I wake to a jostle of the bed, and the wet, whisker-fuzzy feeling of dog kisses on my face.
Of course the dog wanted to be with me. He’s obsessed with me.
Now, much like when we first got him, I’m unemployed and depressed.
When we got Joey, a wild, beautiful, needy, rambunctious 9 month old chihuahua, I was at home all the time. We were like glue. I was with him 24/7, keeping him from chewing on wires, wiping up his accidents, watching him sleep.
I have chronic depression and bipolar disorders. I’ve had both for as long as I can remember. The depression waxes and wanes, but the bipolar is constant.
Before Joey, there were times that I was too hopeless to leave my bed for entire days. There were times when I was afraid to leave my place to buy coffee because I thought the barista would judge me.
While he never wanted to cuddle, he always wanted to be near me. If I left him alone, he would scream the entire time. Desperate, high-pitched, I’m-dying-here-without-you howls.
He needed me to pay attention to him. He needed me to stay engaged.
Joey has been good for my mental health, just not exactly in the way that I’d hoped.
Forcing me to engage with the world
You know that feeling when you just want to stay in bed another 10 minutes before you have to face the day? Or when you have a project to work on and you’ve been putting off getting started — a little guilty, a little anxious, you know what you need to do but you just can’t start?
Now, imagine magnifying those feelings as large as you can. Never get out of bed. Never start your project. This is how I’ve for as long as I can remember.
But it was different with Joey. He gives me a sense of purpose.
During times when I was unable to take concrete steps toward bettering my life and career, I was able to house train Joey.
There were days when I never showered and put on real clothes. I’ve always stayed in pajamas because I had no reason to.
I assumed he’d get easier as he got bigger. I thought the training would pay off, and it has. He was the easiest and most trainable dog I ever had and he still is. I fantasized that one day I could take him to a park and he wouldn’t lunge at scones or bark at anyone or wanna bite their ankles off.
Joey is pretty confident. It’s his life’s mission to meet and befriend every dog he sees. I, however, suffer from social anxiety. I replay conversations weeks and even months later. I loathe small talk; my mind goes completely blank, and I trying to think of something, anything at all, to say.
The problem is that between his personality and the fact that people are drawn to the cuteness of chihuahuas, I have something to talk about with people. It’s impossible to leave my house without having to discuss my dog with at least five strangers.
I thought a dog would be a sturdy, assuring presence, but what I got was a needy, frenetic beast. Still, he helps by being work that I can’t hide from and can’t ignore.
But in the face of this living, breathing fur ball who loves me, my depression and bipolar surrender. I have to take care of him.
He wasn’t the kind of dog I envisioned. I thought he’d keep me company when I was lonely and comfort me when I was sad. But he doesn’t cuddle or approach me to assuage my depression.
So, with Joey at my side, I’ve gotten way more comfortable with small talk. When I avoid people now, I know it’s for a reason other than my social anxiety.
I couldn’t pull myself out of it to attend to him, and he didn’t understand why, which made me feel guilty on top of everything else.
The same behaviors that make it impossible for me to mentally check out can, on worse days, spur my bipolar into full bloom. Some days, when he scratches at me to take him outside or snatches a something from the sidewalk because he eats everything, I feel like I’m at my wit’s end.
But ultimately, I love him. Sometimes I wonder if I would’ve slipped further into despair without Joey.
When I think I’m worthless, I think about how elated he is to see me when I come home, how he follows me from room to room. Many dog owners probably feel more self-worth because of the intensity of their dog’s love.
But you know what else makes me feel good? Thinking about what a good person I am for keeping him. Many reasonable, non-depressed people would’ve thrown in the towel.
If you want a traditional therapy animal, get an old dog, a lap dog, a chill, “who rescued who?” dog that just wants to rest its head on your knee and sigh.
Or do what I did: Get a chihuahua, throw your entire self into caring for him — even on days when you literally skip brushing your hair — and hope for the best.