Two years ago, I got my first dog. Before that day, I went through all the typical doggo-loving phases: Getting to know my friend’s dogs and agreeing to dogsit every once and a while, which quickly became begging to dogsit, learning every detail about every breed, checking out the dogs on Kijiji far too often, and expressing an “awwwww” at every dog I passed.
I eventually clued in to the fact that—as a 28-year-old adult who is married with a grown-up job—I could actually have my own dog, if I wanted one. One week later, this 20-lb monster of a doggo, Gerrard Kyle Lowry Drake Mueldoon (aka Bear), joined our family. I imagined us spending every minute together, becoming the best of friends and passing long afternoons lazing around in the park. There would be lots of walks, cuddles, and secrets shared. Despite not being able to speak the same language, we would always be able to understand one another. Our love would transcend language, obvi.
And yet—despite these ridiculously high expectations for this dog and our relationship—I completely underestimated the role Bear would come to play in my life.
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When we got Bear, I wasn’t doing a good job of treating my agoraphobia. I had been taking an SSRI for about six months, and while it was keeping my anxiety relatively low, I wasn’t exposing myself to new situations. I had committed to starting cognitive behavioural therapy that year, but I still hadn’t bothered to do it. All I wanted to do was enjoy the feeling of not having to think about my anxiety for once.
That said, I knew I needed to start CBT and exposure therapy, because despite feeling better anxiety-wise, I hated the way medication made me feel. Although this was only the second SSRI I had ever tried—and it had only been six months—I didn’t see myself staying on medication much longer. I hated the side effects, especially how exhausted it made me; I was sleeping 9–12 hours every night. It also made me feel less like me: I am a person of extremes, and I always have many ideas and lots of excitement over them. But SSRIs end up dulling these key features of who I am. I needed to get off them.
It wasn’t intentional, but becoming a dog owner was a catalyst for my transition off medication. I no longer had any choice but to get out of the house and experience new situations, places, and people. In the early days, my husband and I took that dog everywhere. We would walk him around the block or take him to a close-by coffee shop or dog park. Eventually we would take him on longer walks, or we would drive him to a new neighbourhood for an adventure. We took him to regular vet appointments, along for the seven-hour drive to my hometown, or to visit friends. He would even join us for patio beers in the summer.
This gradual and consistent exposure to new situations that were increasingly farther away from our home—and my comfort zone—was accidental CBT. Situations that would normally cause me anxiety or that I had been avoiding were now unavoidable. They became a part of my daily routine. And it was exactly what I needed: I went from spending a lot of time being isolated in my apartment to wandering around the city with Bear, exploring new places and meeting new people.
Being forced to engage with others also helped treat another component of my mental health: the depression that would inevitably accompany long periods of isolation. When you’re anxious and depressed, the last thing you want to do is talk to people, especially complete strangers. Before Bear, I couldn’t even be bothered to leave the house amidst a deep depression. After Bear, I really didn’t have a choice. He needed to be walked every day, and this involved constantly stopping for complete strangers who wanted to meet him.
When I was out with Bear—even amidst the darkest of moods—each encounter would improve my state of mind, bit by bit. I’d see someone’s face light up when they set eyes on him, and the questions would start: “OMG he’s so big!/How old is he?/What kind of breed is he?/How much does he weigh?!” I’d semi-enthusiastically reply with the answers I’d given nearly one thousand times before: “Yes, he’s a monster/Six months/Saint Bernard Mix/Almost as much as I do.” But like any proud parent, once I got talking about my baby it was hard to stop. I’d start talking about his funny habits, how much my husband adores him, the way he plays with our kitten. The more I’d talk, the further from my solitude and sadness I felt.
And sometimes, I would be pulled into someone else’s sadness. I would routinely chat with a woman down the street about anxiety, depression, and addiction—sometimes for hours at a time while our dogs played in her yard. There was a man who told me about how he had kept his dog while he was homeless, but was now struggling with the decision to part with his pup because of the chaos in his life. Another woman in a wheelchair stopped to show me pictures of her dog while petting mine, telling me how her dog helps combat her depression. And I’ll never the broken heart of my neighbour after her two goldens—fixtures in our neighbourhood—passed away.
Not only would those conversations pull me from the depths of my own depression, but they forced me into the present and allowed me to connect with the person in front of me. I felt a bit less alone. I stopped wondering whether anyone would notice if I disappeared. I remembered that a world exists beyond my problems, and that everyone has darkness in their lives—darkness that is made a bit more light by the kindness of a stranger (and the love of a good dog).
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started CBT and fully transitioned off my meds within the first eight months of getting Bear. It’s also not a coincidence that my world opened up to new people, new places, and new experiences after he entered my life. Bear helped me build the confidence to exist in the world again, and he was by my side every step of the way.
Here’s to two years on my big furry SSRI.