I’ve always loved animals but as I’ve grown older and more mature, my love for them and the depth of my relationships with them have become central to helping protect my mental health.
About eight years ago, I got involved in fostering senior dogs. In the group I volunteered with, so many people were dealing with a variety of mental health challenges. Almost everyone I talked with needed professional help in some form, ranging from daily medications to electro-convulsive therapy. With that realization, I started viewing my relationships with animals differently. I ended up understanding how much stability, love, purpose and joy animals bring into my life.
For me, it’s clear to see how animals help me so much. I personally struggle with depression and anxiety and I’m classified as “high functioning.” In fact, on most days people think I’m one of the happiest, most outgoing, most content people on the planet. But it’s just an act I turn on because it’s easier than trying to explain or even defend my depression and anxiety. No matter how adept I’ve become at this act, it’s still exhausting. And there are times both my depression and anxiety become so debilitating that I’m unable to play my role. Whether I’m exhausted from pretending to be okay or I’m drowning in not being okay, having dogs in my life makes a huge difference. And what a relief it is not to have to put that act on in front of my dogs. Right now, I have two dachshunds: Max and Fancy. Max is about seven years old and Fancy is just four months.
Max and Fancy don’t judge me or roll their eyes if I’m crying because of what might be perceived as a minor inconvenience. In fact, when Max hears me crying, he almost always crawls in my lap and literally licks the tears off my face. Max and Fancy still love me when my social anxiety paralyzes me, and I have to stay home instead of interacting with people. Neither of them cares when I can’t deal with taking a shower or brushing my hair for a day … or two or five. And they absolutely love to keep me company when I need to stay in bed most of the day.
Although they are fine with however my symptoms of depression and anxiety manifest themselves, they help make me want to get up and participate in my life. They give me a purpose because they NEED me. They need me to get up and feed them, let them outside, play with them and take them for walks. They need me because I am their human and I am important. They remind me how lovable I am and even how necessary I am. Sure, I could ignore their whines, barks and wet noses sticking in my face asking for love, attention and care. I could even ignore their silly antics that bring a smile to my face, force a laugh out of me and give me a sense of joy. But for me, it’s just enough to force me out of bed. It’s just enough to force me outside of my head where my inner dialogue of self-hatred and condemnation tries to make me give up. It’s just enough for me to help me take care of them and myself.
My dogs show me true, unconditional love. I come from a family with a history of mental health issues and dysfunction; unconditional love was a foreign concept. The love I feel from Max and Fancy has a sweet purity to it. I don’t doubt their love for me or how important I am to them. I have two little cheerleaders, underneath 10 pounds each, that help me face my challenges each day. I’m not exaggerating when I say I wouldn’t have survived this “lockdown” and pandemic up to this point without them. I live alone, I’m working from home and I’m an empty-nester. The isolation I’ve experienced has been like oxygen to the fires of my depression and anxiety. But I’m able to remind myself, I’m not alone. I have Max and Fancy with me and we’re a family.
The relationships I’ve had with all the dogs and cats in my life have filled the gaps where my human relationships are lacking in understanding, love, compassion and consistency. Some people may not understand this and may think they’re just a dog or an animal. My hope for those people is they will experience at least one nurturing relationship with an animal.
I continue to utilize multiple forms of self-care to constantly treat my depression and anxiety. I take medication, I exercise, I journal and I meditate in addition to the support I receive living with my dogs. My life is not perfect with Max and Fancy and I’m not cured of my depression or anxiety with them in my life. But they, and all the other dogs and cats before them, have given me the strength to fight for them, and myself, another day.
About the Author
Kim Seitz has worked in the mortgage industry for over 20 years. She has a son, is an avid runner and lives with her two dogs and one cat.