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: Last Night, I Had a Panic Attack.

Ever since I hit grade 12, I haven’t been shy to talk about my mental illness when I’m approached. I consider it really important for people to speak out about their struggles with mental illness because it’s all very internal, and people always think they are alone.

Today, the subject of mental illness has really been weighing heavily on my heart. So I thought I would share my story in full so it’s out there for people who feel all alone to find, and know that they aren’t by themselves.

So here it is:

From the day I was able to make conscious thought, I was a nervous person.

I can’t tell you how many times as a child I was so nervous about different things, that it caused a lot of fear, crying, and an unwillingness to do things that made me feel that way. Looking back on it now, I realize I worried an unhealthy amount, definitely way more than a child should.

I remember when I was in the first grade, we all had to take care of a beetle. Our teacher gave each of us a plastic container with a little handle, filled with dirt and sticks, and one little beetle. I was getting on the bus one morning, holding this tiny container, when I tripped on my way down the narrow aisle. My container hit the ground, bursting open, and my blue beetle zipped away and out the window. I was so horrified, I began to cry.

Not because I was hurt, or was sad about losing my newfound pet, but because I was so extremely worried. What would my teacher say? Would she be mad at me? Would my mark on this insignificant beetle project suffer? I cried and cried, overwhelmed with this anxiety that my actions would have the scariest consequences.

When I got to school, my teacher wiped my tears and told me she’d give me another beetle when I tried to apologize over my shaking sobs.

Maybe that should have been my first warning sign.

I was that kid that cried over spilled milk. All because I was worried about what would happen, what kind of trouble I’d get into, what kind of inconvenience I was causing others. But at this point, I was thought of as nothing more than “sensitive” by my teachers, my parents, my peers… It was just one of those things that kids outgrew eventually.

Except, I never really grew out of it.

My whole life, I’ve lived with a constant nagging feeling that something will go wrong. Think about the strange sense of nervousness you get right before a big test; your head feels foggy, your hands are pretty clammy, and your body is tingling with a sense of dread. That’s kind of how I feel, for the most part of my life.

As I grew older, life became more stressful. With that, it became much harder to handle this constant throbbing of anxiety hidden deep within my chest.

Throughout my childhood, I was considered “very bright”. I was always a few steps ahead, and brought home report cards full of straight A’s. Somehow, in my weird mind of mine, I got it into my head that any sort of failure would result in disappointment from my family and friends, and that absolutely could not happen.

It’s crazy how interconnected anxiety and perfectionism are.

My second warning sign came around the time I was 12-years-old. I was in the seventh grade, and we were doing an assignment in math. We were using a computer program to complete a package of worksheets on geometry.

Absolutely everyone was struggling. The program did not have a user-friendly interface, especially for pre-teens who were still kinda new at the whole “tech savvy” thing. I remember I was so stressed about it.

One of my friends was teasing me about the assignment, but they seemed to take note of my mounting distress. “Carole,” they said, “don’t worry. It’s going to be fine.”

And I lost it.

“It’s not going to be fine!” I snapped, feeling a rush of tears in my eyes, the painful knot of worry pulsing hard inside my heart. “I can’t do this. I can’t. I can’t!”

My friend’s face was bewildered, scared even. They slowly inched away from me.

Everyone left me alone, hoping I’d get better with some space.

It wasn’t until grade 10, that I knew something was wrong.

I was struggling to understand grade 10 academic math. I wanted to, but it was the beginning of the year, and I was just having so much difficulty. Something that once seemed so natural to me, was foreign in front of my very eyes.

I remember the day I got one of my unit tests back. This strange numbness overwhelmed my whole body. My head felt like I was lost in the clouds, my body was moving on its own. All I could feel was that familiar sense of panic. That fear, that worry, because I didn’t know what I was going to do next.

Everything was all blurry. I moved in a subdued autopilot to my locker, grabbed my lunch, went into the cafeteria and sat beside my best friend. I must have looked like a ghost, because he looked at me with a very concerned expression. “Carole….? Are you okay?”

And I just started to cry.

All at once all these emotions just broke into a big mess that I couldn’t sort through. “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!” is all I could say over and over again. The whole room was spinning, I couldn’t breathe, nothing in my body was cooperating.

It took me half an hour to calm down and stop sobbing.

My friends were shaken. They didn’t know how to help me. They tried their best, they really did. One of my friends bought me a cookie when I stopped crying, trying to cheer me up. I was just tired from my strange outburst of panic. I wanted to go home.

That was the moment I knew there was something wrong with me.

No one else ever had moments like that. I remember things that would bring me to tears would not even phase some of my friends. I felt like an outsider in my own body. Why did everything make me so worried? Why did I panic about everything?

This continued on for the whole semester. And then I put grade 10 math behind me, and tried to keep going about my life like everything was normal.

But I wasn’t okay.

Grade 11 hit me hard, just like grade 10 did. I cried about math tests, wiped away the tears, and told myself to keep going. I had to keep pushing. I had to keep ignoring how I felt. I just had to get through it. Everything will be fine, I would say to myself. That didn’t help the overwhelming nerves I got when I was waiting for my teacher to hand back my test paper.

Soon, I found that this nervousness never left me. It was always there. Even when I had nothing to worry about, I still felt stressed. I could try to relax for a while, but start feeling guilty and nervous that I was forgetting something.

It was exhausting.

I couldn’t sleep. I became afraid to be left alone with my own thoughts. I didn’t like lying in the dark while I began to overthink about almost anything until I felt like I would burst into tears. I would just stay up reading books, and stories people wrote online until I woke up the next day, not really sure when I fell asleep at all.

I didn’t know what to tell people. I didn’t understand why life just seemed so difficult for me. Something has to be wrong with me, I would always tell myself, everyone else seems to handle life so well. All I do is cry, and think about something bad that’s going to happen.

Then, I found out about anxiety on the internet.

I had met a few friends online from twitter, and they would always talk about their mental illnesses and such. So I looked it up. I read about generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorders, OCD… I remember the way my hands trembled, and how I cried alone in my bedroom. It felt too real. It felt like me.

I remember the day I told my mom I thought I had anxiety.

She was sitting on my bed when the smile from her face seemed to drop. “But… You’re so happy.”

I was happy. I’ve always been a smiley kid. I have a good life. But none of that seemed to matter when it was late at night, and I found myself crying just in fear of something bad happening in my life.

The next time I went to the doctor, I told her I thought I was anxious. She wrote me up a referral to a psychiatrist.

My dad took me to the psychiatrist’s office. If you hadn’t known better, it could’ve been any other doctor’s office. The room had a faded old brown carpet, tan coloured walls, beige seats. Everything was so monochrome, as though trying not to trigger anything inside somebody.

I didn’t see a psychiatrist that day. I saw a nurse. She had a questionnaire, to ask my questions about how I felt. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t let on to how bad my problems really were. I was scared.

The nurse thanked me for my time.

My dad and I left. We ate McDonalds for lunch, laughing and having a good time.

I didn’t hear back from the psychiatrist’s office for over a year.

In the meanwhile, I continued to navigate through life on my own. Grade 12 was one of the hardest, but also most rewarding years of my life. It was so complicated. I could go into so much detail, but I’d never be able to cover it all.

To try and summarize it all, I had a lot of stress; just as most grade 12s do. But paired with my anxiety and lack of outlet, I didn’t know how to cope. I was in grade 12 advanced functions, and I was suffering. I would get so anxious to the point where I couldn’t form a thought. I’d forget everything I’d learn, stare at a blank page, and have to hand in a test that wasn’t even half completed.

I remember going into my school guidance office to ask for an IEP, because I could not finish in time. I needed extra time.

I met with my guidance counsellor. We talked for a long time. She agreed to let me write my tests in the guidance office with extra time. But she also told me, I should see the school social worker for my anxiety.

That didn’t really help me either.

I was crumbling, falling apart at the seams. Almost every day I would leave first period math crying. Pair that with grade 12 stress, such as preparing for my university auditions, maintaining grades, a social life, working at my job. I was a mess.

My music teacher, bless her soul, was someone that really helped me during that time. She was always there for me when I needed her. She offered me advice that was hard to take, but beneficial.

My friends were always there for me when I was having a hard day.

I think if I didn’t have the support system of people I had, I would not be here today.

I finally met with a psychiatrist when I was starting to get better. I was trying to reorganize my life, change my way of thinking, learn to live without an overwhelming cloud of anxiety hanging over me.

I spoke with the psychiatrist about my experiences in the past few years. He told me, yes, I did have generalized anxiety disorder. If he had met me a year ago, he would have put me on medicine to help. But for the most part, I was doing well, learning to handle my anxiety on my own.

And I have been. For the past few months, I’ve been doing really well. I’ve been handling stress at my own pace, teaching myself how to go through things one at a time.

But just because I’m getting better, doesn’t mean it’s gone.

Yesterday, I had a panic attack.

Nothing in particular brought it on, but I felt it was coming. I was sitting at my kitchen table, just looking through my phone when I felt this nudging of nervousness start forming in the pit of my stomach. I usually try to ignore this, hoping it would go away. But it didn’t.

I hadn’t felt this way in months.

By the time I was in bed, my hands were shaking. I tried to focus on something else. I tried reading little stories online. It didn’t help. I started hyperventilating and crying, overwhelmed with anxiety that had no reason to exist.

Today, I’m here to tell you, that it was okay.

Yes, I had a panic attack.

Yes, it felt like I had lost all the progress I’ve made in the past few months.

Yes, it took me over an hour to calm down.

BUT,

I won’t let my mental illness define me.

I won’t allow for this to set me back.

I won’t let myself fall apart like I did before.

Mental illness is something powerful and scary. It’s truly terrifying to think that your own mind can be working against you. But I’m writing this long winded blog post to tell you that it is okay.

Do not let yourself suffer alone.

If I had gotten the help I needed earlier, so much of the strife I experienced could have been avoided.

There is nothing wrong with having a mental illness. It is not something that’s “all in your head”. There is a valid reason why you feel a certain way. Don’t ever let someone discredit how you feel.

If you think you are suffering from a mental illness, please tell a doctor.

Lastly, be strong. Your brain is a powerful tool. It fights against you with a vigour. But your brain is also yours. Fight with all your might. Even with medicine, with counselling, with all the help in the world, you still need to have the willingness to fight.

Mental illness is a battle I will be fighting probably until the end of my life. The key is to never stop. Because there is so much you are capable of, and so much that you can accomplish and nothing, not even mental illness can dare stop you.

I believe in you. And I believe in me.

Believe that things can always always get better.

And know that I am always always here if you need someone.

– Carole