If you’ve never felt the warmth of a dog that eats sticks, buries your underwear and kicks the poo out of your depression, you’re missing out, writes Nelly Thomas.
Pets can save your life. And just not in the sense of Timmy and the well (although, who doesn’t respect that?) but in terms of your mental and physical health. As though the two can be separated.
It will come as a surprise to exactly no-one that I have suffered depression and anxiety. Both are classic afflictions of the comedian, the do-gooder and frankly, The Wealthy West.
Looking back, I think I probably had anxiety from Primary School age but it really ramped up in my early 20s. It got so bad that I would have panic attacks a couple of times a week. If you’ve never experienced a panic attack, the closest approximation I can muster is that feeling when you stand near the edge of a cliff and think you might fall. You know rationally you’re far enough from the edge, but you feel sick and like you are about to die.
Not fun on the tram home from work.
The Black Dog has also visited me several times throughout my life but until I was about 30, I thought it was just normal to feel that low. Life is hard, suck it up buttercup. Life is hard, that’s normal, but being knee deep in shit all the time isn’t.
I now know you can get better: you can be ankle deep in shit and that’s at least bearable.
We hear a lot about mental illness these days, but not enough about how you can get better. Impossible though it sounds to anyone in the grips of either of these illnesses, most people can actually recover to the point where their life isn’t dominated by it. I’d never say I’m cured of depression or anxiety – no-one who had truly plumbed their depths would – but I’m pretty great.
Well, I have tried pretty much every cure.
Firstly I tried denial. It’s free – and very common – but unfortunately doesn’t make you better. If you feel the symptoms of depression or anxiety for more than a couple of weeks then you’ve probably got one or both. You’re not just smarter or more informed than everyone else; if you can’t enjoy anything or ever see the bright side, I know it’s a major bummer, but face it babe – you’re not well.
Once I accepted that, I saw a counsellor. I did Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which is based on the idea that you feel what you think, ergo, change your thoughts and you’ll feel better.
My thoughts were a cross between Dolly Doctor and Bill Hicks so I was feeling pretty low. I worked with my therapist on changing old thought patterns. I remember exercises like looking in the mirror and saying, “you are worthy” and wearing an elastic band on my wrist to flick every time I felt a panic attack coming on. I felt absolutely ridiculous doing these things but also started to feel less shit and had less attacks. I still saw the darker side of life, but on balance, the CBT served its purpose and my panic attacks stopped. For a while.
I tried diet and exercise. The adage, “you are what you eat” didn’t bode well for me as my diet consisted of Rica-Riso and discount lamb chops (to be fair, they were all I could afford then). I quelled my hunger with Marlboro Lights and caffeine – neither of which helped the anxiety situation – and I spent most of my time in a book or watching Sally Jesse Raphael. I read somewhere I needed to actually move my body (arggghhh) so I began walking and playing basketball. Both helped, but exercise never proved to be the silver bullet I’d been promised.
There’s some shit you can’t outrun.
Finally, after a decade or more of knowing I had depression and anxiety but kind of accepting the status quo of constantly battling both, I had my first child and started to take my mental health very seriously.
I suffered a bit of post-natal depression and recognised that I really wasn’t well. I remember staring at my baby girl and thinking that she didn’t deserve to look back at the face of a sad mum. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that I didn’t deserve to feel sad either, but I see that now.
So, I went to the doctor and got some anti-depressants. They offered a circuit breaker to my feelings and worries but also delivered terrible side effects. I couldn’t sleep properly, I started sweating a lot, I had no sex drive and in 10 months I put on 20kg. I went in for anxiety, I came out a fat, sweaty, celibate, insomniac. Which was depressing.
I hasten to add that I have since used other anti-depressants – different brand – with little to no side-effects. I absolutely believe that they can be effective if you’re on the right ones at the right time.
In short, my road to “recovery” has all been a bit of trial and error. I have been well for a few years now and I put this down to a number of things.
For a start, I take my mental health seriously. If I had asthma I’d avoid smoggy areas and when I got short of breath, I’d enact my Asthma Plan. I have depression and anxiety so I try to avoid feeling overwhelmed or too stressed and if I do feel them coming on, I take a break. When I make decisions about work, social stuff, family – everything really – my health is factored in. I can afford to do this both because I earn reasonable money and also, because I am frugal. Not everyone has such luxuries.
Also, I eat better. This is immensely boring, but not as boring as depression. There’s no mystery here. It’s all about whole foods and less junk. Sigh.
I see a counsellor and probably will for the rest of my life (at least while I can afford it. Yes, it is expensive). I’ve switched from CBT to Psychotherapy which, if you’ve never experienced it, is more like the therapy in the movies. There’s a couch, a lot of talk about “inner children” and expressions like “what I hear you saying is…”.
It’s easy to mock, but has kind of saved my life so, what the hell do I know. I also still use medication when I need it but I find – as does the research – that it is absolutely insufficient on its own. The talking therapy is essential to getting to the root of the problem, the medication just holds it at bay for a while.
Having said all that – and I could wax lyrical about the life saving benefits of all these treatments and strategies – none of them were effective on their own. More than that, and on a more joyous note, I am absolutely convinced that the single best thing I have ever done for my mental health is get fur babies.
Enter stage left: Timmy! I’m talking dogs people!
The benefits of pet ownership for human health are well documented but I don’t think you can really understand them until you’ve experienced puppy love. I’ve inherited various animals over my life but I’ve never had my own dogs on a permanent basis. The joy I’ve missed!
The last time I suffered a bout of depression, I took the suggestion of a friend and got a dog.
His name is Chewey, he is a very handsome labradoodle and he also happens to be the stupidest dog on earth.
He likes to eat cat poo and is so allergic to everything that the only protein he can eat is crocodile (could I make this shit up?). He once ate a stick, had to have his stomach pumped and the contents revealed 7 elastic bands, 3 bottle tops and 2 fully undigested chicken breasts (he’d literally swallowed them).
AND I DON’T CARE.
He’s loving, loyal, asks nothing of me and ensures that I exercise every day (As an aside, you know those people who say “exercise is great and it makes you feel good?”. I say, it’s not and it doesn’t. You know what feels great? Sitting on the couch eating cake. I need a reason to move).
We now also have Ralph the rescue Poodle-something who is an 85-year-old grump in a 3-year-olds body. He likes no humans other than me and my family and even less dogs. He’s 4.7kg of awesome.
While walking Chewey & Ralph I have met a motley crew of dog owners.
There’s a guy who’s wife died years ago and who cries when he talks about her. He’s nearly 80 and his Staffy is about 147 (and with balls the size of apples, but that’s no mind) and he lives alone.
There’s another guy with a heavy set frame and a dog that looks like it escaped from Paris Hilton’s purse. He has Schizophrenia and his lap dog is a companion animal who helps him feel more calm in stressful situations. We had a laugh the other day about him being allowed to take Princess into Centrelink – much to the annoyance of some of the staff – he’s got a special dog card! SUCK ON THAT MOLES!
There’s a young girl of about 11 or 12 who comes over to the park for a chat and a run with the dogs. She’s got that vibe of a kid who is good with adults but probably not other kids her own age.
There’s also numerous middle-aged singles; all very loved up with their pooches and able to channel their maternal and paternal instincts into fussing over Fido.
There’s many more: all these humans, in a big city, out in the fresh(ish) air, walking in the park and talking to others. I could talk for Australia, but even the shyest dog people have a chat at the park and one simply can’t over-state the benefits of that. Social connection is a thing.
I’ve always known I loved dogs but I only truly realised their potential for wellbeing when my eldest daughter was sick last year. She had three months off school with a wicked virus and was getting very down from being so socially isolated. I did the classic mum mistake of badgering her to talk about her feelings every 20 seconds, which helped her… not at all.
One day, I looked in her room and there she was laying on the floor stroking Chewey’s fur. He was no doubt nibbling a hole in one of her school shoes or burying some undies or something, but besides that, he was just there – offering affection, company, love and asking for absolutely nothing in return. Perfection.
Don’t get me wrong, a dog isn’t going to cure everyone’s depression or anxiety but in my case, it gives me just enough grunt to face them both.
I call it puppy love.