I realize the term “crazy” isn’t politically correct, but when I got out of the psychiatrist’s office in a posh place on 28th Street in New York City, my official diagnosis was just that — “crazy.” I was pretty sure that that would be the case, but having someone slap a label of manic depression on me was tough.
It one sense, it meant I was no longer a part of the world of normal people (or “normies,” as we unstable folk call them). But then it also meant I was automatically considered creative and eccentric by the world at large. It also meant that I was likely to die sooner, from suicide, an overdose, or a rash act such as scaling the Empire State Building — or from the fact that my insides were rotted out from previous addictions and the meds prescribed for my mental illness. But not all hope was lost: I had my dogs to help me deal with my unhinged mind.
Life has been difficult since I was about 20. Any mental illness seems at odds with itself, but especially manic depression. As I went through about ten years of being a guinea pig for psychopharmacologists (the folks who dole out the meds), I barely held on at times, and got to experience side effects most people only have nightmares about — tardive dyskinesia (uncontrolled muscular movements; mine was my tongue), narcolepsy (falling asleep suddenly), and SSRI syndrome (when your doc isn’t careful about switching meds and you feel like your skin is crawling). Consequently, I avoided people a lot, but luckily my dogs didn’t care if my tongue was intermittently sticking out.
I run into lots of reactions about my illness. I’m likely to get one of four responses:
1.) “Manic depression. That’s a serious illness — tell me about it” (often from well-educated, well-meaning friends)
2.) “I’m so sorry you’re sick” (often from confused older family members)
3.) “Wow, that must be really cool” (often from younger family members and hipster friends)
4.) A blank stare and quick change of subject (often from the general public or the taxi driver I’ve decided to confide in)
Dogs don’t know a darn thing about manic depression, but they also don’t avert their eyes when you tell them about it.
Mental illness sucks because most people, even supportive ones, don’t give it the same importance as, say, cancer or diabetes. They seem to think it’s easier to control, but they don’t see that the medications we are so carefully prescribed often have severe side effects, never mind the symptoms of the illness that continue even with the carefully prescribed medication. Plus it’s pretty easy to overdose on many mental meds.
Turning to my dogs for support challenges many notions about who and what can help a mentally ill person. From my psychiatric hospital stay, I learned that you need well-informed family and friends, others who are similarly afflicted, a good psychopharm, and a good therapist. I won’t knock therapy, because there’s a chance my therapist will read this, but when I’ve locked myself in the attic because I’m depersonalizing (sort of sitting outside of myself, a manic symptom) or I’m lying in bed smelling my armpits because I haven’t taken a shower in six days and I’m wondering if I’m really in a major depression, having my dogs nearby can help restore my sanity.
My dogs have sat with me when I didn’t feel like I was real, staying quietly and protectively by my side; petting them is the only sensation that can ground me. (Apparently this also works for some Alzheimer’s patients.) We’re not supposed to describe our dogs as “empathetic,” because that’s a human quality, but I can attest to the empathy of my Pit Bulls, both when I’m in a highly manic state (when they talk to me as well) and in a stable one.
I won’t pretend this always works, but knowing I have to feed and walk my dogs has been a help. An annoying dog is even more useful, especially one who stands by the bed and barks, or jumps on your sedentary self and starts digging at the covers. Exercise of any kind has a high chance of at least slightly lifting your mood — and taking care of someone else (especially four-legged creatures) when you’re depressed can often help.
The main essence of a dog calms me, whether he’s lying on the couch snoring or barking at the mailman. This is because dogs are much simpler than we are, so their reactions and behavior all make sense. I benefit from a dog’s energy, and dogs serve as a reminder that when you aren’t feeling stable, sticking to the basics in life is the best plan. If I’m in a state in which being around people seems impossible, I go to my dogs for some tail-and-tongue therapy. It’s no wonder that someone finally figured out that mentally ill people need therapy dogs, too, to give them constant support when they’re out in the sometimes-menacing world.
Dogs provide you with a routine, someone to care for, a healthy lifestyle, a connection with others, a connection with them, a reason to call your psychopharm when you’re talking to a ghost in the basement, and a reason to slide out of bed and ask for help. Dogs equal a reason to live.
But living with mental illness often also means living with a stigma, even in so-called developed countries. I have learned that the easiest way to handle such ignoramuses is to keep my illness in check and be as stable as possible so I can coolly point out their errors. My dogs are a major component in my stability. Without them, I’d probably be locked up somewhere myself.
Are you a “normie” who knows someone with manic depression or another mental disorder? Has the illness been helped by your own dogs, or dogs you’ve met in the street or through friends? Or do you have a “crazy” diagnosis like I do?
If dogs have played a significant part in your treatment, please share in the comments — feel free to rant a bit. By doing so you could really help someone else with mental illness.
Illustrations by the awesome Scott Smith