black therapy dog with pointy ears laying on side raising head with one eye closed while covered in dry grass

My Unofficial Therapy Dog

I’ve started bringing my dog to therapy. Does she sit with me and look patiently into my eyes while I cry? No, definitely not. She spends 10 minutes wandering around, smelling the smells of the week with great vigor. She pokes the diffuser with her nose, sticks her whole head in the trash can, and squeeeezes behind my therapist’s chair to not-so-sneakily smell her belongings. Then, she goes back and forth between the window and relaxing on the rug, ears perked up, listening for outside sounds. She comes over to me for pets and cookies every once in a while, but mostly, she’s just nice to have around as my unofficial therapy dog. She’s completely oblivious to my human problems. Looking at her blissful ignorance during therapy is like a brain palate cleanser.

You can’t help but wonder what she thinks of this development. Here we are, in this room we come to sometimes for no discernible reason. Pretty comfy. New smells since last week. 8/10. Would be better if I got second dinner. All that matters to her is that I feed her, walk her, and let her sleep at the foot of my bed. She’s a simple creature – intensely curious and frustratingly smart – but simple in that she really doesn’t need a lot to be happy.

She shares some of that innocent joy with me. She makes me smile every single day. It doesn’t matter how depressed I am – she does something goofy or sweet and has no clue that I find her antics ridiculous. Like how she leads with her face when encountering snowdrifts, or her exasperation at me taking constant photos of her, or the many, many hilarious faces of Sleeping Stella.

Sometimes, when I try to change something in my treatment(s), my depression says, “No, thank you.” Changing my medications has not gone well for me in the past, but I continue to clutch my personal dream of reducing the number of things I pick up from the pharmacy. I recently added a drug which required me to get off of something else, which overall, does not seem to have gone well. The options now are complicated and I don’t particularly like any of them, but I still have Stella! The routine, obligatory outdoor time, and turbo-boosted zoomies have done me immeasurable good. She demands my attention and action, and there’s really no telling her to just go entertain herself. Our walks are sacrosanct to her. No replacements. And no skimping on length, either!

This was part of my goal in adopting her, and it worked in more ways than just the responsibility of it. I thought that it would be healthy for me to be forced to get out of bed and do things, but that the emotional reward of that would come during my good times. I wasn’t expecting my unofficial therapy dog to be able to careen through the fog of my depression and make me smile every single day. A smile or laugh every day certainly doesn’t fix everything, but it’s something to be thankful for.

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“We’re snuggling! This’ll be cute.”

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Anxiety is Keeping Me Awake

And I love it. Well, “love” is too strong, but I have distinctly positive feelings about this change in my depression. From the outside, it may sound amazing to take a four-hour nap every day. Living it is a different matter. When you’re absolutely exhausted all the time and you crawl into bed simply because you don’t want to exist as a conscious person anymore, it’s not rejuvenating. When you go to sleep because you just want the day to be over and at least that way, you won’t perceive the passage of time, it’s not indulgent self-care. Instead, it’s just a black hole siphoning days, weeks, months of your life away from you. So, when you suddenly have every precious second of the day to be awake, it’s wonderful – and a little bit uncomfortable.

Wellbutrin is what’s still making me anxious – a side effect that Google says goes away within a week or two. Not so, for me, although hopefully, for a more complex reason. When I started taking propranolol, a beta blocker, to counteract the anxiety and jitters, I hoped that I could start to really enjoy my improved motivation. I’ve been mostly feeling like it arose solely as a product of anxiety that propels me from distraction to distraction. Instead, I encountered a strange result. Two propranolol per day had minimal effect, but three made me so shaky that I struggled to type or to use a spoon. This is weird, and not at all what’s supposed to happen. Perhaps I had a paradoxical reaction to it, but it’s hard to say. As for the anxiety, my psychiatric nurse practitioner theorized that the addition of Wellbutrin made for three medications in my list that deal with norepinephrine. I was making too much of it, essentially leaving me constantly primed for fight or flight. I’m now tapering down on one of those meds in preparation to increase the Wellbutrin.

Although the anxiety is improving, it still keeps me from napping most days. It’s that odd combination of being tired and full of energy at the same time. I want to close my eyes and rest, but it kind of feels like my trachea is the size of a large straw, and I can feel my heartbeat in my ears. It’s a tug-of-war between depression, which still votes in favor of sleep, and anxiety, which votes for frantic activity. Consequently, many of my days feel much longer than they used to because I’m unable to sleep. I’m still not as interested in my, well, interests as I used to be, so although I have this itch to be active, nothing seems quite right. The anxiety is also not nice, but it is a novel experience to be conscious for an entire day. There are so many hours to pass!

In an example day, I’ve:

  • fixed my clogged bathroom sink
  • drawn some potted plants
  • accomplished my part-time work in one sitting
  • refilled the bird feeder
  • took the dog to the vet
  • *perused the web for “doggles”
  • went for a walk

There have been some recent days that included naps, but on the whole, I’m pleased with my daily awakeness. Now to try not to go too far in this direction and become more anxious that I’m only doing very minimal activity and it somehow feels like a lot to me. Don’t. Over. Think. It.

*Doggles, or dog goggles, are on my shopping list because my dog, Stella, habitually develops eye infections, likely in the course of her high-speed, full-contact dog park outings. The doggles are for her to wear while we play fetch, silly as that is. But hey – ten bucks for doggles, or $180 for each vet trip? They also look awesome.

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It’s hard to get photos of dogs playing that don’t look terrifying, but I swear, this is Stella and Tugs having a great time. Imagine how cool they would look with doggles.

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Depression on Fast-Forward

Being anxious and depressed at the same time feels like a mental contradiction. I feel mismatched, like my head and my body are going at different speeds. Many times during a day, depression tells me I’d like to sit and do nothing, but my body impolitely declines that option. I feel an almost constant low level of adrenaline, like someone jumps out of a closet and startles me 15 times a day.

Still, for me, this level of anxiety is vastly preferable to the hibernation I was doing before Wellbutrin. At least now, I have more motivation to stay out of bed and put my energy towards something productive. I feel more like a regular human who can get stuff done, as long as I can focus long enough to do it. I’ve decided to call this combination of symptoms “Depression on Fast-Forward”. If these were potatoes, they’d be hot potatoes, never in one hand for very long. Sometimes, they fall on the floor and split open, to later be relegated to the bin.

Distractions are helpful, as I wrote in my last post. My mom and I recently started cross-country skiing again, and wow, does it really shake your confidence in being proficient at standing upright. I fell five times on our first outing, and three times on our second outing, so I’m really improving on my wobbly wipeout score. That’s pretty good, I’d say.

I just recently figured out yet more issues with my pharmacy, so I’ll be able to try a beta blocker to help with the jitters. An added benefit of this is that it may help reduce my essential tremor. Upon hearing the news of my upcoming fine motor skills, my mom said, “You could do eye surgery!” And I said, “That is what’s holding me back from my love of eyeball operations.” My tremor has worsened in recent years, probably due to the lithium I take for depression, which is totally worth it, but still annoying. Sometimes, if I wake up very suddenly, I find my hands shaking so badly that I can’t unlock my phone. It’s somewhat disturbing, but again- worth it.

Depression on Fast-Forward is troublesome. I’m more active, but most of it is hollow. The bigger things I’m doing, like skiing with my mom, feel meaningful, but the rest of my time…not so much. Well, except for all of the puppies I’ve met lately. They were all amazingly, infectiously joyous creatures. That’s the solution – I need more puppies.

Fighting Anxiety with Purposeful Action

When my depression lifts, I often suffer from a kind of aimless anxiety that seems to have no discernable cause. Unfortunately, I also get anxious about how long I’ve been putting off large goals. Double anxiety. Having recently started taking Wellbutrin, I’m also dealing with the jitters. Triple anxiety. Luckily, feeling less depressed gives me newfound motivation and energy. I’ve been putting that motivation to use in an effort to calm my anxiety.

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I’ve been writing more, for one thing. I’m much more motivated to be creative when my mood is ok. And, maybe the cortisol increases my typing speed. Gotta get that words per minute rate up, right?

I’ve also been renewing my dog training efforts. I work with Stella on our daily walks to teach her polite leash walking skills. I generally let her wander the length of the leash and sniff around. She knows not to pull (too much), but I’d like her to walk at my side on command. We’re definitely making progress. In a silly-but-functional goal, I’m also attempting to train her to open her mouth on command and let me brush her teeth without her writhing around like an unearthed worm. It’s ambitious, but hey – they teach hippos at the zoo to do that. Surely, Stella is smarter than a hippo.

Tackling tasks that I’m already comfortable with, like walking the dog or writing something, is one thing. It’s a great way to distract myself from anxiety that I can’t address at the source. But tackling the anxiety that comes from avoiding something is different. When I’m anxious about something large – something that I perceive as a big step – I’m paralyzed. If you struggle with procrastination, you might relate to this. The thing is scary, so you avoid the thing, which makes you anxious because you haven’t done the thing yet, but the cycle continues. The more you avoid it, the bigger and scarier it becomes in your mind.

These are the two sides to the “big step anxiety” coin for me. There’s the anxiety of doing the thing, and the anxiety of knowing I’m putting it off. Usually, I remain inactive until the latter anxiety outweighs the former. At that point, I’m forced to examine the steps I’ll need to take in order to alleviate the discomfort of procrastination. I have this problem where I jump ahead to the end goal and get overwhelmed by all the steps in between. Even though I know that I can break it down and do a little at a time, it feels like a big commitment to get started because I know that I’ll have to do all of the hard parts at some point.

I have a lot to work on in this department, so I’m obviously not the picture of success (yet). What I do know is that in the same way that purposeful action helps me deal with general anxiety, getting started on something I’ve been putting off usually feels better than procrastinating. Having a direction to go in, as long as I can get my motivation past some undetermined threshold, is comforting. I like structure. It helps me organize myself and not do that thing where I skip to the end and get overwhelmed. (It helps a little. I always do that thing).

By procrastinating, you’re suffering both sides of the anxiety coin. Rationally, you can save yourself some stress by chipping away at unpleasant tasks bit by bit, right away. Too bad people are not always rational, and avoiding immediate pain is more attractive than choosing the benefit of the long view. So in essence, fight human nature, beat back entropy, and go conquer your goals! Boom. Fixed procrastination.

Mental Health is More Important Than Academic Success

Growing up, I was always motivated by grades. I liked having that definitive mark to indicate whether I did well or not. Clearly, the beginnings of my perfectionistic tendencies go way back. Even in middle school, I remember carrying around a lot of anxiety about tests and grades. When I got to college, I was excited to be focusing more time on my interests – biology and anthropology – but the pressures of academia and my budding mental health issues wore me down.

Still, I was determined to do well. I had learned that I could earn good grades if I just put in enough work, even in subjects that didn’t come naturally to me. School was what I knew, and I felt tantalizingly close to the finish line. So, when I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in the middle of my college career, I didn’t slow my progress down. Like many students, I simply forced myself to put my mental and physical health behind academic success.

At its worst, I went back and forth from my bed, desk, and class, taking naps when necessary but skipping meals and forgoing social interaction to conserve emotional energy. I thought about suicide a lot. I had several plans in mind, and I kept the worst of it from my therapist, fearing that she would force me to go to the hospital. The worst part of that potential event, in my mind, was missing class and falling behind. When I look at photos of myself from this time, I remember how forced it often felt to smile. Even on graduation day, I didn’t look happy; I just looked exhausted.

I hoped that if I could just make it to graduation and go home, I could rest and recover, and my mental health would improve. Instead, the sudden lack of structure combined with my admittedly fragile emotional state made things much worse. I tried – for months, I went diligently to therapy and attempted to pull myself out of my depression, but ultimately slipped back into suicidality. I was hospitalized for over a week, then released on condition that I do a partial hospitalization program for two more weeks.

I don’t know that all of that was caused by the stress of college. I am in my early twenties, when many mental illnesses make their presence known, so it’s possible that my symptoms would have been just as severe had I not gone to college at all. But I suspect that my perfectionism surrounding academics and the pressure I put on myself to succeed made an already risky situation worse.

When I can find compassion for myself these days, it makes me sad that I treated myself so poorly. Yes, I got a good GPA, but at what cost? To imagine anyone else doing what I did – valuing their academic success over their own life – is unbelievably sad. There is no grade that matters more than your wellbeing. I’m not exactly sure how my perspective was so narrow for so long. I knew that I could have taken a semester off – my mom suggested it, once – but I was vehemently opposed. I didn’t want to fall behind my peers. The thought of returning to campus without my friends made me anxious, and it left a vaguely shameful feeling in my chest. To take a semester off felt like a failure to me. That was my perfectionism speaking. There is absolutely nothing wrong or bad about taking a semester off. Or two. Or however many you need.

If I could go back, I would do things differently. I did love my majors – I would keep those. In fact, finding subjects that sparked my curiosity was a positive force on my mental health. Knowing that I had something to use in a career gave me a sliver of hope that was enough to let me imagine a future in which I wasn’t depressed. But two majors in four years is hard. I took a lot of credits each semester, and there was no way to avoid pairing difficult classes together. If I could go back, I would do it all more slowly. I’d take fewer credits per semester and accept that it would take me longer than four years. I’d also apply for accommodations. Beyond the assistance of longer exam times, it would have been nice to have my professors in the loop about my depression.

A lot of my perfectionism surrounding academics existed long before college, but there is something to be said for the culture that permeates my alma mater. There’s a sort of competitiveness among perfectionistic students for who can push themselves the hardest. If you say you’re stressed, people ask you how many credits you’re taking, as if your stress doesn’t count unless your course load is full. It’s not stated outright, but the general atmosphere is one of suffering-related humblebragging. If you’re stressed, it means you’re pushing yourself. If you’re not stressed, you might be slacking. Again – I love my university, and I’m proud to have gotten my degree there. People are motivated to achieve at Michigan, which is wonderful. That said, the limitless pressure to succeed can be dangerous.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college-age people in the US, and its rate is increasing. Around 1,000 college students die by suicide each year. When young people are off at college, often away from home for the first time, they’re vulnerable to the prevailing ideas. Submerged in a competitive culture, it’s easy for students to believe that their future will be ruined by a bad grade. And I get it – students have plans beyond college that require top-notch GPAs. For a while, I thought that veterinary school would be my next step. Instead, my plans seemed to come to a screeching halt after college. Depression has altered my life enormously. If I could talk to sophomore me, I’d say, “I haven’t gone to grad school, but my life is not ruined.” Through the waves of depression, I catch glimpses of what really matters, and none of it is a letter grade or a GPA. I think I have a healthier perspective on life and academics now.

I sincerely believe that most of my depression is biochemical. That said, I’m pretty sure my college experience sped up the decline in my mental health significantly. Again – I don’t regret going to college, but I do think that if I had taken time to consider my innate traits, really thought about the stresses of being a highly introverted person at a university with more than 40,000 students, things might be different for me today. I did my best at the time, but I wish that I had honored those parts of myself; the quiet parts, the parts that need calm and routine, which were frazzled and burnt out after four years of high pressure. My sensory differences made the pace of life I’d chosen at university unsustainable, and by the time I graduated, I had an almost constant low level of vertigo, loud noises made me cry, and lots of movement in my visual field (like in a busy dining hall or a crowded hallway) made me disoriented.

I would encourage anyone who is pursuing a degree now or considering doing so to remember that it’s your education and your life. Everyone goes at their own pace, and what anyone else thinks about your pace doesn’t matter. Furthermore, what you think other people are thinking is likely more harsh than the reality. Taking care of yourself and your mental health is not always easy, and going against the grain takes courage. Think about the resources and environments that would support you and seek them out. Make friends who understand you, and above all, put your health first.

(There were parts of college that I really loved. The friends I made and the things I learned were priceless. Football games, waffles, fancy events at my dorm, exploring campus – there are tons of great things about college! I didn’t intend for this post to turn out so dark. It’s all about moderation.)

Watching rotund squirrels eat nonspecific trash was always fun, too.

Overcoming Phone Anxiety, One Vet Trip at a Time

I hate making phone calls. A strange sort of performance anxiety makes me script it out in my mind and practice over and over with the number dialed in, waiting for me to hit the call button. I never feel ready. Eventually, I get so fed up with myself that I have to just press the button and hope that my verbal skills are adequate for getting me through the act of ordering delivery or making an appointment or whatever it is. And, they are. I’m not actually bad at phone calls. I don’t think I’ve ever had a call that validated my fear – that I’ll just forget how to talk and have to hang up after embarrassing myself with gibberish. Once I’m on the phone with someone, it usually goes smoothly. For whatever reason, the lead-up is the worst part.

I’ve had to call the vet numerous times in my two short years as a dog owner. My dog, Stella, is what you’d call “high-energy.”

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Zoomies around the couch.

She needs activity, either vigorous exercise or a long, meandering “smell outing,” as I call them. (There’s not much walking. It’s mostly smelling.) She gets into a lot of weird, wonderful stuff outside – sometimes she puts it in her mouth, sometimes she rolls on it. She plays fetch with reckless abandon – skidding to a stop or wiping out in a cloud of dust. Stella’s ability to seek out disgusting, physically risky situations is pretty incredible. First, it was giardia. Then, it was an eye infection. Then tapeworms, then another eye infection, kennel cough, a bloody, broken nail, and finally, another eye infection. Actually, this time she had an ulcer on her eye. Yowch. When I woke up and saw her swollen, watery, goop-laden eye, it wasn’t hard to pick up the phone.

I think it’s common to feel braver when you’re doing something for someone else than when doing the same thing for yourself. It’s easier to give up when the only one impacted will be you. When you’re being depended upon, either by volunteering to help or because it’s your responsibility, there’s much less room to waffle. I’ve found that in calling the vet for vaccinations, checkups, eye infections (ugh!) my anxiety is dramatically reduced because I don’t consider it an optional task. When I have to do it, I have to do it; there’s no point in waiting.

I also find an extra boost of authority in advocating for someone else. It’s like I’m calling up the vet and saying “Ah, yes. I’m calling on behalf of my dog. She… doesn’t know how to talk, so I promised to call for her.” And then it’s like I’m not even a part of the phone call. I’m just a proxy for a four-legged creature with a goopy eye.

I think I might start using that when I have to make other phone calls. I’ll just imagine that I’m calling on behalf of my anxious self, who I promised to take care of. “Yes, hello? I’m calling about Gen’s prescriptions. Yeah, she’s overthinking right now and can’t come to the phone.” I’ll be her more courageous counterpart. She needs me, poor thing.

I know people who use this tactic for public speaking – pretend you’re someone else. You’re playing a character. That way, the attention isn’t actually on you, because you’re not really being yourself. It’s an interesting little mental trick that, I’d imagine, takes a lot of commitment to pull off.

For a while, I thought that my anxiety about phone calls was because of the lack of visual social cues. It seemed like the potential for misunderstanding or blundering mistakes was higher when I couldn’t see the person I was talking to. But why, then, wouldn’t texting make me anxious? The written word is where I’m most comfortable, mostly because it gives me time to think through what I want to say and edit before I hit “send.” Maybe that advantage outweighs the anxiety of not being able to see the recipient of my words.

In any case, I hope that Stella chooses to be a little more cautious in the future. But if not, I’m prepared to call the vet for her, seeing as I’ve had plenty of practice.

A “low-energy” moment

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Therapy Code Words

Unfortunately for me and my therapist, my ability to write words does not always translate well to being able to speak them. I need time to think through an entire thought before I speak it, and I struggle sometimes to get the words out when the topic is something challenging. And not just for sensitive topics like self-harm or suicide, but even for topics like life goals.

In fact, the word “goals” makes my stomach twist. I feel so much internal pressure when it comes to my ambitions that any discussion of the topic overwhelms me. It’s as if I know that once I start really acting to reach my goals, I’ll have to go all out because I don’t know how to not do something 100%. And that’s overwhelming. And unrealistic. So I try to avoid talking about it or thinking about it beyond my daily sense of guilt for not “doing more.”

It goes without saying that I don’t like this. Goals are important, and they should be exciting, not something you dread. Yes, they often take hard work to reach, but I think the balance of work to reward should be worth it. I don’t want to put in work just to alleviate an unhealthy internal pressure; I’d rather work for something because I want the excitement and fun and pride of achieving the thing. Depression makes this hard. Excitement and fun and pride are not feelings that depression wants around. So, I find myself terrified of adding more to my plate and pursuing my goals, and terrified that I’ll do nothing and fall even more behind my self-imposed schedule. Trapped in between the two, “goals” is a scary word.

Here’s where the code word comes in. Instead of “goals,” my therapist and I talk about “clams.”

It’s groundbreaking, I know.

There’s no significance to clams, it was just the first word my therapist thought of, but it stuck. Much like the Potato Scale of Depression is useful in its humor, “clams” are somehow easier to talk about because of the silliness. It takes away the gravity of having a discussion about goals and replaces it with a lighthearted conversation about a bivalve often eaten with a lemon-butter sauce.

And this is how I want my goals to be. Not so scary. Not so enormous. Just little steps to bigger results, like shucking one clam at a time to make a chowder.

Photo: Andy Castille – @kikini