I have suffered from anxiety since the 7th grade. If there’s anything to make middle school even less tolerable for an uncool kid with bad hair, it’s a panic attack (where you feel like you’re dying) in the middle of math class.
In the twenty years since I had that first bout of anxiety (I’ll let you do the calculations on how old that makes me), I’ve learned how to live with it. I’ve figured out what medications work best for me; I see a therapist who helps me get healthier every week; I’ve mastered meditation to coach myself through a particularly bad attack; and, perhaps most importantly, I have made peace with the fact that it’s something that’s a part of me.
But even with these invaluable tools at my disposal, including the support of those around me, anxiety—especially when fueled by depression (which I also suffer from, which means I get TWO CHIPS on the mental health bingo card)—can be utterly devastating.
This past year, I suffered the worst bout of depression and anxiety in my entire life. I would go through terrifying, isolating phases of being sad, scared, and downright lost in my own mind. On particularly bad days, I considered it a victory if I could make it to the shower or answer the door for the delivery guy.
But I fought—oh, did I fight. Even when I felt hopeless, I was determined to find my way out of the crushing abyss. Then, slowly, day-by-day, things began to change. I felt pieces of my personality come back. I had the urge to go explore the world around me, and I let people back in.
As my heart and mind began to wake up, I knew it was time to do something I’d longed to do for ages—get a dog. I have always loved dogs, but because I never felt I had the time or resources to take care of one, I opted to wait. But, with the determination to keep fighting anxiety and depression and live my best life, it was time.
I met Ruby (previously named Prim) at the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) on a fateful Thursday. I had actually gone to meet another dog (don’t tell Ruby!) but when we weren’t a good fit, I asked to meet the scruffy, tiny Wire Hair Fox Terrier/Chihuahua mix who was found as a stray.
To say that I hadn’t felt joy in nearly a year would be an understatement. I spent the better part of 2016 in a fog of anxiety and depression, and even when I tried to feel pleasure in things, it was forced or dull.
But when Ruby—with her funny little trot and wagging tail made her way over to me and stood on her hind legs to greet me—I felt actual happiness. I knew, in my heart, that this would be my first dog.
I also knew that having a dog would be a responsibility, and that the rewards would be worth whatever hardship and stress having a dog brings. Since the day I adopted her, Ruby has made my life better in ways I never expected, particularly when it came to managing my depression and anxiety.
During the minutes, hours, or even days when I feel all the terrible feelings that come along with my disorder, I know I have to take Ruby for a walk. And she loves her walks. She moves her tiny little legs as fast as she can to sniff flowers or greet other dogs in the neighborhood or simply do her business. For a dog that once lived on the street, she has no fear and enjoys everything around her.
Walks with Ruby provide routine. It reminds me that I am responsible for giving her the healthy and happy life she deserves. Walking Ruby gets me out of my own head, and gives me an enjoyable task to focus on. With Ruby by my side, I feel protected from the world around me. She takes her walk, and I, in turn, get out and get moving right along with her.
It’s not just our walks that help me, though. As a bona fide cuddler, Ruby snuggles up with me, and I feel comforted when, just months before, I would have been inconsolable. On those days where my self-esteem feels low or I have doubts about myself, my hilariously runty and good-natured pup jumps with joy to see me and give me kisses.
Ruby hasn’t “fixed” my anxiety and depression—it’s something I will work through my entire life. My dog has, however, has reminded me that those dark places are always worth coming out of—that love, whether it’s for yourself or for your dog, is a force more powerful than anything else.