Today, and the fact that it is (at this writing) International Cat Day really got me inspired to share something that is so important to me. Mainly, the importance of Emotional Support Animals.
I try, in most cases, to be as honest and open as possible when it comes to mental health. I’m happy about the recent media attention issues of mental health are getting, but so deeply sad about the things that had to happen to get us there. It’s a very dense and complicated issue, and with so much media coverage it’s hard to ignore. I’m hoping that we can now all have more open conversations about it, though.
Basically, this post is a long-winded way of explaining my own understanding of and struggles with mental illness and a therapy I’ve found that helps me cope – my Emotional Support Animal (ESA).
During my first year of college, I was diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety and put on a dose of antidepressants. This past year, I was also diagnosed as bipolar and added mood stabilizers into the mix. I have spent a lot of time coping with and figuring out how these different diagnoses impact my life. Its tireless and unforgiving work, trying to constantly change and rewire the way your brain works.
The way I experience bipolar symptoms, like any mental illness, may differ from person to person, but in my case, one of the most helpful things with coping has been my ESA – A cat named Kiwi.
I brought Kiwi home on May 28th, and have noticed a lot of subtle changes. By simply being with me, she brings me out of mood swings and levels me out. She brings my heart rate down. Sometimes, at my worst moments, she reminds me why I need to stay alive.
I went through a process where my landlord questioned my illness – and my character. I was essentially accused of lying and had to jump through hoops to ‘prove’ I was sick. It was incredibly humiliating and difficult to explain. Trying to explain to someone who doesn’t suffer from the same symptoms, and who doesn’t struggle to get through each day, is difficult, to say the least. I wanted to email him back and ask, “would you like to be me?”
Living with mental illness is something that is inherent in my life. It’s shaped me and changed me, and along the way, I’ve healed. I started to understand things about myself that I didn’t before, and learned how to shift my thinking when it got dangerous. The everyday effort though, of just getting through the day, requires meds, therapy, and Kiwi.
To question someone’s ‘need’ for an ESA (which happens quite frequently) is rude and offensive. To hear people complain about ESA certification as being a way to “just bring your pet anywhere” is so farfetched it is almost comical. I’ve heard these same arguments a few times, and they never cease to get my blood boiling.
Part of this lack of understanding, though, comes from the (very few) people who abuse the ESA system. On a recent trip down to New York, I was seated in the waiting area of the airport near a couple with a large brown lab. The man holding the dog’s leash was talking to an older couple across from them, who had complimented the dog’s calm disposition and friendly demeanor. While I don’t make it a habit to listen into other people’s conversations, I did happen to overhear this man say: “Just have your doctor write you a letter. Everyone has anxiety”. When boarding started, the perfectly able-bodied man and his dog boarded in the “people with disabilities” category. It was an experience that frustrated me so much because it shows exactly why so many people don’t trust or believe that ESA’s are legitimate. This man, in his careless conversation, essentially fueled the fire for the argument against ESA’s.
During times when people struggle with symptoms or the effects of their mental illness, animals are nonjudgemental and show love unconditionally. When even being around people is too much, your ESA is there as a quiet support. This man clearly did not understand that, but most people who go through the intense (and sometimes degrading) process of trying to get an ESA do.
Animals are so adept at reading our moods and sensing stress and tension and are usually pretty good at knowing how to comfort us. Kiwi is sleeping next to me while I write this, purring quietly. Her presence, in itself, makes me feel so much less alone. She reminds me that I am not fighting this battle on my own.
I know my ESA has improved my life in so many ways, and in some cases, maybe even saved it.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that ESA’s are not Service Animals. Although they are prescribed by a mental health professional, they do not serve actively in the way that a Service Animal does. There are many differences between the two classifications, and I just wanted to make it clear.
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