Puppy love and ‘pawsome’ peer support

30th March 2017

WRAP Facilitator and mental health campaigner Donna gives a personal account of how a four legged friend helped her recover from a long period of mental ill-health.

It all started with a little bit of Hope…..honestly!!

I started 2016 with a Black Dog called depression. He also had a friend – well two actually –  namely anxiety and panic. They were also black. In fact my whole life felt like one great big black hole in January 2016. I had become unwell in December 2015 when I feel like I fell apart and shattered into a million pieces. December (which is usually a very enjoyable month for me as I LOVE Christmas time) passed in a blur of medicated mind and suicidal thoughts. January arrived and each day I woke up wishing that I hadn’t. It was a very very difficult time. This darkness remained with me for many months.

Many things contributed to me becoming unwell and it has taken many things to help me to recover. I went from being a very busy and active person managing a charity to someone who literally could not get out of bed for days on end. This acute period of ill health lasted for 6-7 months and then I slowly began to rise to the surface again. In a rare day out at a local gala day I came across a stall for Guide Dogs. I bought a wee soft toy for my son and thought nothing more of it. A few weeks later my boys were due to return to school after summer break and I started to wonder what I would do with my time as my fear was I would return back to spending days on end in my bed. I knew I needed someone who needed me during the day when the boys were at school. I needed a reason to get up and get out. The wee cuddly toy was sitting looking at me and the penny dropped – why don’t I see if I can volunteer!!

As someone who previously managed and supported volunteers and avidly promoted the benefits of volunteering for positive mental health I knew it was the right thing to do. So after initial enquiries I was delighted to receive a home visit from Guide Dogs. I was absolutely terrified – infact I’m quite sure I was sick with panic that morning but I thought NO I AM DOING THIS!!

When a little dog called Hope walked through the door on that day to visit I knew 100% that this was meant to be as having a sense of hope and a belief that things could get better was the one thing that kept me going through my darkest days. And considering that Hope has played such a prominent role in my life for the last 4 years with the charity that I founded being called The Hope Café, this to me was far more than a co-incidence!!

We were delighted to be accepted as a family to foster a little puppy and welcomed Laddy into our home in October 2016 when he was 6 weeks old. To say that my heart melted when I saw him is an understatement. Look at him!

Those first few weeks were very much about cuddling him and building up a bond with him. Laddy has no idea but I can assure you that this had as much benefit to me as it did Laddy. This is when I realised we were each others peer supporters!!! Yes me and a dog mutually helping each other. I often talk about how supporters can often be non-human and here was concrete proof of that.

In those first weeks it’s really important that the pups experience as many situations/noises as possible so I HAD to get myself out to the shops, outside and on public transport. This was a struggle as I hadn’t really left the house much for months on end but with little Laddy by my side it seemed so much more manageable. We then progressed onto him walking beside me rather than being carried. This again encouraged me out of the house and into some sort of physical activity. It was exhausting but seeing that wee face skipping alongside me filled my heart. It also reminded me that I was no longer just “Donna who is sick”, I was Donna who is recovering and is also giving something back by volunteering. I had a meaning and a purpose again, I started to value myself more. This in turn boosted my confidence and self-esteem which were at rock bottom.

Laddy has been with us for 5 months now and I cannot begin to even put into words what he has helped me to achieve. He happily goes places with me and lies at my feet like a wee safety blanket whilst I re-engage with the life that was stolen from me by my illness. We now walk together twice a day most days working together as Laddy learns his role. He recently got his wee jacket and I felt like my heart was going to burst with pride when I saw him in it. It reminded me of how I felt when my boys got their school ties leaving nursery – that “big boy” moment.

He is a smart little chap – always one step ahead of me. He is eager but also a very gentle lad. He has helped our whole house to start to recover from a very difficult time. And just like Laddy is on a journey so am I. The days aren’t always bright. There are still mornings when I wake up and think “no not today”. But there he is looking at me like “c’mon Mum – we got some work to do and fun to have today” and his wee tail is a wagging and I cant help but smile.

He has reminded me that life is precious and that I have so much in my life to be grateful for. He has brought new friends into my life that I have met through my volunteering role and whom I know will be lifelong friends. And most of all he has reminded me that I am not just my illness. That I am still Donna. And that each and every day I am enough just as I am.

Does having a pet or helping with animals play a part in your mental health recovery? SRN would love to hear more about it*. Send a short paragraph and/or images to Senior Communications Officer christine.muir@scottishrecovery.net

*Copy and images may be used in blog posts and on Twitter.