How My Dog Is Helping Me Through a Major Depressive Episode

Taking part in family life has been a significant challenge for me during the last year, after experiencing a major depressive episode for the first time in my life. In an effort to get me out of bed every day, my husband, who has been extremely supportive, insists I still make our daughters’ packed lunches. It works. I manage to drag myself from under the warm duvet to make their lunch and even exchange a few words first thing in the morning. It gives me some sense of achievement, of purpose; and momentarily, some optimism about the day ahead.

That is, until the usual last-minute mad rush is over and the front door closes when they all head off to school and work. This moment has frequently been a crucial one for me. Will I crawl back into bed and hide from the world? Will I sob into the silence as I’m unable to accept that I still can’t go back to the teaching job I love? Or will I go into complete crisis mode?

Well, had it not been for Bruno, our black, fluffy, grumpy, old family dog, I probably would have done one of those things every single day for a year. Yet his needs have ensured that I haven’t. He has helped me on my slow road to recovery.

His early morning walk has meant so much more than just taking the dog out — a vital change of scene. Deep breaths of fresh air. A gentle stretch or an angry stomp of my legs. Unexpected, brief chats with friendly neighbors. The company of quacking ducks or squawking seagulls. Plus, over time, realization that each season has changed even though I feel that time has frozen.

Often, arriving home would then be a harsh reminder of my reality. No job to rush off to, no important tasks to do, just an empty day ahead that I need to fill. And that silence. That silence returns as I shut the front door behind me.

Yet Bruno steps in again. His impatient bark reminds me he is waiting for his post walk biscuit; and his empty bowl points out that he needs to be fed. With both “jobs” done, I’d normally crash on the sofa, tired out by those tiny efforts. The silence would threaten me once again. Silence can be dangerous. It can lead my thoughts to race and my nerves to jangle. But as Bruno pitter patters around on the wooden flooring or decides to “dig” ferociously into his cushion, I am reminded that I am not alone. When in need of comfort, I’d often call him and he’d snuggle up next to me on the sofa. His body would warm mine and stroking his fur would bring me calm once again.

Seven hours are a challenge to fill in this frame of mind but, inevitably each day drew to a close. I would suddenly go from deafening silence to family chaos: two daughters competing to share the news of their days; Bruno barking for attention; dinner to prepare; homework help; vital FaceTime calls with friends the girls haven’t spoken to for 40 minutes and anything else that might come up.

Post dinner, I am frequently shattered. Having craved company all day, I now crave silence and being alone. I’ve held it together through noisy chatter, homework and a family dinner and now I just want to crawl away and hide. Once again though, Bruno’s hopeful look catches my eye. I know that my husband will take him out on his own if I ask him to. Yet I also know that this is the only time of day we get the chance for decent, uninterrupted conversation. I also know that it will get me out of the house again. Fresh air, movement. Those things I guiltily realize I haven’t had since Bruno’s last walk. So, we chat as we stroll around the neighborhood, keeping a close eye on Bruno who is going blind and deaf in his old age. We both dissect our days. I am reminded of the outside world that is moving on beyond despite my bubble. My husband gently probes to find out how my day has been.

Sometimes there is little for me to say. Mentioning the fact that I have walked, fed, stroked and cared for Bruno seems so obvious and insignificant that I’m embarrassed to do it. Yet when I finally fall into bed and remember how I felt as my family closed the front door behind them, I am reminded that actually those achievements are something to be proud of — and something I can thank my black, fluffy, grumpy companion for.  Without him I may well have gone back to bed, sobbed or dived straight into crisis mode. But what I have done instead is take one more small step toward recovery.

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Thinkstock photo via CBCK-Christine

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