by Amy Gilbert
How getting a dog helped me recover from an eating disorder:
If I had known a dog would be the most helpful part of my recovery, I would have gotten one sooner. Who knew that an animal could help with something as complex as mental illness, something that I don’t even fully understand myself. For most of my life I have struggled with mental illnesses and for the past few years I have battled Anorexia Nervosa. Last year, I took a “gap year” before starting college, to focus on recovery and being well enough to attend school the following year. I was in and out of treatment centers and hospitals and nothing seemed to be helping. I would make progress slowly and reluctantly while in treatment and hospitals, but as soon as I left I would revert to my old behaviors. Many people who have been in treatment can probably relate to complying only so that they can avoid consequences. It makes since right? When you are so stuck in your eating disorder and not motivated to get better, the goal is to leave the hospital ASAP so you don’t gain “to much weight” and you can return to your eating disorder, which is helping you in so many ways. I could never find a reason for wanting to get better. College? No, I’m not smart enough for that, I would tell myself. Health? Why should I care about my health when I am suffering and don’t see an end? I became so incredibly hopeless. The kind of hopeless that makes your whole future seem like a fantasy that would never come true. It all seemed so far away and not meant for me. I didn’t believe in that “happily ever after”. I wasn’t sure if I was capable of the future I had envisioned since I was a kid. This made me very scared and depressed. I didn’t care what happened to me or if I lived. In February 2016, when insurance had enough and decided treatment wasn’t working for me, I was discharged at a very bad time. This was scary for everyone around me who tried to appeal saying that I was going to die at home. Desperate to find a solution, my psychiatrist asked if there was anything that would make life worth living. Jokingly I answered a dog. I had always wanted a pet and in treatment had formed a close friendship with the therapy dog, Luna. On the days Luna came my whole mood changed and I couldn’t help but smile. My parents who really wanted to do anything to help me at this point agreed with my psychiatrist to get me a dog. Two weeks later we adopted a beagle puppy who I named Grace. She was my hero.
Reflecting back I don’t believe I would be alive without Grace. With my new puppy came joy, purpose, love, motivation and happiness that I hadn’t felt in so long. Just looking at her pounce around and act silly made my day. She brought laughter and smiles back into my life. I honestly loved her more than I had ever loved anything. She was mine and she needed me. It was difficult to eat and drink, but I finally knew why I needed to. I needed to stay alive to watch Grace grow up. I needed the energy to play, walk and take care of her. She didn’t want me to go back to the hospital. My little beagle helped me feel less alone. She would never judge me for eating, for the way I looked or for my emotions. Grace has the amazing ability to know when I am sad and will come climb on my lap and lick my tears away. She knows she is special and needed. Because of her help, I am doing much better. I am not saying dogs can magically make all of our problems go away. I still struggle some days, but overall I am doing so much better. This year I was able to start college and I brought Grace along to help me with the transition. It is almost the end of my first year and I am amazed that I am still here. I never thought I would make it to college or be successful as a college student and without Grace, I don’t think I would have. Emotional Support Animals and Service dogs have an important job. Just because you can’t tell why the person needs a dog, doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Dogs can help people with invisible illnesses as well as visible illnesses and should be more widely recognized as a form of therapy and treatment.
The other day I came across a quote in the book “The Body Keeps the Score”, by Bessel Van Der Kolk that helped me understand why animals are so helpful and to realize that many people benefit from having an animal to help them heal from mental illness. The quote stated that “In the past two decades it has become widely recognized that when adults or children are too skittish or shut down to derive comfort from human beings, relationships with other mammals can help. Dogs and horses and even dolphins offer less complicated companionship while providing the necessary sense of safety” (pg. 82)