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When Becoming a 'Mother of Dragons' Helped Me With Depression and Anxiety

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Last October, my husband and I took our two kids to the local reptile show. It had become a yearly tradition to go; from petting zoos, venomous snake displays and breeders showing off rare morphs, it was something everyone in our family enjoyed. Both my husband and I had owned reptiles before, so to us it was a no-brainer for a fun family outing.

We had always just been to look, but this year I had put a bug in my son’s ear about maybe bringing home a new pet. My 3-year-old son was ecstatic. My husband was easily swayed, and this time we left with a starter tank with two baby bearded dragons in a deli cup. The larger one was beautifully colored with bright gold and cream markings. The other one was smaller, and scrappy; he was a bold little thing, fast and unafraid. He scratched defiantly against the deli cup the whole ride home. He wasn’t as pretty as the big one with his more muted colors, save for the bright red and orange markings on his head. He was the one I picked out of the storage tub filled with hundreds of his siblings.

Within a month, the Redhead (as we were calling him) was thriving. He fattened up and shed, his oranges and reds brightening as he grew. His tank mate, however, had rapidly declined and refused to eat. Despite our best efforts to treat him — baths, de-wormers, probiotics — he starved to death. Once it became clear the redhead had not contracted the ailment, our family decided to give him a proper name, other than just “the lizard.” We picked Drogon, like Daenerys’s dragon in “Game of Thrones.”

At this same time, I was inside a worsening episode of depression. I had been working from home more days than not; too unmotivated to get up early enough to get ready for work, too anxious to meet with clients for my job as a social worker. Not long after we got the bearded dragons, my husband left his job as an over the road truck driver to come home, because my symptoms had become too severe. Within months of his return, I had a panic attack at work and was placed on medical leave. I resigned my position so I could get help.

During the apex of my depression, I definitely wasn’t thinking much about the lizard. I could barely take care of myself, let alone any kind of pet. But after the crisis began to ebb, and I began to stabilize, I found myself in the alien position of having time to myself. With the kids at school and my husband at his new job, I was alone most days. It was in many ways a relief — a much-needed break for a working mom. But it was still challenging. Anything outside of a simple task was daunting to me. At the same time, it could be boring. Taking care of Drogon became as good of a thing as any to focus on.

Woman holding her pet bearded dragon

Reptiles are much lower-maintenance than, say a cat or dog, so it wasn’t too demanding for me while I was focusing on recovery. I would have to get up in the morning to turn off his blacklight and turn on his UV lamp. I would give him fresh water and dust vitamins over blueberries and kale; clean his tank and pour a fresh layer of sand. I would even give him warm baths and gently brush his scales with an old, soft toothbrush.

Believe it or not, bearded dragons are capable of bonding and enjoy interaction with people. Drogon went from being an enjoyable “meaningful activity,” to my companion during the days. He would nap on my shoulder and rub up against my hand to petted, like a cat. I was able to train him to step onto my hand and eat food from my fingers. He became my little buddy.

There was only one thing I didn’t like about having my scaly baby.

When bearded dragons are babies, they need to eat bugs every day to get the protein they need to grow. Now yes, there are mixes and kibbles with freeze-dried bugs you can give to your dragon, but they can’t live off of it. The bottom line is, you have to give them bugs. Live ones. Lots.

This meant that nearly every day, I had to go to the mom-and-pop pet shop up the road to buy crickets, mealworms, and dubia roaches.

While I was beginning to regain control over my mind and depression, going out into public and having to talk to people was still a live, panic-attack inducing trigger. I could take my kids to school and grocery shop (only at certain stores, at certain times, and never the one closest to the house because it is too loud and busy), but beyond that, I did not feel capable of leaving the house. But, at the same time, feeding my dragon was probably my favorite chore of the day; I would sit and watch him hunt and devour his bugs, and he would lick his chops and cock his head in an endearing way. Despite my reservations about leaving the house, I would force myself every day to make the whole five-minute trip to get bugs for my little buddy.

Slowly, the trips weren’t so hard. The clerks at the pet shop recognized me as a regular and would make conversation with me. At first I was just polite, hiding my puffy eyes and unwashed hair under sunglasses and a bandana. But gradually, I became more comfortable. As I improved, I would be able to dress and do my hair and makeup before going. Sometimes, it may have been the only place I would go all day, but just having that one, five-minute reason to get ready was reason enough.

I am still actively battling my depression. I take meds and go to therapy and groups, do homework and practice skills to battle my anxiety. But now I can go places more easily. Getting ready and taking care of myself is a priority again, and not nearly as stressful. I have amazing support from my husband and family. But sometimes, something as silly as a pet bearded dragon can be a reason to be better. By taking care of Drogon, I got to practice taking care of myself, and found something to make me smile when my day is dark. Having my little buddy helps me feel more normal again, and that makes me one proud Mother of Dragons.

The author with Drogon, her pet bearded dragon

Originally published: May 21, 2016
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