How my dogs helped me through the worst of my depression and anxiety
Content warning: this is one woman’s story of depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. If you need help, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1 (800) 273-8255 (they’re available 24/7) and the website can be found here.
One day in October of 2014, right before I walked out of the door to head to work, I said goodbye to my two cocker spaniels, Andie and Lucy. I always tell them goodbye before I leave, but this time felt different. With tears running down my face, I got down on my knees and gave them both a hug. I was afraid I would never see them again.
I took a detour to pay my mom a quick visit. I needed to talk to someone, because I felt like something was wrong with me — and what was frightening was that the feeling wasn’t new. I had felt this way 11 years before. I didn’t want to believe that it was back, but when I saw my mom, the truth came out. I fell into her arms and cried hysterically, somehow being able to mutter, “I’m depressed, and I’m worried I’m going to hurt myself.”
The next day I saw a doctor, and he diagnosed me with severe depression and anxiety disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, “depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest…It affects how you feel, think, and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems.”
An anxiety disorder “involve[s] more than temporary worry or fear,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The anxiety stays with the person, possibly worsening over time. The disorder “can interfere with daily activities, such as job performance, school work, and relationships.” There are three types of anxiety disorder — generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social disorder — but the general symptoms include feelings of panic, fear, uneasiness, trouble breathing, heart palpitations, cold or sweaty hands or feet, and muscle tension, as stated by NIMH.
I realized I had been depressed for about two years, but I failed to recognize it. As for the anxiety, I had no idea my constant worrying and fear, specifically of doing something wrong, were symptoms of the disorder. I figured that was just the kind of person I was.
I was first diagnosed with depression when I was 13 years old and bullying got the best of me. I saw a psychiatrist and took antidepressants for about a year. I knew this time around the journey was going to be more difficult than before, especially because I had been untreated. I decided to resign from my job and focus solely on my mental health — my top priority was to figure out how to be myself again.
I attended weekly appointments with a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist, began to take antidepressants and antianxiety medication, and spent practically all of my time at home. I tried to go to places for some fresh air, but it was challenging. The depression left me feeling heavy and hollow, all at the same time. It twisted my mind into something powerfully dark, feeding me lies and belittling me. The anxiety was paralyzing — the mere thought of seeing my family and friends caused my heart to beat faster and make breathing hard. In other words, I’d have a panic attack. I’d rarely be brave enough to see my loved ones, but when I was, I’d end up leaving early because a panic attack was coming.
I considered home to be my haven, but I wasn’t alone while I was there. Andie and Lucy were right beside me, pushing me to continue living. They would wake me up at 7:30 every morning for a walk. I never had a chance to sleep in so I could avoid my feelings. When I wouldn’t hurry to put on their harnesses and leashes, they’d bark and jump on me with their tails wagging and their tongues out. Andie and Lucy were happy to begin the day — and I couldn’t help but to smile a little at the sight of them.
We went on walks three, sometimes four times a day. Andie and Lucy love going outside, and I slowly came to love it, too. Sometimes I wanted to stay indoors, lie on the couch, and do nothing. But despite my mood on those days, I still walked with them. I genuinely enjoyed going outdoors with them and being surrounded by nature. What I wasn’t expecting during our outdoor excursions though was learning how to handle my anxiety.
Andie and Lucy never fail to catch someone’s eye. One day it was a young, handsome man. As he walked toward us, my anxiety skyrocketed. I had avoided people for weeks because I felt like a failure, but there was no way I could avoid him. I began to think of everything that could possibly go wrong: Andie and Lucy going crazy (because they often do when they meet someone new), entangling us in their leashes, just like in 101 Dalmatians, or having a panic attack in front of him. But none of that happened. He simply smiled at us. He told me they were beautiful and asked for their names. I noticed Andie didn’t bark but instead greeted him nicely. I couldn’t believe I was actually talking to someone. When Andie, Lucy, and I got home, I couldn’t stop smiling. For the first time, I kept my anxiety at bay.
Then there were the really bad days — the days where I cried at my reflection in the mirror, tried to dodge my suicidal thoughts, or believed all hope was gone. I would run to a closet and scream at the top of my lungs. Once my voice couldn’t fill the space around me any longer, I cried incessantly. It didn’t take long for Andie and Lucy to join me. Andie would lie down at my side, and Lucy would lick the tears from my face. The first time Lucy did that, I smiled and even let out a laugh. It was the cutest thing she had ever done. Whenever she licked my tears, I’d tell her thank you.
Andie and Lucy have been a great blessing. I don’t know how I would’ve handled the first few months of my diagnosis without them. I was so weak, and often felt like I was slowly rotting away — but Andie and Lucy’s strong love lifted me up. I am still dealing with depression and anxiety, attending appointments and taking medication, but my two cocker spaniels have not left my side. They still brighten my day and comfort me, make me smile and laugh. And we still go on walks, more than I can count.
When Andie and Lucy are sleeping, I always watch them for a little while. I place my hand on their chests so I can feel their hearts beat. Sometimes Lucy snores, and I giggle. I think about what they have done for me and, above all, the love they have shown me. What did I do to deserve these two goofballs? I hope they know just how much I love them because, boy, do I love them. I leave them by giving them a kiss on their heads. I let them rest because when they wake up, we’ll go for a walk, play catch, or just simply sit on the couch and be together. Either way, we’ll be together, just like we’ve always been.