When I was twenty-two years old, I had a nervous breakdown. Doctors diagnosed major clinical depression and prescribed medication, therapy, and constant monitoring. But none of that worked as well as one unconventional thing: my dog. My big, red, goofy golden retriever, Bunker Hill, somehow knew when I was sinking and helped me pull myself back up. I adopted Bunker as a puppy. At my first mental health hiccup, he stopped his mad puppy frenzy. His attention shifted; he came to me and sat on my feet, looked into my eyes as if to say, “I see you.” I decided then that I’d adopted not just a dog, but also a healer. Of course, for his entire eleven-year life, I considered my near complete dependence on him further proof that I was crazy, child-like, and not right in the head.
Until at age thirty-six, on a flight from California to visit my parents in Ohio, I grabbed a glossy airline magazine from the seatback pocket. The cover photograph featured a young man and his black Labrador retriever, their foreheads touching in a pose of adoration and support, with this headline: “Healed in Action, How a wounded veteran found peace with help from a loyal companion.”
I flipped to the article, read, and elbowed my husband. “Look!” I said. “This is my story too!”
My husband nodded and said, “See? Time to write that book.”
For wounded veteran Jacob, PTSD after combat in Iraq manifested itself in the form of terrible depression and anxiety. The first line of the article reads, “Mya senses something wrong.” And then it describes how Mya was Jacob’s first responder, how she knew when he was about to drift into a panic attack or down into a dark place (perhaps even before he realized it), and she jumped on Jacob and licked his face, bringing him back to the moment and out of his troubled mind.
I wanted to stand up in the aisle of that airplane and dance or scream or cry. I’d never been a soldier in a war zone, and my dog was not a trained service dog. But there is no doubt in my mind that my big red golden retriever deftly pulled me out of the blackness of a depression so severe, I am confident that I would have died without him.
After reading that article, I began to believe that maybe I could tell the truth about my experience. The truth was that at age 22, my dog was my lifeline. It was as if he could smell sadness. He would nudge and lick me, sit on my feet, or lean against my shins to get me to notice that I was sinking. Then I was able to make a shift, question the self-destructive thinking, and reset. Sometimes his efforts failed and when that happened, he would curl up and nap next to me so I wouldn’t have to sleep alone.
I wrote that book. It’s called Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself. And in the writing process, I shed my fear of being called the crazy dog lady. Rather, I opened my heart, in humility, to animals, to nature, and to knowing that despite our cultural drifting away from the natural world, if we turn back to four legged creatures, to the trees and sky and birds, even just a little bit, they can begin to help us heal.