When I was 27, I climbed to the roof of a six-story building with every intention of jumping. I’m still not sure why – why I was up there, and why I didn’t jump.
I am one of approximately 16 million American adults – nearly 7% of the population – with clinical depression. Distinct from dramatized expressions of sadness, depression is a physical disease whose symptoms include overwhelming melancholy, joylessness, lethargy and – these last two were key factors in my suicidal gesture – chronic insomnia and a deep sense of hopelessness.
That day on the roof, there was no way out, no pathway to progress, no light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t come to my senses so much as chicken out. I am grateful for my cowardice.
A decade later, I take anti-depressants administered by a psychiatrist. I exercise regularly and, after descending into alcoholism in my early 30s, haven’t had a drink in six years. I have a wife, a toddler and a promising career. All these things help keep me free of depression’s crippling mental fog.
But no single person, program or medication has helped me steer clear of depression more than my rescue dog, Vector.
It is well known that people suffering from depression respond well to dogs. Dogs offer mood-altering happiness, unconditional love, soothing touch. They aren’t called man’s best friend for nothing.
But as a rescue, Vector offers something deeper. Here are three reasons rescue dogs are particularly suited to depression sufferers.
I did something right…
Among the most stubborn and dangerous symptoms of a depression-based spiral is an unshakable sense of worthlessness. The disease convinces sufferers that they don’t deserve to feel happy.
There’s a huge difference between “I did a bad thing” and “I am a bad person.” Depression dwells in the latter, more self-loathing sentiment: it decimates self-esteem, making self-harm seem not only viable but reasonable.
To paraphrase my psychiatrist, the surest path to building self-esteem is through estimable acts. That’s where Vector comes in.
Rescuing a dog – or any pet – is about as clear-cut an act of good as possible. When I hit a dark stretch, Vector is a leaping, licking reminder of my ability to do some good in this world.
Think about it: Monetary philanthropy, though wonderful, are singular acts whose gratification, for the giver, quickly fades – especially for someone in a depressive spell. The same goes for charity work: it’s terrific in the moment, but we go home to our demons afterward.
Rescuing a pet hits a sweet spot – a manageable, perpetual and indisputable act of goodness. Vector is a constant reminder that I can’t possibly be a completely bad, worthless person. I did, at the very least, one thing right: an innocent, formerly homeless animal is currently cuddled up with me on the couch.
If he can do it…
By his vet’s estimation, Vector survived about three years on the streets in Puerto Rico, which has a notorious stray problem.
Like many rescues, by the time he joined our family – courtesy of the miracle workers at The Sato Project – Vector had experienced his share of hardship. He’d lost his tail, a toe, chunks of ear. A deep scar adorned his snout.
His mental makeup was even worse. Vector was a poster dog for post traumatic stray disorder: guarded, quivering, unwilling to leave the house even to relieve himself. He was disoriented, terrified, and exhausted.
But to me, he was also beautiful. Still months from fully accepting his auspicious present – he had hit the doggy lottery, but hadn’t realized it yet – Vector blessed me with an unadulterated look at his past, and with it his strength. He was 20 pounds of perseverance.
As a depression sufferer, I am attracted to scrappiness, to pushing forward despite an uncertain destination. Depression’s darkness often comes with a blindfold; not only is it pitch black, but no hints of brightness line the horizon. It is a distinctive, dumbfounded sort of bleakness.
The fact that Vector survived that godforsaken deathtrap – the island literally has a place called Dead Dog Beach – exemplifies a desperate, directionless resilience with which depression sufferers can identify. “Nothing is OK right now,” I’ve told myself, when depression creeps up, “and I don’t see how anything is ever going to be OK again… but just take the next right action and see what happens.”
That’s exactly what Vector did for three years in a hot, humid hellhole, and what he was still doing in my living room in the fall of 2013. And then came reason #3…
Seeing the lights come on.
In the ensuing months, I had the distinct privilege of watching a fellow being’s soul heal. Vector had gone from hopelessness to hope – a path most of us with depression have walked, often stumbling and backsliding along the way.
Depression sufferers benefit from real-world reminders of notions normal people take for granted: That there is hope. That we are loved. That life is worth living. As he emerged into a confident, rollicking playmate, Vector was an infectious hit of doggie dopamine.
Nothing, save for my son’s birth, has brought me as much pure joy as watching Vector recognize and embrace his newfound safety, security and love. A tough mutt with a tough past choosing life – a life with me, no less.
I wanted to shout my gratitude from a mountaintop – or, perhaps, the roof of a six-story building.
Christopher Dale is a freelancer who writes on society, politics and sobriety-based issues. He has been published in a variety of prominent outlets, including Salon.com, The Advocate and The New York Post. He is also a contributing blogger to TheFix.com, a sober lifestyle website. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.