I remember once when I was feeling extremely suicidal my psychiatrist instructed me to write two documents. One was a letter to myself reminding me of all my strengths. And the other was a list of reasons to live. I struggled a lot with the latter. I was in such a pool of misery I saw no point to life at all. So one day I went for a walk down to the beach. I sat on the bench and looked out at the water. The waves came crushing in and I felt nothing but cruel despair. Until two dogs floated into view. They ran into the water and danced and jumped. They had the biggest smiles on their faces. Their silly barks made me laugh for perhaps the first time in months. And I knew what my first entry on my list was going to be; dogs. From there it was like these two dogs had reminded me of what joy felt like. I was suddenly able to recall all these other things in my life worth living for; my partner, my friends, my family, my career, to one day make my own family. These dogs had reminded me of how good the world could be.
I’ve seen a lot of blogs and articles floating around about the benefits of interacting with animals (especially dogs) for those who have mental illnesses. Petting a dog lowers your blood pressure. Having a dog forces you to get outside and get exercise and socialise with other people. Whilst these are all extremely valid points I often feel these articles are written in such a clinical, distant way that they miss the point entirely. Having a dog love me has given me so much more than lower blood pressure and laboured social exchanges. I’d now like to share with you three of the special things my precious girl Holly has given me that no one human being could ever give me.
When you have a mental illness as serious as Bipolar you can often become unrecognisable to yourself and to others. I can become a violent monster who hurts the torments the ones I love. Or I can become so dejected and disconnected from the world that I barely seem to be breathing. If there is one thing I have learnt in my journey with Bipolar it is that people will abandon you. You will be too much for people. And that’s okay. It hurts. But I don’t blame people for giving up on me. The thing is, a dog never will. No matter what mood state I am in my dog will always look at me like I am the centre of her universe. Whether I am stable, manic, or depressed my dog will still greet me with a wagging tail. She will try to calm me and follow me around the house when I am manic. And she will stand my vigil as I lay motionless and crippled by depression. My dog never loses faith in me. And that teaches me to never lose faith in myself and my ability to get better. I look into her beautiful deep brown eyes and I know I am a person deserving of love, regardless of my mental illness. And I’ll be honest with you, I’m tearing up writing this because when you have disappointed and hurt so many people in your life through your mental illness it means the absolute world to have a dog see the best in you.
You might be thinking to yourselves ‘dogs are the furthermost thing from mindful, how could they possibly teach you about mindfulness?’ And you’d be correct. But my dog has taught me to live in the moment. I used to get annoyed when walking her because she always wants to stop and smell every single flower we pass. But then I think to myself, ‘she is literally stopping to smell the roses, maybe I should try it?’ So then we make quite a pair, my Holly and I, stopping and smelling and enjoying every flower we pass. I describe the smell aloud to her, knowing that in her own way she understands me. Dogs are very wise, you see. And as we walk on together, I take stock of my environment, listing in my head the sounds that we can hear and the things that we can see in nature. I am at my most mindful and present in the current moment when I am walking my dog. I also use my dog for cheeky mindful moments throughout the day. As we lay together I stroke her fur and use it as a mindfulness exercise. Instead of the traditional approach of focusing on my own heart beat and breath I focus on hers and we become even more connected in that moment. My dog helps me cope with my mental illness by not just giving me unconditional love but through being an unparalleled source of mindfulness.
My dog gives me purpose to get out of bed on even the darkest of days. No matter how far gone I am mentally, I could never let anything bad happen to my precious little girl. The world keeps going on no matter how unwell I am. And my dog is a reminder of that. The dog still needs to be fed, walked, washed, played with, cared for regardless of how terrible I feel. On my worst days earlier this year, where I had taken time off of work and university to just focus on getting better, I had no reason to get up in the morning except my dog. She gave me purpose in life when I had none. And she gave me a will when I was well and truly done. And it comes down to the basics. When severely depressed, I would remember to feed myself because I was in the kitchen feeding the dog so I ought to eat something too. Holly would approach me with a toy and I would throw it to her. Next thing I knew I would be playing with her. Then I would have more energy to attempt other tasks like walking up the stairs to have a shower.
As you can see, clearly my dog has given me a reason to live where little else did. But not just that, my dog has given me the energy and the will to complete the mundane, everyday life events that add up to living. I mentioned earlier how those two dogs playing on the beach gave me a chance to be reborn. You can never underestimate the power of a smiling dog to change someone’s day, let alone their life. Not simply because of clinical reasons like reductions in blood pressure, even though this is true. But because there is a sacred connection between mankind and dog that makes the world a better place to live in for everyone, especially for those teetering on the edge.