This piece was written for the website dogfuriendly.com, as part of their ‘mental awareness’ month.
It’s mid-morning on a Saturday and my panic attack is in full swing. It’s bad. The kind of panic attack that hits hard and fast, catching you by surprise and when you’re at your weakest.
Still in my pyjamas, I sit frozen on the sofa, a cup of half-drunk coffee in one hand. It’s like falling into cold, dark water; can’t see, can’t breathe, can’t think. The shaking gets worse, the room gets falls away and tears begin to roll down my face.
I can’t do this.
There are times when I’ve been stuck in an attack for minutes, sometimes for hours. But things are different now. Through the darkness, I feel the smallest movement, and I look down. The tiny ball of black and brown fur in my lap is squirming around. Four tiny paws appear, then a little nose, and then two big round eyes. The tiny puppy looks up at me and yawns. As I smile through my tears, I remember I don’t feel alone anymore.
That puppy is Coco. My accidental therapy dog.
Anxiety is a horrible thing to deal with, and to make it worse, I also have mild OCD. It’s hard to understand myself, and even harder to explain. I struggle to talk to people and worry constantly about what people think. I overthink about my appearance, my weight and whether people think I’m stupid or boring. At home, I get overwhelmed and anxious when I feel like the house is dirty or untidy, and I freak out about silly things like the bins or the doors being open or unlocked. Sometimes it seems like my life revolves around worrying and checking, checking and worrying. I detest going out on my own or doing things on my own, and I’ve been late for work or cancelled on friends because I’ve got so upset and anxious. Sometimes, when I’m in my darkest moods, I worry that I’ll never get better.
My husband works a lot and we always toyed with the idea of having a dog to keep me company at the weekend. But there never seemed a good time, and honestly, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Where would it sleep? Would I freak out picking up its poop? Would I get upset if it messed up the house? What if I put it in danger? What if it was sick? What if it made me sick? Worry, worry, stress, stress.
One weekend last year, my sister and I decided out of the blue that we would buy two puppies from the same litter, so they would always be together. Emma and her husband had recently lost their dog Clara, and they finally felt ready to have another little soul in their life, and it felt the right time for us too. It felt like weeks of planning passed by in a flash, and one sunny Sunday morning we were driving to Wales to collect our new puppy. A little King Charles Cavalier we had decided to call Coco. And honestly, I was terrified. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to take care of her properly, or I’d get freaked out and overwhelmed. Our home has always been our safe haven and my safe place, and now we were about to upset our whole routine by bringing a puppy into the house.
The breeder was right in the middle of beautiful countryside, on a farm full of animals and beautiful horses. Two older dogs came out to greet us, and their barking startled me. But my husband held my hand tightly and we went inside. And there she was, curled up in a ball on one of the sofas. A tiny little black and brown ball of fluff. What I didn’t know then what that she would become my little soulmate, and the answer to my prayers – in the way that only another dog owner can understand.
From that day one, Coco has helped me with every one of my little triggers. It’s as though somehow she knows. I got into the back of the car for the four-hour journey back home to Leicester, unsure what to do or how to act. But without a second thought, Coco crawled over to me and fell asleep in my arms. I was her new mum. Halfway home, she threw up in her basket, and instead of reeling in disgust (for fear of germs or being contaminated), I immediately set to like any other dog mother would, gently cleaning her fur and telling her she was okay. It was like a new autopilot button flicked on inside me, overriding all my panic alarms and alert systems.
Somehow, it feels like every time I falter, or struggle, she can see it and feel it. She didn’t want to sleep in her crate on the first night, instead choosing to snuggle up next to me. And when I woke up in the night, there she was, staring right back. In her first week in the house, I was alone one night and had an attack. I guess she’d never heard anyone crying like that before, so she ran up to me and barked in my face. She startled me so much I laughed.
I’ve officially been a dog owner for five months now, and I can feel myself changing slowly. I feel like looking after Coco has helped me deal with some of my trickier anxieties and triggers. The first few weeks were hard, like a crash course in parenting. Picking up poop, clearing up accidents, fishing out stones and sticks and anything else Coco could put into her mouth. Coming back from walks being covered in mud where she’d jumped up at me excitedly. But then my fear of the bin (and ‘bin juice’) and germs began to seem a little smaller. After all, I’d let my boundaries down and nothing had happened. I didn’t get sick. There was a little life that depended on me, and she came first.
Instead of lounging on the sofa feeling sorry for myself when I have a weekend alone to deal with, Coco and I and go out in the car and find lots of fun places to walk. I have a reason to get out of the house. A reason to go and exercise. And in turn, I’ve found myself worrying less about my weight, and my appearance. I can feel myself getting fitter. I love walking in the woods near our house, and I’ve been trying to make friends with the silence, and to embrace the quiet rather than fear it. To try and shut myself off from all the work stress and life worries and appearance self-loathing. Now I can close my mind down when Coco and I walk, the ideas have started to come back, and I find myself running back to the house to quickly jot down something I’ve thought of.
And as for struggling to talk to people, Coco has taken care of that too. When I carried her into a pub for the first time, three people came up to talk to us and give Coco some attention. I was terrified, but with Coco there it was okay. I’ve discovered a whole community of lovely people I never knew existed – dog owners. Genuinely nice people who like to stop and talk for a moment while our dogs say hello to each other. Even when I feel low and self-conscious, I try to talk to people when Coco and I are out walking together. And those conversations have really helped – it reminds me that people aren’t as judgemental and negative as I assume they are. In turn, it’s had a positive effect at work. Instead of hiding behind my desk, I’m finding it a little easier to go and speak to people and to try and smile and speak up.
I know I still have a long way to go to get rid of all the things that trigger my anxiety, and I’m not saying I’m cured by any means. I think there’s always a part of me that will struggle. But now I know when those dark times come again, there will be a little furball waiting to help me out. Even as I write this, she’s snuggled right by my side.