CW: anxiety, dissociation
I was sitting with two classmates in Personality and Clinical Assessment, discussing our current project when suddenly, they began talking exceptionally slowly. Their voices started echoing, and all the colors in the room became almost painfully bright. “Oh, not this again,” I whispered to myself, as I violently scratched my arm under the desk.
I excused myself and ran to the restroom where I submerged my hands under a stream of hot water while simultaneously pinching my skin. Nothing. I tried finding all objects in the room that I can name in Croatian, Spanish, and English. No change; I still felt as if I was observing my actions through a fog, as if someone put me on a Netflix show that I’ve never seen and I had to play the main character, except that I had no clue what was going on.
I heard a voice say “I’m not feeling well, I think I’ll leave early.” I observed someone’s hand grabbing my stuff, and I felt movements of a body that was not my own carrying me back to my dorm. Once in my dorm, the hand opened a bathroom window letting in the cold November breeze, and the body moved into the shower. I don’t know how long I was in there, but once the weird mechanical body metamorphosed back to my own, I was exhausted, scared, and freezing.
I was always anxious, even as a child, but people around me thought I was just a bit more careful, responsible or dramatic than other kids. And while a little bit of anxiety can be good, during my junior year of college, my anxiety went wild. I would go through periods of mutism when I could not talk no matter how hard I tried. I developed facial tics, and I couldn’t sleep for days at the time. But it wasn’t until I started dissociating that I realized I needed to ask for help.
I saw a couple of therapists, some in Counseling and Psychological Services, some off-campus, but the mindfulness practices, the self-care tips, the exercise, the medication – it just wasn’t doing it for me. These sessions made my anxiety worse, because I felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough, and I thought that I would stay dissociated forever. I stopped going to therapy since it only made me feel worse and it was too expensive anyway. This is just who you are now. Get used to it.
After a couple of months, I heard a peer mention Zencare, a therapist search website. It sounded cool, so I doodled the name down, and decided to give therapy one last try. The therapist I saw helped me reshape my thoughts and see therapy through a different lens. Your body found a way to heal, she said, as she explained that cold and hot showers, scratching, and pinching myself were all tactile stimulation techniques that I used because they worked for me.
Our therapy wasn’t based on her preferred way of helping clients, or what she was the most comfortable with – it was based on what worked for me. She helped me discover the healing power of Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), even though this meant that she had to put in extra effort to learn more about the use of working animals in therapy and how it applies to a university setting. She helped me work out the logistics of becoming a pet owner, and for that, I will be forever grateful. She paved the way for a successful relationship with my emotional support dog, who ultimately helped me heal.
Working with an ESA has shifted my baseline from being overwhelmed, unhappy, and unable to function, to being moderately anxious. His presence makes me more relaxed, and I have no trouble sleeping as long as he is around. Snuggling with him on stressful days and feeling his short, soft coat under my fingers calms me down like nothing else.
When I first got my ESA, he could sense if I was starting to dissociate, and he would gently nibble and lick my hands to make sure I stayed present and grounded. I can’t even remember the last time I dissociated. He wakes me up every morning with warm puppy cuddles and ensures a consistent sleep schedule. I could cite so many studies demonstrating how helpful ESAs are, but the mechanisms behind it are, honestly, pure magic.
Discussing emotions, learning grounding techniques, and analyzing patterns of behavior with a therapist can improve mental health tremendously for many people. For me, traditional therapy played a smaller role in recovery; healing happened mostly outside of the office, and with a non-human therapist. Accepting my feelings and experiences as they were and understanding that there is nothing wrong with feeling the way I did promoted healing. Joining Project LETS, an inclusive community for individuals with mental illness, and working with a Peer Mental Health Advocate also helped me heal and reclaim power through difficult experiences. Recovery and healing look different for everyone. In the words of my therapist, find what works for you. I was lucky enough to find a therapist who would acknowledge and respect that, and to find the world’s best furry therapist.