How my dog taught me to manage my depression
It’s well known among my family and friends that I suffer from depression. I always have and over the years it’s got the better of me to the point where, once or twice, I’ve seriously considered suicide. I don’t write that sentence lightly, but when you’ve stopped yourself jumping in front of the 09.32 to London Victoria at the last moment, then worked so hard to make sure you’re never in that state again, I reckon you’ve earned the right to talk about it at least.
Now, at the age of 52 I’ve finally been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Hooray! No, seriously, hooray and three cheers for a diagnosis I say because, now I know for sure what I’m dealing with.
For decades I’ve been the one in the family who started businesses for no good reason. Quit well paid jobs because I was convinced, CONVINCED I TELL YA, that I was on to the next big thing and by this time next year I would be a millionaire! I made bad decisions and risky choices. These manic highs, the grandiose ideas went on for months. I’m very lucky I managed to dig myself out of the mess I made frankly, sometimes only escaping bankruptcy by the skin of my teeth.
Then, from the pinnacle of the high I’d been living on I would gracefully tip forward, oh so slowly, and swan dive 100 stories onto the concrete pavement of depression below. I’d take up residence on the sofa, or in bed, while a large, warm, imaginary hand pressed me gently but firmly into the soft surface. And that was perfect, because the last thing I wanted to do was get up and work. Or eat. Or even wash for that matter.
The roller coaster ride that is bipolar can be a lonely, frightening place. Financially, physically, and emotionally, especially when you reach the point where you don’t think the low you’re in is ever going to end, and that you’ll be living on the streets if you can’t get a grip on it soon. Luckily it always ends and there follows a period of even(ish) calm.
So, what’s all this got to do with dogs?
Well, for the past four and a half years I’ve had the pleasure of sharing my life with Nikita, a delightful little crossbreed. She was found starving on the streets of Bulgaria, rescued by a charity and eventually adopted by yours truly. And I can’t begin to describe the difference she has made to my life and state of mind just by being a dog.
It means a lot to me that I try to manage my bipolar through lifestyle changes rather than medication. I’m lucky in that I’m only moderately bipolar so this may be feasible, only time and hard work will tell. But if I can avoid mood stabilisers I surely will. This means serious changes to the way I live: work sensible hours, develop a routine, exercise regularly, eat properly, avoid stress, get plenty of sleep. Having a dog strong-arms you into a routine which is conducive to all of the above and hopefully off the pills.
Let’s take them one by one.
Routine - Dogs are just happy to hang out with you
Nikita is now teaching me what it is to live by a sensible routine. She’s such a creature of habit: “Ok, I need a wee first thing, after that you can have a shower (I don’t need one, I smell fabulous), then we go to the park and I get to sniff about. We come home, we eat breakfast, you work for what seems like an eternity (what do you do anyway?) then we go out for the big walk, and after that it’s my tea, then snooze. OK?” That’s her day, and because of that I’ve had to take a serious look at my own life just to accommodate her. It’s doing me the world of good. No more days on end working in my PJs, not seeing anyone, or getting out and about.
Regular exercise - You have to walk a dog.
Even if they only need a steady 20 minutes a couple of times a day you’re still dressed and upright. And no matter how hostile you feel about going out on a dreary Sunday morning, when what you really want is to relax with a bacon sandwich, in a warm bed with the papers, no one ever came back from a walk on the Downs feeling worse than when they went out. It’s not just the achievement itself, there’s the fresh air, the views, the other dog walkers who fancy a chat, and the happy wagging tail which bobs about while she tries, and fails, to get her chops around a squirrel. Making a dog happy makes us feel better.
When your mind is racing, overwhelmed by overthinking, and the tsunami of the mundane, everyday tasks: cooking, cleaning, working, washing clothes, pleasing people, paying the bills, getting the car serviced, making a dentist appointment, making time for others…….blah, blah, blah relentlessly, there is nothing better than taking the dog for a walk. Even if it feels like just another job on top of all the other jobs, once you’re out and walking your inside voice backs off and everything calms down, just a notch.
Work hours and stress - Dogs are happy to see you
Having a dog waiting for you at home means you simply can’t work stupid hours any longer. I’m lucky in that I now work from home most of the time, but I still can’t do a 12 hour day without a break. We both need exercise, time out, and feeding. It’s called self care but I never saw it as that until recently. I thought “If I’m not at my desk building my business then what am I for?” What’s that about?
There is no finer thing in life than coming home after a drag of a day, or shutting down your computer, to find the dog squealing with excitement because you’re now here and present. Even when I’m in a pit of despair, when the thought of tying shoelaces drains me of what little energy I have left, seeing Nikita bounding about (with one eye on her lead and the other on me) lifts my spirits like nothing else. Her life is simple, mindful even, she lives in the moment. “My human is back! I’m so happy! Sure, she’d love a walk, but that’s pretty much all she wants. I’m not expecting her to pick a fight for no good reason any time soon. Her needs are simple.
Often I find us just sitting together while I read a book, or just have a think, or look at the view. Other times we’ll just play a game for five minutes until she gets bored and walks away. It’s only five minutes but I can’t tell you what it does for your head.
Sleep - Dogs need lots of it
Because dogs don’t sleep deeply for hours in the way we do they need more sleep than us, but they’re always alert. Look at your dog in her basket, are her ears still pricked up? Does she crack an eye open when someone goes to the kitchen? She may not be the best guard dog in the world but I bet she can hear the lead being taken off the coat hook at a 100 paces.
A good diet - Dogs need to eat well.
When I’m down, or stressed, or tired, or all three I crave carbs and sugar. They get me through the day but they’re also responsible for leaving me feeling down, stressed and tired in the first place.
Nikita on the other hand has the diet of a champion and never puts on an ounce of weight. She often eats better than I do and I’m learning to feed and look after myself with the same diligence I afford her.
She needs a balanced diet and a healthy gut to keep her immune system strong so she’s not tired all the time, gaining weight, and generally whiffy. Granted, she’s welcome to her Natural Instinct raw dinner, I’m not a fan of the Pure Green Tripe personally, but she loves it.
I know it’s a routine I repeat every day, and sometimes it’s the last thing I want to do, but when Nikita’s had a good day - decent exercise, a good sniff, a healthy meal - and we’re all settled in for the night I can feel proud of myself, that I’ve looked after us for another day and we’re both alright.
And when I’m giving myself a hard time, as we depressed over achievers often do, I repeat my mantra “everyone’s fed, no one’s dead!” and I chill right out. Try it.