Connections, healthy connections with other living things is so damn important for our mental health. And I never truly realised they extent until Thursday just gone. Puppy day.
If we don’t feel like we have a whole, trustworthy connection with another human – whether that’s from our own anxieties or our apprehension around others for fear of how they will respond to you or show that they accept and are there to emotionally support you… then dogs, in my opinion (sorry cat people) stitch up that gap in your heart.
For those of you that didn’t know, I went with my mum to pick up my little caramel, curly Goldendoodle the other day – Hagrid. He’s a cross between an already existing Goldendoodle (his mum, Nala who was bred with a Golden Retriever and a Poodle) and his dad, a miniature poodle. So Hagrid is technically 75% poodle, although he looks as though he’ll have the build of his mum.
It’s one of those things, getting a dog, that we’d joked about and fantasised about for some time – because since we had and lost our family dog Levi, some years ago, the only other time my mum felt it would be the right time was when she retired, so she’d have the time for it. And training a puppy is especially demanding. But realising how much of a positive distraction this could be for me, and having time available myself as I figure out my self-employed artist path, and investing these next two years in taking it slow and becoming stable with my mental health, now just seemed the perfect time.
And now, 2 days later? Well I feel like I’ve found the little piece in me that I didn’t know was missing. I’m in love with the little lad.
Here’s five ways raising a puppy is helping my mental health so far:
- I feel needed and wanted.
Dogs simple wants in the world are to feel loved, safe and to have fun – all of which I’m able to provide so I don’t feel I can really let him down (unless I become really unwell again which I won’t let happen). I have taken full responsibility for him at my mum’s house, so remembering to feed him 4 times a day and deducting some of it when I’m using treats for his training so I don’t overfeed him is important. This takes up headspace that just a couple of years ago with Anorexia, I simply wouldn’t have. My head used to be a full warehouse full of stacks and stacks of boxes of calories… of calculators flying round in my brain and crashing into one another.
There’s no way I could have made space for thinking about a dog… and even if I did, I would become over-the-top regimented on when exactly I needed to feed him, and actually that way of thinking would have encouraged my Anorexia. If I had to give time or the concentration for Hagrid’s needs and was struggling with offering that anyway due to my starved brain, I would use that as an excuse in my mind that I couldn’t eat – because I didn’t have the time to plan or calculate every bit of food like Anorexia demanded.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, we don’t feel emotionally protected or reassured from people… but dogs are loyal and as you fulfil their survival and love needs, they pay you back in dividends. After 2 days with Hagrid, I feel like it’s been weeks because of the intense change in my life and responsibilities.
- It’s a permanent financial commitment.
Take a few months ago – my average daily spend on a binge and purge (thanks Bulimia, you idiot) went from £50, already with a dollop of guilt, considering this is more than a weekly shop… to £150. Purely because I couldn’t cope with my head without continuing to do it – it seemed the only way to relieve the distress in my head. But that’s where DBT therapy, the group I am returning to on Wednesday after my time out due to being admitted to the ward, will help with. I also couldn’t bare my body, but again could only find relief from binging for the high, and being sick multiple times a day.
Now? Now I am investing in another life. I’m investing in a heart, a set of lungs, eyes and ears on four little legs with a fluffy coat… and I want to give Hagrid the best quality of life possible. So now I need to make sure I have the regular chunk of money aside each month to cover everything from food, to dog shampoo, to dog training classes. It’s that or the dog becomes neglected and I binge my money away. And I think this is where I can kind of get away with tricking Bulimia… channelling my guilt into the welfare of my little pup, a much more valuable worthwhile focus for guilt.
- There’s no fear of judgment.
My Hagrid (I don’t think) doesn’t care if my cheeks are chubby, or whether I’ve had the biggest steak and greasiest chips for dinner… or a plain boring salad. He doesn’t care if I’m a few pounds heavier or a few less. He wouldn’t care if I was very Anorexic or very Bulimic. But saying that, because the illnesses change your character, if I was too tied to either of those I wouldn’t be a very nice person. It makes me quite sad because when I was struggling with Anorexia, I became very distant from my old family dog and very ratty around hi, – irritable from the starvation, even though I didn’t feel like I was starving myself. Irritated by being controlled by numbers all day but also irritated by not knowing how to escape that mentality either.
Hagrid doesn’t care how much I achieve any day of the week – he cares about how I make him feel – to be safe and loved, and that’s that. If I solve that, then to him I am a valuable person.
- I’m more mindful about life.
These first couple of days, I’ve been literally eyeing my little puppy like a hawk. I feel responsible for navigating him through this world, and I have been wanting to be there for every want and need – does he look like he wants to play? Let’s go have a run in the garden. Should I do a bit of training here so he can learn new skills? Does he look like he needs a wee/poo? …if so, quick, to the back door. I want him to learn as efficiently as I can help him too, so he can live his best life. Because of all this focus, I’m not thinking about food as much, or worrying about what I’ll have for tea tomorrow. Or feeling guilty for not being active enough. I particularly thought I would worry about this last point a lot, purely because for Hagrid’s first couple of weeks with us, he can’t go out walking because he needs his last set of jabs. So I’m aware I’ll be spending most of my days indoors so I can supervise him.
But it’s reiterating again to me, that being active doesn’t always mean going for a purposeful walk to exercise, or to the gym… sometimes it just means actively engaging in life such as playing with the dog in the garden, cleaning round the house… (and setting Hagrid’s playpen up in my bedroom every evening – it’s in 4 parts so multiple trips down the stairs… and then doing the same thing downstairs each morning). Because I value Hagrid’s safety over my compulsion to be active because of the thoughts I worry about feeling guilty, I feel like I’m more mindful about the moment here and now.
So far, he’s been the most loving, gentle but playful dog I’ve ever come across. He’s great with all humans so far and I feel like a proud mum because of how he’s making other people feel. He’s settling in very well… clingy at the moment, sitting behind my feet when I’m sorting lunch out in the kitchen and following me everywhere. Realising that his training and his confidence will evolve over time, I’m learning to be patient and to enjoy the moment, instead of worrying about the future or the past. Because that’s how dogs think, right?
- It challenges me not to rigidly rely on routine.
Not going to lie – this one was hard. The not going out thing because of the pup needing supervising… and needing to be alert at all times – unless he’s sleeping I couldn’t really get on with anything that would make me feel ‘productive’ and like I’ve achieved anything. I can’t really plan anything solid. At the moment we’re still in the sussing period of what he needs and when. It’s usually one of EAT, PLAY, SLEEP – repeat. The first full day with him, yesterday, that was a shock to the system really. I got a bit of cabin fever not getting out the house at first, but then I learnt just to love Hagrid’s company, and spending so much time with him is making me feel a reliable connection.
It’s great to have routine – it keeps us grounded, but it’s also important for our mental health to be able to cope with changes and spontaneity in order to have the fullest life possible. I have gotten used to having a bag of stuff ready with me to do, for when he is sleeping and I can’t be of help to him.