How My Dog Saved My Life When My PTSD Hit
On February 27, 2016, Doug came into my life. He was rescued from a high-kill shelter in Alabama and came into the picture with viral and bacterial ear infections, heartworm and stomach parasites. It was heartbreaking to see my sweet, gentle giant painfully living with so many health problems. With the help of some wonderful veterinarians and a lot of TLC, he eventually bounced back and received a perfect bill of health. After a rather difficult start, my nurturing and protective instincts were on full-blast. Doug was my baby and I would do anything to make him healthy, happy and safe. I didn’t realize until later the feeling was mutual.
Doug’s serendipitous arrival came shortly before a time of great upheaval in my life. Unbeknownst to me, I was struggling with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from an abusive relationship. Shortly after adopting Doug, I began experiencing severe anxiety that included hypervigilance, social isolation, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, depression and suicidal ideations. Slowly but surely, it began taking over my life. I regularly had panic attacks where my throat would feel like it was closing and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t work, couldn’t leave the house. I didn’t know what was wrong with me and I felt worthless and hopeless. I was convinced I was a burden and I no longer wanted to live. Through it all, Doug was there.
Whenever I would have a panic attack, he would lick my face over and over again until he couldn’t taste any more tears. On the days when I couldn’t get out of bed, he would curl up with his warm body pressed up against me. When I could finally muster the courage to get up, he would jump up, too, joyful and exuberant, as if he was celebrating my small victory alongside me. His unconditional love and zest for life is what kept that small spark of light flickering within me.
I was able to give the care and love to Doug that I wasn’t able to give myself. It didn’t feel worth it to get out of bed to eat, but I always had the strength to get up to feed my baby. I was too anxious to go out and be around people, but I always found the courage to take him for a walk. Being outside in the open triggered feelings of extreme anxiety and hypervigilance, but I focused on Doug and the joy it gave him. Watching his proud little paws trotting beside me, looking up at me every so often with those big brown eyes full of love helped take me out of my feelings of panic.
During that dark time of fear and hopelessness, his well-being and happiness were the only things I was able to care about. He was my lifeline and I hung onto him with all my might. I was determined he would not suffer due to my shortcomings. The desire to give him a happy life was what kept me afloat. I was able to love Doug in a way I wasn’t able to love myself.
Day after day, I watched him live completely in the present, carefree and unassuming as he joyfully took in the world around him. He would happily trot up to anyone with his infectious sweetness and he easily made friends. I began to remember I used to be outgoing like that, too. I began to hope maybe since I was like that before, I could be like that again. At some point along the way, I decided I was going to try and be more like Doug.
Pets can have a tremendous impact on both mental health and quality of life and the proof is in the research. One study showed owners’ oxytocin levels (otherwise known as the “love hormone”) shot up 300% while talking to and playing with their dogs. During those low moments when I felt alone and utterly worthless, getting a toy thrown in my lap was a reminder to take myself out of my head and try and focus on the present. Every interaction with Doug, whether we were cuddling or playing, helped to lift the fear and darkness and remind me I was loved.
Studies have also shown animals can ease the feelings of loneliness, worthlessness and isolation that manifest in patients with depression by giving their humans a sense of purpose, companionship and confidence. Doug made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Knowing I was responsible for his well-being is what gave me a purpose to keep going. Seeing him happy and healthy gave me confidence knowing I was at least doing something right, despite feeling like the rest of my life was falling apart.
Pets not only provide a sense of companionship, but can also help to facilitate social contact with others as well. How often have you found yourself in a conversation with someone because your dog decided to trot up and say hello? At the height of my PTSD, Doug’s social nature and penchant for making friends was the bane of my existence, but thanks to my best buddy, I soon realized I had nothing to fear and began to feel more and more at ease connecting with people.
I don’t think I’m the only person who feels like their dog is the best thing to ever happen to them. Doug gave me a lifeline to cling to when all other signs were pointing toward hopelessness. He was the reason I would force myself out of bed and the reason I was able to begin taking those baby steps toward recovery. He is the ultimate guru, teaching me every day by example how to be present and live in the moment.
Thanks to him, I have rediscovered my love for connecting with others. Watching him mull around outside and stick his little nose up to smell the air reminds me to take a deep breath and appreciate the simple things in life. Throughout my recovery, I have been grateful to learn a lot about healing from many wonderful people. My favorite teacher though, is and will forever be my best friend, Doug.
Original photo by author