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How my dog helped me

April 10, 2020

My dog Bert can smell depression. I’m convinced of it. I live with bipolar disorder and still quite regularly plod through depressive episodes, despite being pleasantly medicated. I don’t
sleep very much, and so I live some days of my life as a spectre of myself, tired and fragile in a way only another insomniac would recognise.

When I’m distressed, Bertie can tell. If I ever go back to bed during the day, which I only really do when I’m desperate for respite from the waking world, or sad in a way I can’t handle while upright, he leaps across our mattress and lays across my chest. Often, on my neck. He does not do this at any time when I am happy; it’s truly only when I’m upset. It feels like he’s trying to protect me, or soothe me.

Therapy dogs are actually trained to do precisely this when their humans are in distress. For Bertie, it’s instinctive, to make as much physical contact with me as possible, to use his body as a buffer between me and the rest of the world.

When he’s lying on me like that, I can feel his little heart beating against mine and it reminds me what living feels like. He snorts and snuffles and smacks his thick lips together, shifting his long body to find the greatest angle for comfort. I might move him from that position, usually so that I can breathe properly, but he refuses to leave.

He lies on his back, with his head in the curve of my armpit, presenting his belly for scratches. He curls into a neat little ball at my feet and snores heartily. He stretches out along the length of
my side, with his snout on my shoulder and his hot breath in my ear. He will stay there until I move.

Some days, when I’m depressed, I just sleep. It’s an escape for me; a way of slipping out of my existence for a time.

Often, it’s out of my control. Sleep simply comes for me, drags me under.

It’s a heavy sleep, a sleep I can taste on my tongue when I wake. Passing out for hours can be disorienting. So it is a comfort to wake beside a small mammal, one whose pink chest rises and falls as he inhales and exhales through wet nostrils. The warmth of his stout body beside me says that being awake is going to be okay. He makes me feel safe. He makes me feel known.

He makes me feel like consciousness is going to be tolerable, for a time.

Together, we sit out the depression. We watch reruns of Friends until the most desperate melancholy lifts. We wait out the aching numbness, which is all I’m really capable of doing at
those times. I am depleted, but I am not alone. I am not alone. I am not alone. I am never really alone any more. I always have this precious creature within stroking distance.

When I’m counting down the minutes I have left to be awake on a day of depression, waiting for the release of sleep, I pass the time with snuggles. At night and first thing in the morning, I lay my head on my boyfriend Jono’s shoulder, wrap my arm across his belly and try to match my breathing to his. I call for Bertie, who dutifully leaps to my side, snorts, rests his small, flat head on my chest and goes to sleep. This is where I am safest. This is where I still know who I am.

It was lucky, then, that Bertie was with us when my psychiatrist couldn’t prescribe my usual medication. We were living in London at the time, and we’d just moved to a new borough in the north-west of that grey, sprawling city.

The way the UK National Health Service works, you have to see medical professionals in your postcode and they only have access to certain medications. I waited five months to see a local psychiatrist so that he could prescribe me the antidepressants I had been on, only for him to calmly inform me that they were not available. “Move house or change medication,” he said, as though it were an easy choice.

I opted for the latter with enormous dread, knowing from experience how ghastly that can be. Before I could swap one smooth red pill for two new white ones, I had to taper down my dose gradually and then come off all medication for a few weeks. So that the drugs didn’t clash in my system, I had
to exist without any chemical support for a long, aching fortnight.

Hours stretched, time slowed, days passed. I barely knew who I was, except that I recognised this feeling from the last time I’d stopped taking medication. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t function. Mostly, I stayed at home, between the sanctuaries of our bed and our teal velvet sofa. I sent texts to the people I cherish, informing them that I couldn’t go for drinks or have coffee or string together many meaningful sentences.

I tried to explain to Jono what it felt like. I’m numb, I’d say, but it hurts. I can’t access my usual stash of emotions – all I can muster right now is this dim sadness. But not even a lush sadness, a sadness that cleanses and heals, a sadness that swells from your heart and makes you feel human.
This was a sadness that didn’t touch me or move me. It just held on to me and suspended me from my own life.

Then I started taking the new pills, but it took more than a month for them to start making a difference.

During that time, my main companion was Bert. When Jono was home, he would tend to me, feed me, listen to me and make me feel loved and seen and held. He built me a tepee of blankets and lined it with fairy lights, because that’s what I’d casually described as a nice place to hide while the depression had me.

Jono has this vast, bracing love for me when I’m depressed, and it is one of the many reasons I adore him as powerfully as I do. He has shown me a patience and compassion I had always craved before he came into my life. I cannot say how much I appreciate him. But he has to work, of course; he cannot stop his entire life for me when I’m bereft.

Bert, however, has no professional obligations, and so he can stay by my side around the clock. Hairy and smelly and warm, he just stuck by me all those weeks. We waited it out together, shuffling through the park, watching telly, napping to escape the day.

My wonderful parents were at the end of the phone, always. My friends checked in, reminding me
that I wanted to retrieve my capacity to feel joy so I could see them and hug them and laugh with them.

Jono took the morning, bedtime and weekend shifts looking after me, but Bertie was there all day, every day, conspicuously present, snoring and snuffling, chewing and sighing.

It made a profound difference to have the company of a creature who could not judge me, question me or criticise me. He had no expectations of me, except that I would give him meals, treats, walks and snuggles. His basic needs were enough to make me feel needed and accountable, but they didn’t overwhelm me. I left the house to take Bert for his morning walks, when I would have not done so otherwise.

Depression like that usually demands seclusion, and I could easily have become a hermit, alone in my home, unwashed and unmoving. He asked me to venture into the outside world, and that took courage, a courage that reminded me of what I could do.

Once I started taking my new antidepressants, I gradually started feeling able to live my life again. I started writing, I started seeing people, I started feeling joy again. I know my medication enables me to participate in my own existence, and I know, equally, that Bertie helps me heal. I rely on my little white pills to keep me stable, but I’m jolly pleased to have Bert around, too, because he helps soothe me.

As an introvert with depressive tendencies who works from home, I could easily go days without venturing outdoors were it not for little Bert.

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