When I got my dog, Lena, just over two years ago, I didn’t yet know I had bipolar disorder. I had been diagnosed with major depression by my college’s health services and given only an anti-depressant to take. I had been high as a kite all summer – my apartment was spotless, I’d traveled across the country, I was hosting parties and potlucks for groups I wasn’t even a member of. Then the fall and winter had come and I’d crashed. I’d spontaneously gotten engaged to my best friend, who I’d been dating for about a month, and almost eloped with him to Las Vegas, before the alternator in my car broke down in Kansas.
He and I had fallen apart, I was in the process of falling apart, and I was living alone and very lonely, having decided not to go home for the holidays. I went to the animal shelter adoption event and met a small (6ish lbs) Chihuahua-mix named Pixie, who I bonded with immediately. I took her home with me and changed her name to Lena and bought her a plaid collar, to match my favorite plaid shirt, and she slept loyally with me every night and followed me around the apartment all day.
Fast forward to this December, two years and some weeks since I adopted Lena, and I now consider Lena to be my “Bipolar support dog.” How can a dog help with bipolar disorder, you may ask? I will tell you. But first I want to acknowledge that Lena is part of my mental wellness plan, not the entire thing. I would still be out of my mind, even with her, if I did not have my team of doctors and my medications. She’s part of my therapy plan, not the entire thing.
But what does she do for me? Unlike a “service dog,” she isn’t trained to perform specific tasks to negate or help my “disability.” She helps me just by being around and being her sweet doggy self, so she is classified as an “emotional support animal.” She helps with the loneliness and the anxiety I feel so often as a result of my lifestyle, my bipolar disorder and my general personality. I think of her as that little metal ball that comes in each bottle of nail polish to keep it from getting too stagnant - she isn’t a person but she provides enough stimulation and company to keep me from atrophying on my couch or in my bed.
When I am anxious or depressed, it can be hard for me to leave the house, even to run to the gas station, to go out to lunch with a friend or to go to the grocery store. If I put on Lena’s vest, I can take her with me to all of these places. ESAs aren’t covered by the ADA to be taken everywhere like Service Dogs, but no one seems to have noticed this anywhere I have been. We’ve been to the zoo, to Target, to Walmart, to bookstores, to restaurants. She behaves herself and goes with me as I go about my day. She helps me feel less freaked out and alone.
When I am hypomanic, she helps to ground me and forces me to be more reasonable than I would be otherwise, because I have to think of her well-being, not just my own. I can’t book a flight to Iceland with my credit card (not knowing how I will pay back the bill later) like I would like to when I am hypomanic because I can’t take Lena to Iceland and I have to stay here in Missouri and take care of her.
When I feel a depressive episode coming on, I call my doctor and he adjusts my medications, but if it doesn’t work and I get into a depression anyway, it’s hard to leave my bed, even to shower or cook a meal for myself. But Lena still has to go outside to go to the bathroom and she likes to go on walks and she needs attention and care. Having her around forces me to think about someone other than myself, to think of something outside of myself, and to get out of bed when I don’t feel like I can physically or emotionally do it.
The last time I had some suicidal thinking, the thought that stopped it was, “Kait, you can’t overdose tonight, Lena would be abandoned here in the world without you.” Thoughts of my mother’s pain or my siblings should be able to do it, but there is something so special about having a creature who goes everywhere with you and loves you more than anybody else that is really urgent and makes you want to stay here, for him/her.
I even got a letter from my psychiatrist stating that Lena is an “emotional support animal” and is vital to my staying balanced and being able to function in day-to-day life. Under the law, emotional support animals can live in housing (like mine) that doesn’t allow pets and they can fly with you on planes without an extra cost. I have enjoyed both of these benefits. I think of getting to have an “emotional support animal” as the silver lining to my bipolar disorder.
Do you have an emotional support animal or a pet who helps you deal with your bipolar disorder? Do you feel like there are any silver linings to your bipolar disorder?