When I sat down to write this post, I wasn’t sure of a subject until I realized that it was staring me in the face. Literally. My 100 pound Golden Doodle, Murphy, had jumped up on the bed, flopped his head down and was doing a little creative keyboarding for me with his snout. Never far behind, his little Shih Tzu friend, Teddy Bear, soon joined us, quickly transforming my feet into his own personal pillow. As I sit here listening to their rhythmic snoring, it makes me reflect on the many ways these beautiful boys have supported me in my efforts to live well with mental illness:
1. They provide me with a routine: My mental health is always better when I maintain a schedule. Now that I am unemployed, I was concerned about losing some of the structure that work provided me. Lucky for me, my dogs continue to be an important part of keeping to a daily regime: they make sure I get up in the morning (whether I want to or not), give them their meals at certain times, and go out for walks twice a day. With my boys around, I don’t have the option of sleeping my day away, or withdrawing from the world, two triggers for me toward the slippery slope of a depressive episode.
2. They give me an external focus: Living with depression and anxiety often means that I become very self-focused. My illness makes it easy for me to live in my own head and ruminate about events that have happened, or might happen, which can be very debilitating. Having responsibility for Murphy and Teddy means I have to think about more than just myself as they rely on me to take care them. Whether that is food, water, walks, treats, or a good old belly rub, it makes me see that my world is bigger than just me.
3. They make sure I get exercise: I know that physical fitness and getting out of the house are good for my mental health, but knowing and doing are two very different things. Left to my own devices, there are times when I would simply not go for a walk were it not for the insistence of my four legged friends. Being out in nature as well as the actual physical activity are incredibly important in maintaining my overall wellbeing.
4. They provide unconditional love and affection: Is there anything more wonderful than puppy love? My dogs are tuned in to my mood – they rejoice with me when I’m happy, and console me when I’m sad. I have told them my thoughts, fears and sorrows and they simply listen, without judgment or advice, without any words at all. I can wrap my arms around my furry friends, hold them tightly to my chest and just be. Isn’t that what love and support is all about?
5. They make me laugh: Laughter really is the best medicine and I have had more hilarity with my dogs than I can express. It is true that some of their antics are only funny in the retelling of the tale: having to solemnly declare to the City Clerk that the dog ate my passport is much funnier now than it was paying the replacement cost at the time. Despite being grown dogs when they met, they now get along like brothers which, for anyone who is the parent of boys, you know means that they can often be found running around the house like wild things, entwined legs and flying fur as they slide across the hardwood floors like something out of a cartoon. When I am with them for even a few minutes, I am taken out of the stresses of my day into the pure joy that comes from silliness at its best.
I know that there is lots of research about how having pets provides numerous health benefits for their owners. For those like me who live with mental illness, it can honestly be the difference between choosing life over death because another living being cares about you and needs you. Every time I open up my front door, the eager barks and swooshing tails of my beautiful boys makes me believe that to them, the world is a better place with me in it. I certainly know that my life is richer for having them. To quote the wise writer Ritu Ghatourey, “There are no bad days when you come home to a dog’s love.”
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.