Since my post last year a few things have changed. Most notably I worked with my therapist to be approved for an emotional support animal and adopted a nine-year-old female pitbull mix named Savannah in November. Then I switched jobs and moved back to New England in January. This has had several impacts on my life and my ability to take care of my mental health.
Being a live-in professional staff member, I live where I work. When I go home, it’s to an apartment in a residence hall. I had a conversation with my therapist about the impact Savannah would have on my life. I focused on all the positives that she would bring: a routine, a schedule to make sure I wasn’t spending too much time in my office instead of going home and taking care of myself at the end of the day, a reason to go outside – to exercise.
Before I got her, I would barely break 6,000 steps a day, but now I am walking at least 12,000 and have lost 38 pounds. I say that’s a d*mn good thing.
A couch/bed hog, although not always pleasant, it’s nice to have her sit and watch a movie/TV with me or tell me when it’s time to go “night night” and proceed to leave me a little sliver of the bed to crawl into.
A travel companion – she might sleep the entire time, but at least when I talk about the bad drivers on the road I feel less silly for it, as I’m clearly having a conversation with a sleeping dog.
However, what I didn’t really think about or anticipate was the constant verification to others that I was allowed to have her on campus and in the building. When I was working at the University at Buffalo, I was expected to place a decal on my apartment door stating that an approved animal lived inside. I put the decal on my door because I was told to, but also because I wasn’t disclosing any information about why I had an animal. No one asked. No one really cared about the sticker or that Savannah was there, beside my resident advisor staff – who loved seeing her come and go from the building.
I switched jobs in January. I moved to a new campus where my apartment was on the sixth floor of the building. Savannah is nine years old, so we don’t take the stairs. Although the lobby/lounge of the building wasn’t busy for our morning or early evening walk, it can fill up for our late night walk. Many residents were ecstatic to see a dog. This did not bother me. Many wanted to pet her and were kind enough to ask first. This did not bother me. Many shared that they missed their dog(s) from home and wished that they could be with them. This did not bother me. Many would tell me that I “was so lucky.” This bothered me.
No, it was not disclosed that she was an assistance animal. No, it was not disclosed as to why I had her. But every time someone would say that I was “so lucky,” or worse, ask why I could have a dog, it would bother me. It bothered me because the student staff were not properly informed, thus providing wrong information to residents. It bothered me because I did have to disclose countless times that she’s an assistance animal. It bothered me because of the look on the residents’ faces as they tried to understand that. It bothers me because others think that because I have her it’ll help them win their proposal for a staff pet policy. It bothers me because I’m not lucky. Mental illnesses are not a “luck of the draw” or prizes to be won.
I still struggle. Due to the job change and move I was without health insurance for months. I am still trying to find a new therapist. I’ve had bad days. I’ve had really really bad days. However, Savannah has made it possible for me to get out of bed and continue with life because on those really, really bad days, I knew I at least had to take care of her even when I didn’t want to take care of myself. I am not lucky.
This is part of our yearly #SACommits series on mental health in Student Affairs. This May, we are exploring what mental illness looks like using different forms of expression – photos, drawings, videos, writing, etc. We hope to create better understanding of what it is like to live with mental illness, in an effort to stomp out stigma. Each week will have a theme -Throughout the lifespan, With Loved Ones, At Work, With Myself. For more information, see the intro post by Kristen Abell. Check out the other posts in this series too! You can also join the conversation by using our unique #SACommits Selfies print outs.