Life With an Emotional Support Animal

Hello everyone! I’m back again! Due to popular request I’ll be doing a little blog on my life with my emotional support animal, my bunny, Timothy!

I’ll start with some general background first. I first heard of emotional support animals when I was in my first year of university. I met a girl who had an emotional support bunny named Floyd (who you can find on instagram @floydthebunbun!!), who was prescribed to her by her mental health provider. The idea intrigued me, as someone who also struggled with mental health issues. At the time, it was something I thought about, but did not know if I could handle the responsibility, so swarmed by the transition from high school to university.

Flash forward to second year. As you might have read in my previous blog post, I was struggling more and more with my anxiety and depression, to the point where I cried all alone because I felt so isolated and lonely. It was then that the idea of emotional support animals came back into my mind. I met Floyd’s mother again, when I joined Active Minds Western, and it brought back my interest in having a support animal because it meant I would never have to truly be alone. I’ve never really been a cat or dog person, so I talked to Floyd’s mom about what it was like taking care of a bunny. And I loved bunnies. I always have. They’re cute and sweet, and such caring creatures. When I decided that was what I wanted, I did lots of research on rabbits.

Let me tell you, there are a lot of misconceptions about rabbits. First off, they’re prey animals, which means they don’t act like cats and dogs at all really (since they are predator animals). They don’t really understand the concept of fetch or really like to chase anything, because it’s not in their instincts (they are the chased, rather than the chaser). They also do not like being picked up (they are never picked up by their mother, and instinctually to them, being picked up feels like a predator has captured them and they are about to die). But what rabbits do like is social interaction. They hate being alone, and once they’ve grown to love and trust you, they will be your friend and loving companion until the end of time.

Flash forward to November 25th, when I picked up my bunny Timothy. Timothy comes from a litter of surprise bunnies from a lady in Mississauga. He was the runt of 6 bunnies, and when I came to pick him up, he was the very last one. Though he was the runt, he was still quite a bit bigger than you might be expecting him to be. He probably weighed about 4 pounds, but was about the size of a small cat (in fact, he was bigger than my roommates newborn kitten who was about the same age as him!). He was born August 17th, and at the time I met him, was about 3 months old.

I fell in love with him at first sight. He was sitting all alone in a cage on the floor, because he did not like other bunnies. He actually had a scab on his forehead, because he provoked another fight with a bunny and lost. So his owner had to separate him from the rest of the bunnies, and he spent most days alone in his cage, with a couple hours a day to stretch his legs. When I first met him, I tried to hold him (which he definitely did not like) but it didn’t turn out very well, because he had no idea who I was.

So I packed him up into the car and drove him home with me, all the while cooing at him that I was his new mommy and I was bringing him to his new home. When we got home, I knew he was scared. He was in an entirely different environment, with new smells and totally new people. He stayed quietly in his cage mostly, and would not for the life of him, let me near him to touch him. I grew very nervous that I had made the wrong choice, and that this bunny would never grow close to me.

Not only that, but he was only 3 months old, so his litter habits were not exactly the best they could be. For the first little while, I had to watch him like a hawk when I let him out of his cage, because he would literally pee anywhere. But I slowly litter trained him and after about a month, he was pretty consistent.

Timothy and I had an interesting first couple of weeks. This was my very first pet (save for some fish that I had growing up) and I was unsure how to proceed. But slowly but surely, we settled into a routine together. For the first couple weeks, I would just sit on the floor with him, and let him explore on his own. For the first little while, he wouldn’t even approach me. As time wore on, he eventually decided to explore the interesting human that always sat with him. He prodded me with his little snout, and eventually let me pet his head. After a couple of weeks, he began to lick me, which is a bunny’s way of giving kisses! Needless to say, I was absolutely in love with him.

Now, bunnies don’t say very much (they actually don’t make any vocal sounds), but they say a lot with their body language. There are very many different ways that they sit (or even how their face looks) that can tell you if they are happy or not. Slowly I began to understand what Timothy’s different body languages meant, and we grew very close to each other.

I started to bring him to school once I felt he was comfortable enough to go out with me. As an emotional support animal, he was allowed to come with me to class. I had to run it through all of my professors, and get their permission as well as go to the Services for Students with Disabilities in the Student Development Centre to get the all clear to bring Timothy to class with me. Having him in class is great. He’s very patient and calm when he’s in his carrier, and doesn’t make much of a fuss. I am very grateful for that. I often bring him to the Faculty of Music Students’ Council office hour table where people would stop by and pet him and say hello. And Timothy just eats it up. He loves attention and adores being pet. He’s a very social bunny (though he loves people, and is super indifferent about other rabbits lol).

In terms of what it’s like to have an emotional support animal, I have to admit it’s an experience unlike anything else. Often, it feels like Timothy is just a pet, especially when we are at home. I feed him every morning, clean his litter box, make him toys out of cardboard boxes and toilet paper tubes, groom him… But there are moments that remind me he’s much more than just a pet.

My generalized anxiety disorder manifests itself in the sense that I get completely lost in my mind. When the anxiety starts stirring, my mind kicks into fight or flight mode to the point where I completely shut down. I often get stuck in a very negative spiral of thoughts, and start to disappear from the present moment. It is moments like this that Timothy brings me back. Usually when I get like this, I’m either motionless or crying hysterically on the floor, call it animal intuition but Timothy knows when something is wrong with me. He usually comes to inspect me, first prodding me with his nose, and from then he usually knows I’m not okay. He’ll just sit with me, and let me pet him, while I either just say all the thoughts that are stuck swirling in my head or I just cry and cry. He’ll just stay with me, give me little kisses, and generally just wait for me to come back to a functioning state of mind. I haven’t trained him to do this, he’s just learned to understand how I am, and helps in just supporting me so I’m not alone. That in itself is everything to me, when I’m in those moments. When I’m not alone, I’m less likely to sink farther into my negative thoughts. I’ve noticed a decrease in suicidal ideation and self-deprecating thoughts because I have Timothy to remind me that I am not alone, and he loves me unconditionally. When he’s with me, I can never forget that I don’t matter.

The idea of an emotional support animal seems a little silly at first. I know when I first heard about it, I was a little bit sceptical. But now, I truly understand the benefit of having an ESA. To others he may seem like he’s just a pet who has special privileges to accompany me in class, or in my exams, or whatever. But to me, he is my partner in crime, who reminds me that I am important and I am loved (whether that’s because I feed him treats or because he actually loves me doesn’t matter ;P). He helps keep me centred and out of my cloudy head, and allows me to enjoy life and be more like myself.

That’s what emotional support animals are all about.

– Carole

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Real Talk: Where “I’m Okay” Ends, and Recovery Begins. #BellLetsTalk

Possible TW for anxiety and depression.

Hi everyone! I’m back!

Last July I shared my mental health journey in a blog post called “Real Talk: Last Night, I Had A Panic Attack“. I outlined my life and my journey through my mental health up until that moment. I think it’s safe to say that a lot has changed since then. I’ve gone through more ups and downs, hit rock bottom and hit unprecedented highs, and I’m here again to talk about my brain and my experiences in the hopes that sharing my story will help any of you out there who aren’t sure how you’re doing, or want to know you’re not alone, or are just curious about mental health.

So let’s start, from last July, a lot of things have changed. I was fresh out of high school and extremely excited to tackle my next journey in life: university. All summer, I was ecstatically packing my room up, gushing about my great school, and preparing to have the time of my life. First year was definitely great, though when they say it’s a big life change, they aren’t kidding. First year was by far, one of the hardest years of my life. Not to say that it wasn’t fun or anything, I definitely had a lot of fun, but I had never before experienced the sheer amount of responsibility that came with being an undergraduate student, all the while being on my own for the first time.

The anxiety started by the first week of school. It felt like there was so much to do and so little time. The workload was insane. Being a music major and having 7 credits (that’s about 2 above the average), I was in class for about 22 hours a week on top of supposedly practising 2 or 3 hours a day, on top of doing my homework. I clearly remember feeling all too familiar panic rising in the pit of my stomach and bleeding into my chest. I snapped. I cried in the middle of my dorm hallway until my RA came and sat me down on my bed and calmed me down. I told her I was scared and worried, and didn’t know what to do. She recommended I go to residence counselling.

Flash forward to my appointment. I was so ashamed. It’s funny because I talk about mental health advocacy a lot. I preach to the masses about sharing their mental health, but ultimately, I’m a hypocrite. I had to walk all the way across campus to a different residence building. I didn’t really tell anyone I was going. I felt horribly alone. I remember sitting in that office with a small lady with blonde hair pulled into a low ponytail and I tried my best to spill my heart out to her. But I couldn’t. I cried, yeah. But I said I was stressed and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t talk about the days where I woke up so frightened I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t talk about the times I just sat paralyzed and frozen because I was just so panicked I couldn’t move. I didn’t talk about any of that. I just kept saying I didn’t know how I was going to do all my school work in time, and that I wanted to do well.

She smiled at me sympathetically and pulled out a little whiteboard. She told me that everyone gets stressed, and we need to stop “worrying about what’s coming next” and live in the present. She told me to meditate. And to tell myself, “nope!” when I started to worry about the future.

I was frustrated. If it were that easy, I would have done that by now, I thought to myself. But it was partially my fault because I didn’t tell her nearly enough about how I was feeling. So I left. And I didn’t go back. We didn’t click, I didn’t feel comfortable, so I just walked out the door and never came back.

From then on, I tried to manage everything on my own. Which was a mistake. I ate gallons of ice cream and called it “self-care”. I would lie in bed and do nothing for hours because I was “taking time for myself”. Ultimately, I procrastinated everything until I had barely enough time to scramble it all together. I lived my life like I was just trying to make it. I was on the ground crawling and grabbing at nothing with my fingernails. I constantly asked myself, “what is wrong with me? Why can’t I motivate myself to do anything?”

But I didn’t tell anyone.

I just quietly kept it all to myself. I smiled at people every day like I was okay, and that it didn’t take me hours to fall asleep the night before. Sometimes I told my friends when I was having a bad day but not nearly enough for them to know how I was really doing. I felt isolated and alone.

In March, I finally had enough. I confessed to one of my friends how I’d been feeling, and she listened to me. I didn’t realize how much someone validating me meant. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest. She held my hand and helped me book a doctor’s appointment and I felt like maybe my life was looking up for the first time this year.

I wrote down everything I wanted to say. I wasn’t letting myself get away with minimizing my problems and making everything seem okay. I sat down in the doctor’s office and the first thing I said was “I need help”.

He was an older, tall white man. He leaned back in his chair, as though he had done this a million times. “What do you think is wrong?”

I swallowed the lump in my throat and my hands fidgeted uncomfortably with the hem of my shirt. “I’ve been experiencing really bad anxiety.”

Then he sat forward in his seat again, making a soft ‘hm’ sound with his mouth and recited a checklist I had heard so many times at every single appointment involving mental health I had ever been to. I tried to be honest. I really did. At the end, he made another quiet sound, “Mm, I see, so what do you want to do?”

I felt dumbfounded. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how to help myself. I came here because I wanted to be told what I needed to do to get well. “I don’t know,” I said lamely, my tongue feeling dry in my mouth, “what should I do?”

Turns out, there were 2 options.

1) Therapy.

2) Medication.

He recommended I go to therapy first. Medication was always a “last resort” he said. He said that student health services was much too overbooked, and that I should go see a psychologist somewhere else in the city. Except, I really didn’t want to do that.

I’d tried going to therapists before, and I had started to develop a distrust of them. They didn’t understand what I was saying, didn’t understand that I couldn’t just read a book and turn off my anxiety. I needed help but it felt like nobody was taking me seriously. Not only that, but the stigma that had suctioned itself to my heart was throbbing deep within my chest. I didn’t want to tell anybody what I was going through. Not even my own parents. And I needed money from them to make that happen. I was ashamed. I felt like a failure. I wanted to do well and succeed and make them proud, and I didn’t want them to feel like they had gone wrong with me somewhere. I didn’t want anybody taking responsible for how I was feeling except myself.

And thinking about it now, that sounds so foolish! I could have had so many opportunities and resources available to me if I had just said something to someone! Here I was, calling myself a mental health advocate, yet I was hiding all my inner struggles with mental health under the false pretence that I was okay. And I didn’t have to be okay. It’s okay not to be okay. For some reason, I would tell them to everyone, but I think perhaps I didn’t love myself enough to tell myself that the same applied for me too.

So needless to say, I went out of the doctor’s appointment pretty disappointed. I didn’t want to tell anybody about how I was feeling, and felt trapped trying to pursue resources to get better. So I just kept doing what I knew best, pushing myself to keep trying and not actually getting anywhere productive. I tried to use my anxiety to motivate me, but at some point it started overwhelming me to the point where I didn’t want to do anything. I felt like my life was always running on the “barely scraping by” mentality. But I felt like I had everyone fooled, including myself. I was a happy girl who got good grades, had good friends, and should have had a good life. It was frustrating to feel like everything was wrong. I woke up every morning feeling like the whole weight of the world was on my shoulders, with this heavy sense of sheer dread just sizzling in my spine.

And then school passed. Classes ended, exams were all wrapped up, I was at home in my childhood room, with my parents making me food, secured with a summer job, and sunshine every day. This is it, I thought to myself. No more stress, no more anxiety? Right?

Wrong.

I don’t want to say that my summer was worse than when I was in school. I had so much potential to do things I loved! I had free time to hang out with my friends, write stories, play games, spend time with my family…. These were all fun things that I did, and I loved and genuinely enjoyed them, yet I found that my mind was slowly starting to slip farther and farther away from me. Maybe it was my lack of routine at the beginning of the summer, but I just started to feel hopeless. No longer pressured to be doing school work, I felt like I had no purpose. I slept in until noon and dragged myself out of bed hours later after browsing social media on my phone. I watched TV in the family room and ate grilled cheese sandwiches with chips. Things that I had enjoyed doing before when I was on a school break. But I felt like I was in a slump. One that I don’t think I’d ever quite experienced before. That was the start of my depression.

I thought this slump would go away after I started working. After all, I was looking for a job, and once I had a job, I’d have something productive to do. I would be able to get out of my house. Then I would feel useful again, right? I stressed about finding work, and began to wrestle with my desire to be productive and to expand my horizons. When I finally landed a job, I was ecstatic. My first week of work had my brain buzzed. I was nervous, obviously, but so very excited. But as time went on, I found myself falling back into this sad state.

No matter what I did, I felt useless. I convinced myself that I wasn’t doing anything special. That I wasn’t important. That I didn’t matter. Nobody could convince me otherwise. Not my friends, not my family, not my boyfriend, and certainly not myself. I’d stay awake at night asking myself, “What’s the point? Am I going anywhere in life? What am I doing?” I started waking up with no motivation to do anything. What was the point? Did anything really matter anymore?

I wanted to be happy, I did. That was what was so frustrating. I was so desperate to be happy, I got so angry when I wasn’t. When I felt sad and empty, I just started to cry because I just didn’t want to feel that way anymore.

Every morning I would open my eyes and dread the fact that I was awake. I wouldn’t want to move. On days where I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t. I’d stay in bed until I was starving just because I didn’t want to get up and eat. On days I had to, my anxiety took over and forced me up lest I disappoint someone. I kept living like this and it was so exhausting. I felt trapped. I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself, that I kept most of how I felt to myself. And of all people I should’ve known better than that. But I had so much personal stigma, I just couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. It got worse and worse the longer I ignored it, and I started wondering what it would be like if I wasn’t around anymore. What would people say? What would they do? And those kind of thoughts scared me. I felt like I had started pushing away all the people important in my life. But I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t feel like Carole anymore. I was someone trying to pretend like she was still there.

And yet, I kept smiling and telling people I was fine, when I was anything but fine, and when I moved away from home again for my second year of university, I decided a new school year was finally the time for me to step up and help myself. I was tired of moping around and feeling sorry for myself. I was tired of being embarrassed of who I was and how I felt. So, though I was scared, I marched up the university hill up to the Student Development Services and asked point-blank, “Please, please help me.”

Finally admitting that I needed help was like a huge weight off my shoulders. I demanded that someone actually listen to me and listen to what I wanted for myself. I went to counselling, I went to see a doctor, I started taking anti-depressants, I started going to therapy. I wanted my life back. I was tired of losing my life to myself.

The journey was long and painful, and it still is, but it slowly is picking up. The first few weeks I was taking my medication I had such bad nausea and for the next few months I was so tired all the time. My first times in therapy I felt so frustrated and helpless I cried (and to be honest, I still do). When I first got my emotional support bunny Timothy, I was completely at a loss for how to take care of something other than myself.

Now?

I still take my anti-depressants. I still go to therapy. I still have my bunny (who I’ve slowly learned how to care for).

I still have anxiety. I still have depression. I still have bad days.

But now, I also have good days.

I have life and motivation.

I have things that I love to do.

I have goals I want to achieve.

I have an appreciation for life that I had lost, and desperately wanted back.

And I have started to heal.

It’s possible to get there. And sometimes you fall back down, but what matters is you have the tools to help yourself back up, whether that be your medication, a therapist, a friend, a pet, etc.

There is nothing wrong with admitting that you need help. If there’s anything I have learned, it’s that people will be so much more supportive than you ever imagined they could be. And if they truly love and care about you, they will stay. Through the ups and the downs, and the laughing and the crying, they will be there.

And you deserve that much from them.

And you deserve that much from yourself. You are so valuable and loved and important. Your life means everything, even when you think it doesn’t. If you are struggling or need help, please reach out. I am here. You can also connect with crisis or help lines like the Canadian Mental Health Association at 519-433-2023.

In the words of Dodie Clark, one of my favourite musicians, “I promise you, it’ll all make sense again.”

You only have one chance at this life. Don’t let your mental health take that away from you.

Love,

Carole Lynn