’s Consumer Advisory Council. Dyane is a freelance writer and an editor at Stigmama.com, a cutting-edge website focusing on mother’s mental health and stigma. She blogs at www.proudlybipolar.wordpress.com. Dyane is working on her book “Birth of a New Brain – Healing From Postpartum Bipolar Disorder” with her eight-week-old puppy Lucy snoozing by her side.