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When Nothing Else Was Helping My PTSD, Getting a Dog Saved Me

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Four years ago, I was a freshman at a well-known university studying nursing. My life wasn’t perfect, but I had a bright future ahead of me. I struggled with anxiety, depression, self-harm and an eating disorder. Despite my mental illness, I was able to finish the semester with a 3.94 GPA. Still, my anxiety got the best of me and I decided to transfer to a university closer to home.

• What is PTSD?

That’s when things quickly went downhill.

During my first semester at the new university, I joined a volunteer ambulance company and got my EMT certification. At the same time, I was taking 18 credits of difficult classes and was way over my head. One night during my sophomore year, I decided to try and de-stress by going to a campus party with a friend. I turned to beer to try and drink my anxieties away.

A few hours into the party, I was sexually assaulted by someone who I had known and trusted.

After that night, my battle with mental illness was no longer under control. I developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and often skipped classes and exams because I was too scared to leave my dorm room. I put all my effort into volunteering at the ambulance company, hoping it would be a good distraction for the terrifying thoughts that flooded my head.

A few weeks later, I had a mental breakdown and went to the free mental health counselors on campus. I was immediately assigned a therapist and a psychiatrist and put on medication for my depression and anxiety. I was also given some sleeping pills for insomnia.

My PTSD was never addressed in my therapy sessions because I was too scared to talk about it. I blamed myself for drinking alcohol that night. I told myself I should have stayed in my room and studied instead. I felt disgusting and humiliated about what happened to my body.

Less than a week after my sophomore year was over, my self-harm got out of control. I cut myself too deeply and I couldn’t stop the bleeding. It wasn’t my first trip to the emergency room for stitches due to self-harm, but this was the first time I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

The psychiatric hospital was a nightmare. I received no therapy or help of any kind during the nine days I was there. I saw a psychiatrist only once during my intake assessment. There were only one or two activities each day, and they were things like arts and crafts or watching a movie. The bedrooms were locked during the daytime and the patients were asked to sit in yellow plastic chairs that were nailed to the floor in the day room. There was hardly anything to do to pass the time. The rest of my stay was just a waiting game until I was released.

The rest of the summer was a nightmare of anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, insomnia, binge eating followed by purging and bouts of intense depression. By the start of my junior year of college, my mental illness completely took over. I couldn’t concentrate, I was fearful of everyone and I was exhausted all the time, yet I could never sleep for more than a few short hours.

The second week of my junior year is when I finally had enough. I decided I couldn’t live like this anymore. I didn’t believe I could ever get better. I tried to shallow all of my prescription medication. I remember crying hysterically yet simultaneously feeling relieved that it was all about to be over.

My roommate found me and called 9-1-1. The ambulance company that took me to the hospital was the one I volunteered for. The friends I went to class with and volunteered with were the ones that kept me alive in the back of the ambulance. I have no memory of the ambulance ride. I don’t even know if I was conscious. I feel bad for the EMTs, who were my friends and saw me at my worst. They had no idea I was struggling so much.

I spent a long time in the ICU at the hospital with unstable vitals and abnormal heart rhythms. In the end, I made a full recovery before being transferred to another psychiatric facility. I guess my roommate found me just in time.

My suicide attempt was just the beginning of a long battle with severe mental illness. In the months and years following that awful day, I dropped out of college and spent a combined total of nearly 300 days in various psychiatric hospitals. I tried dozens of psychiatric medications, underwent multiple rounds of electroconvulsive therapy and attempted many different types of outpatient therapies.

During this dark period, I began a five-month long relationship with a guy who turned out to be abusive. He abused me physically, sexually and emotionally. He called me horrible names and made me believe no one else would ever want me. Sadly, I believed him. I was too deep in my mental illness to believe otherwise. Those five months of abuse only added to my PTSD. I don’t know what gave me the courage to leave that relationship, but I was eventually able to break up with him.

My battle with mental illness continued, and at one point, I spent so much time in a psychiatric hospital I was transferred to a long-term state hospital because the psychiatrists didn’t know what else to do with me. I had given up again. I had lost all hope. I was no longer willing to comply with treatment. I continued to self-harm and make threats of suicide, saying that I was never going to get better. I honestly believed I was never going to get better. I only spent eight days in the state hospital, when most people spent years there before getting released. I wasn’t lucky, though. Halfway through my short stay there, I was attacked by another patient and sexually assaulted. Flashbacks filled my head and I was consumed with terror. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me again, after everything I’ve already been through. I tried to tell the staff, but they brushed it off by saying that the patient “didn’t know any better.” I was horrified. About a year after it happened, I finally got the courage to file a formal report, but nothing happened. Once again, I was ashamed and disgusted by my own body.

In the spring of 2016, I was at a residential treatment center and I met a girl who had a psychiatric service dog who helped her with her PTSD. Previously, I thought PTSD service dogs were only for military veterans. I had no idea that they were also available for regular civilians with debilitating cases of PTSD, such as me.

After about six months of research, I decided to get my own PTSD service dog. My mental illness was so severe it prevented me from being able to keep a job or go to college. Often, I couldn’t even leave the house without a family member with me because I had such intense and constant fear coupled with severe panic attacks and flashbacks. Years of many medications and multiple forms of therapy had not worked, so I thought a service dog might give me the help that I so desperately needed. I decided to get a puppy that I would train myself with the help of a weekly private training session instead of having an agency fully train a dog for me. It was the most affordable option and would give me the opportunity to bond with the dog from the start.

On Sept. 15 of this year, I bought a 3-month-old black Labrador Retriever puppy who I named Lily. I was going to train her to be my psychiatric service dog. Lily and I instantly bonded. From that first day I got her, she gave me something I’ve never felt before — she gave me a purpose. She needed me, and I needed her.

The author holding a puppy

Since the day I took Lily home, we’ve practiced training every single day. She is still very young, but she is very intelligent and a quick learner. She’s so eager to please me, and she just melts my heart. We have our good days and our bad days, but overall Lily has been the best thing to happen to me in such a long time. When I have bad episodes of anxiety, Lily cuddles with me and instantly makes me feel calmer.

I cried during the first time that Lily sat on command. I had proof right in front of me that I was finally doing something right. Shortly after that, she learned to come when I called her name, lay down on command, roll over and so much more. I can’t wait to see what else she will be capable of in the future.

Lily still has a long way to go with her training. It will probably be about one to one and half years before she is a fully trained service dog. I’ve had her for about five weeks now. These past five weeks have been the longest period I’ve gone without having active suicidal thoughts. I now have a reason not to take my own life. I can’t leave Lily behind. She needs me just as much as I need her. When medication and therapy failed me, Lily saved my life.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 16, 2016
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