There’s a thing about being disabled where no one really understands what you’re going through. Everyone says they do, but they don’t. Nobody really can understand, nor would they want to. The thing is, for us, it’s our way of life — being disabled; the way we do things, is how we have to get things done, no matter how impossible or alien it seems to everyone else. And for some of us, as time moves on, we need more help.
Which is why now, I have a service dog. Is that weird? For some, apparently, but not for me.
Before Stella came to me last Monday, my phone was surgically attached to my hand. I couldn’t go anywhere without it. Not to the dinner table, not outside for a cigarette, not to bed, not to play computer games, nowhere. During a tense moment on TV, I'd pull out the phone to distance myself from what was happening. I'd do the same thing at parties, during political discussions, when people were arguing nearby. My phone was my go-to for whenever I wanted to calm down, or when I wanted to be distracted, or when I didn't want to think.
But now, with Stella, it's different. When TV gets tense, I run my hands over her sleek, smooth, black lab fur, as I process these emotions and let them wash over me. It’s television, it’ll pass. And it always does. Ditto political discussions, while I think about something else -- my book maybe, or something funny I saw that day. When people argue nearby, I kneel down in front of Stella and pet her, look her in the eyes and distract myself fully, and tries to lick my eye-makeup off. Gone is all that tension, and instead, all I feel is calm, love, happiness.
I know from my years of working as a therapist that by picking up my phone to shield myself from what I was about to feel that I was only suppressing that anxiety, stoppering it before it reached the surface and washed over me. I wasn’t allowing myself to release it. So over time, that anxiety would build up and build up until it exploded into a fight with my husband, or insecure writing, or getting angry at something for no reason.
With Stella here, I am able to let those emotions of anxiety or sorrow wash over me as I pet her and hold her — and she doesn’t seem to mind. She hasn’t yet been trained on how to react to my emotional triggers of when I need assistance with panic or psychosis, we’re working on that, and will be soon. Right now, she’s simply a calming presence in the house that tells me it’s okay if I left my phone inside, Stella and I can sit on the front porch, phoneless, and watch the neighborhood move at its afternoon beat.
She'll learn how to respond to me soon enough, as I’m taking a six-month class with Buckeye Service Dogs to teach Stella to be my Psychiatric Service Dog. She's already constantly at my side, rides calmly in a car, and is a model citizen dog in public. She’s excited to wear her uniform and go places, even though she doesn’t get petted.
James (my husband), loves Stella. My mother's a fan of Stella. And my homeless buddy is fond of her, too. She’s also getting used to the house after a week here and is finally starting to warm up and claim the place as hers.
The weekly classes with Buckeye Service Dogs have already taught me how to address her fears, how to have her meet people and interact in public with other people and dogs, and also how to read her behavior and facial expressions. Even after having Shar (RIP Shar) for 10 years, it’s amazing how little James and I knew about dogs. Like how yawning doesn't always mean a dog is tired, or licking lips doesn't always mean a dog is hungry. Right now, I think Stella wants to go outside cause she's yawning up a storm.
But the most amazing thing is the sense of calm I feel with her here: Things get done every day without freakout over whether they’ll get done, the day is just completed, with breaks, with downtime, and with all goals met. Should something get cancelled, I don’t have a nuclear meltdown over it, it’s just the way it is. Perhaps this is because I’m not bottling everything up, or perhaps this is simply the calming effect of the dog, or maybe a combination of both. Also, she helps with my perspective — whereas before an event would ruin me for months, now within hours or days, I can see a course of action without catastrophizing.
If that is what she’s for, even before she can calm me down from a panic attack, even before she can bring me down from my psychotic symptoms, then Stella is a success. And that’s great. With Stella, I can sit in parts of restaurants that were previously off-limits to me. With Stella, I’m able to do things I wasn’t able to do for years. That's why I wanted the service dog -- to make me more independent.
And that’s why I need the dog now, and why I needed the dog 2 weeks ago. She’s helped me, and I hope I’m helping her. Judging by how hard she’s wagging now, I think she’s pretty happy she’s here.