I couldn't be more proud of the following blog, mainly because it was written by my son Zane, but also because it takes courage to speak about mental illness/wellness and share our experiences with others. Being a dog lover to the core, I see how they change and impact people's lives daily - "Stedman" has done just that! Thank you Zane for allowing me to share this on my blog platform!
an anxious boy & his dog
The idea of dogs bringing humans happiness is by no means a foreign concept. In western culture, the integration of a schnauzer in even the most hostile of environments will spark a noticeable shift in disposition. This dynamic has always been ingrained in me, but I’ve never evaluated its source. Out of an unfathomable number of species that cohabitate this abounding planet, we are debatably affluent in that we are the most advanced – and out of all of the remaining lifeforms, we have predominantly enforced the domesticity of dogs. Whether the kinship between the two was innate or was something evolved over time through strategic breeding tactics is unknown. It is, however, common opinion that there’s an unspoken bond between dogs and humans that defies the confines of pet and owner. In my experience, this bond has often proven more therapeutic than resources provided by western medicine.
I would foremost like to preface that I’m by no means a psychoanalyst, nor do I have an advanced aptitude for canines; or any animals for that matter. In spite of the comical fact that I’m the heir to a rather large dog grooming empire (my parents’ business), I have no credentials that warrant me giving pet advice to strangers. My affiliation with dogs is limited to the fact that I’ve been exposed to many, and with few exceptions, I have thoroughly enjoyed their company. I do, however, have a somewhat noteworthy, feel-good story in which a dog is a pivotal catalyst.
Inherently, I have always been an anxious person. I have had an on/off relationship with Zoloft since the humble age of twelve. It’s so deep-seated in my psyche that I can’t say I would know a sober life without it – I suppose that’s why they call it chronic. It was a rocky adolescence but I always had access to the tools necessary for managing it. Not to mention a support system of family members who were similarly diagnosed. I followed the standardized steps that an ordinary young man did: graduated high school, graduated college, got a shitty job and an appropriately shitty apartment. My mental state didn’t throw a wrench in any of that, until about a year and a half ago, when without warning or reason I suddenly short circuited.
I don’t think that what happened to me can be explained to someone without me coming across as sensationalistic. But in short, the tools I had to manage my brain had suddenly disappeared. I was a complete shell of a human – to the point that I had to fly to my childhood home so that my parents could take care of me and seek medical help. There was about a month of me being horizontal in my old twin bed before, with the right cocktail of anti-depressants, I was sent on my way. Propelled back into my mundane life like a finely tuned robot who completed all of it’s assigned tasks with due diligence, but minimal emotional responsiveness. This remission lasted about half a year before I malfunctioned again. We scrapped all of the meds and went back to my normal regiments which left me less stable but more life-like.
At this point, after dabbling with all kinds of holistic approaches, my mom pitched the idea of “a therapy dog”. This idea thrilled me intrinsically in a way that I hadn’t felt in months, only to be quickly intercepted by self-loathing logistics. “I can barely take care of myself”, was my immediate response. This was quickly followed by concerns regarding financial instability and the inability to stay rooted in one place long enough to create a home for a pet. My mom fashioned an ultimatum in which I would adopt a dog of her choosing for two months and if I felt it was counterproductive to my recovery, she would take it off of my hands; sort of a trial run.
Enter Stedman – a six-month old Brussels Griffon from the nearby town of Guelph, Ontario whom my mom manifested through her outrageous database of dog connections. This dog had all of the awkward energy of a prepubescent boy channeled into the 7 pound, wire-coated frame of a gremlin / Ewok hybrid. His head was in-proportionately large for his body; comparable to a grapefruit. Meanwhile, all of his facial features encompassed a minimal perimeter of that terrain – about the proximity of a mandarin orange. His eyes were both drastically angled outwards – resembling a hairy Steve Buscemi. In succinct terms, he was just bizarre – and it resonated with me deeply.
But I wasn’t wrong. I was far from mentally, socially and economically equipped to take care of this thing, or at least I was, up until the moment I got him. Stedman didn’t only check off the boxes as a loyal and loving companion for a depressed owner, but he embodied accountability. I couldn’t follow all of the destructive patterns that kept me unwell because now they would be destructive to an outside party. I had something depending on me to get out of bed every morning, maintain a steady income and leave my apartment numerous times a day. I had no choice really. And with that came the preceding fulfillment of achieving something I deemed myself inadequate of – subsequently opening other doors that were previously locked by self-doubt.
A cardinal trigger for my anxiety was loneliness. Every single panic attack I’ve endured has happened in solitude. It’s kind of a vicious cycle in the sense that my mental maladjustment has transformed me into an introvert, but my detachment is a primary source of uneasiness. I always made a joke that I want to be in a serious relationship solely so that I can have a physical body around at all times. One whom I don’t feel the pressure to entertain – because, for me, it’s the physical loneliness that stings more than the lack of conversation. Perhaps there’s a scientific philosophy in that vein that I’m unaware of. Regardless, Stedman fills that void. That loneliness has subsided. I can see how this could be perceived as counterproductive in the sense that human-to-human socialization is also crucial – but that’s improved as well. My relationship with Sted sort of acted as a stepping stone in that regard.
Now, although I like to brand myself as a broad-minded romantic, that’s more of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the works. Innately, I’m a skeptic and a realist – I have trust issues – and while I was mentally flat-lining, my cynical outlook was rampant. When people would tell me that dogs are receptive to your emotions and can gauge illness or pregnancy or menstruation or whatever, I wasn’t convinced. I held dogs at face-value: cute but mindless auto-companions who’s emotional capacities are limited to either excited, hungry or sleepy. It soon came to my awareness that I wasn’t giving these animals due credit. As soon as Stedman and I established our codependency, my recovery was very much a joint project.
In the midst of my remission and his puppy-hood, Stedman was a busy body – always able to self-entertain. However, his motor would come to an instantaneous halt the moment I hit a wall mentally. He would become stagnantly glued to me until I showed signs of vitality again – sometimes this would span over an entire day. Even now, he won’t leave my side if I show any symptoms of uneasiness – but can switch to complete self-sufficiency when I’m of sound mind. I’ve noticed him taking on this caregiver persona with my roommates when they’ve been sick or depressed as well – which brought to mind a conversation I had with my mom at my lowest point (prior to purchasing Sted). I asked her what she thought brought dogs fulfillment. They have no real future ambitions or perspectives as far as romance goes – so what’s their driving force? How to they maintain happiness? Without a moment of hesitation, my mom insisted that dogs live to make their owners happy. In hindsight, that might not have been such a far-fetched (pun intended) notion after-all.
In layman’s terms, Stedman’s just a good time. There’s no psychological data necessary to support the fact that he makes me smile. He makes me laugh. And he makes others laugh and smile which makes me laugh and smile. And with that, I’m back to my normal, moderately anxious self, who at the end of the day has a weird and wonderful dog to return to. I’m living in the tumultuous, confusing whirlwind of my early twenties…but with a dog! Stedman’s an inevitable shining light in even the darkest of times – something that I didn’t have, or at least was too ignorant to see, before Stedman. And as of his recent second birthday, Stedman is now a certified therapy dog at a local hospital – where he makes others smile – which makes me smile. Sort of the cliche ending to my self-produced hallmark movie of the week. So no, Stedman didn’t perform a medical miracle and strip me of all of my mental woes – but he was happy to be along for the ride, and in turn, I managed to regain the ability to be happy to have him.