On dog birthdays and mental health

Primary Source:  Amanda Toler Woodward, March 20, 2017

Last week my dog Loki turned three. She’s the third dog in my life. There was Boop – the dog of my childhood – and Zeke – our first cattle dog.  I used to haul Boop up into our crabapple tree in a bucket or put her in the hammock with me.  I have a distinct memory of reading a Wrinkle in Time and other favorites during long Ozarkian summer afternoons with Boop by my side.  Zeke was an expert Frisbee artist and mood dog.  He had an uncanny ability to absorb and reflect back the emotional energy in the house. I loved both of those dogs and miss them each in different ways.

But my relationship with Loki is different.  Maybe it’s because we got her when she was only six weeks old. I met Zeke when he was about two and I’m not sure how old Boop was. I was only six myself and don’t really remember her puppyhood as distinct from my own. Or maybe it’s one of those things that animal people know. Sometimes you just connect with a particular quadruped. As my sister says, we get the quadrupeds we deserve, or maybe more accurately the quadruped we need at that moment.

The thing is, Loki entered our life just as I was dealing with a serious bout of depression.  I was blindsided by this dark period because it actually happened at a point when everything was going well. It made it that much more difficult to understand why getting out of bed in the morning was so hard; why I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a mystery novel, let alone write an academic paper; why nothing tasted good; and why I had concrete blocks for arms and legs and a lead corset strapped around my torso.  Hyperbole and a half does a good job of describing the experience.    Fortunately, I was never suicidal, but for the first time I understood how someone could get to that point and that was scary enough.

Eventually I got help from a mix of medications, therapy, and meditation.  And, honestly, a six-week old ball of happy, stinky, destructive, messy, toothy snuggles was part of that mix too.  Depression can seem like self-absorption, even selfishness, from the outside.  It does a bit from the inside too, but it’s accompanied by this silent struggle of will power against chemistry with a heavy overlay of guilt. As the meds started to take off the edge, Loki demanded attention and there were minutes, and then hours, and then days when it was just really hard to be depressed with this up in my face.

Cute little puppy face


Recently the White House asked people to submit their Affordable Care Act stories.  They, of course, want to hear disaster stories, but I shared my positive take.  I’m one of the privileged ones.  I have good coverage through my employer.  But the Affordable Care Act affects me because it requires that mental health is one of the things included in that coverage.  That was really, really important for me a few years ago and continues to be so.  One thing this experience made me realize is that I’ve struggled with depression all my life.  I will continue to do so and sometimes that means getting medical help that I wouldn’t be able to afford without health insurance coverage.  Loki is a powerful antidepressant, but only as part of a well-rounded treatment plan.

So far, the health care plan proposed by the Republicans maintains the ACA’s requirement that ten categories of essential health benefits be covered – one of which is mental health and substance use care.  Of course, that won’t matter much to the millions of people who will lose their health insurance.

It’s time to speak up.

Share your Obamacare story with the White House.

Call your elected officials.

Find a town hall near you.

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Amanda Toler Woodward
Amanda Toler Woodward is an associate professor in the MSU School of Social Work. Her goal is to share reflections on a wide range of topics related to aging research, social work, academia, and whatever else catches her fancy.
Amanda Toler Woodward

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