By Jeff Fink
I was a freshman in college when my journey with mental illness started. I was pretty outgoing at the time, always wanting to entertain people, even if it meant neglecting my own health. So, as I began experiencing symptoms of severe depression and anxiety, I felt compelled to hide – in bathrooms, my dorm room, anywhere I could escape to cry without others seeing me. While I had always been a worrier, my anxiety levels now shot through the roof, affecting my sleep, my ability to focus in class, and my ability to relate and socialize with classmates.
That was the start of over a decade and a half of struggle, during which I tried countless medications, many traditional and non-traditional therapies, as well as more invasive treatments, like Electric Shock Therapy and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. But no treatment had lasting success. My depressive episodes would often last for months at a time, rendering me unable to leave my room, with no desire to eat, and completely isolated from the world. Most people had no idea what I was going through – even my “close” friends didn’t know of my struggles because I didn’t want to be judged and didn’t want to be seen as being different. Living with a mood disorder is challenging enough, but if you add isolation and stigma to it, seeking out help and support can be an insurmountable challenge.
Then I met Earl.
Earl is a golden retriever, a service dog task trained to assist me with my mental health challenges. He is 5 years young and is known for his “snarls” which are his version of smiling. He is a lover of all foods, and his favorite healthy treats are carrots, cucumbers, and even greens! I trained Earl myself, as opposed to acquiring him from an organization that places service dogs. I did this for several reasons, including the long waiting periods, expense, and small number of organizations that focus on training psychiatric service dogs.
Earl helped me in ways I could not have imagined. After years of focusing on my illness, I was now focused on caring for something outside of myself. After feeling isolated for so long, I found much comfort in knowing that, with Earl by my side, I was never alone. What surprised me most of all was how much the human-animal connection rekindled my interest and ability to make human-to-human connections.
Having a dog, especially one that loves other people, has enabled me to meet people who are typically kind, empathetic, and caring. Earl sparks many interesting and enriching conversations with strangers who would never approach me if not for him. If I disclose that Earl is my psychiatric service dog, many will promptly share their own stories, or stories related to friends or family members who have experienced mental health challenges.
During my dark times, such connections were nearly impossible, and I found myself unable to speak to others because of the endless turmoil in my brain. I experienced only the terrible feelings of despair, hopelessness, and helplessness that were my constant companions.
As I opened up, I began to realize that I was not alone. Speaking openly and honestly about my own learned experience was healing in and of itself for me. At the same time, talking about my experience served as an important reminder to me that I can be vulnerable to setbacks, and that I must manage my mental wellness daily without becoming careless, unguarded, or nonchalant during times of stability and wellness.
While life is different for me now, I still have bad days where I don’t want to interact, or feel anxious or depressed. Because of Earl, I don’t have time to allow these situations to worsen into a downward spiral. My responsibilities to him keep me moving forward. I do my best to eat properly, stay hydrated, exercise, relax at times, and avoid stressful situations to the extent possible. I try to remain in the present moment and refrain from ruminating about things that are beyond my control.
The best part is that I have enjoyed a new beginning I never thought possible. I now have good feelings of self-worth and find purpose in knowing that I have a story to share which I hope will continue to help others in a significant way.
To learn about integrating an animal into your own mental wellness plan, visit Jeff’s website: gofetchwellness.com
Jeff Fink is the founder of Go Fetch Wellness, an organization dedicated to educating, advocating, and facilitating the integration of animals into mental health and addiction recovery. Alongside his service dog, Earl, Jeff’s work includes presentations, staff trainings, animal placement, and consulting.