You don’t know me but you might know my dog. He’s just like yours: soul piercing eyes, a heart of gold, farts that make you evacuate the building, and an unwavering sense of love and selflessness.
Ollie has been in my life for almost 7 years. I call him the face of love. Part lab, part basset hound, and all parts sassy, he is the longest relationship I have ever had, likely the only man I’ll ever need in my life – which is probably how he likes it.
I’m Kirsten. I’m a full-time writer, part-time dog high-fiver, who lives in downtown Vancouver. People ask me how I like writing for a living and I’ll tell them I love it, obviously, but after 30 seconds, I’m already telling them that I love my job most of all because I get to bring Ollie to work. Whether the conversation ends or continues after that will tell me if that person is a dog person or not and how much I should really tell them about the extent of my dog crazy-ness, which, is extreme.
In my Tinder profile, for instance, my dog is in more than half of the photos. A quick glance at my profile will show you that I mention the word “dog” 8 times. I also link my profile to my Instagram account, which might as well be Ollie’s Instagram account; more than half of the photos are of him and his face of love.
When I’m matched with men and they ask me what I do for fun, I’ll regale them with stories about my dog. Ollie comes with me on the first date as a pseudo litmus test: first to see how they are with him, second to see what he thinks about them. And, because I’m an awkward person by nature, when I run out of things to make small talk about, and I usually do, I revert to stories about Ollie. Or will show them photos of Ollie. Or will ignore them completely and rub Ollie’s belly. Which is usually met with: wow, you weren’t kidding when you said you’re dog crazy.
I won’t disagree. But I’d say I’m not dog crazy. I’m just crazy. I’m a crazy person. Who also happens to love my dog an inordinate amount.
I’m allowed to say I’m crazy because it’s me. And I am.
I live with Social Anxiety Disorder and Depression. Two mental illnesses that affect me in two completely different ways that often leave me utterly exhausted at the end of the day. One winds me up, takes my heart on marathons and has me obsessing over the most irrational things. The other drags me down with weights and has me obsessing with ideas of hiding away from everyone until I disappear forever.
You wouldn’t guess it if you first met me. That’s because I’ve spent more than two decades carefully constructing myself in a way that hides all my quirks and ticks in an effort to appear “normal”. And while my mental illness does not define who I am, it does affect me in ways that shape my life. It’s the reason, for instance, why I workout 6 days a week (yay endorphins!). It’s the reason I eat healthily, journal, read, see a therapist, have a dog (YAY), walk everywhere, meditate, be social even when I don’t want to, and take medication.
It’s the reason I speak up during Bell Let’s Talk and Mental Health Week (May 1-7). I do so because mental illness runs in my family. Because it affects some of the best people I know and love. Because 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness throughout their lifetime.
It’s why I faked sick for 3 weeks in elementary school. It’s why I faked sick for 4 in University. It’s why I used to turn to alcohol to numb my pain. It’s also the reason I have self-harmed, contemplated suicide, and, just last year, wanted my life to end and, in fact, had a plan to do so.
But I didn’t. I’m still here. And there’s a big reason for why. Actually, it’s the only reason. And he’s sitting beside me right now, snoring and emitting gas in his sleep.
In the short time that I have been blessed to call Ollie my best friend, my dude has been with me through countless life events (both good and bad) just as I’ve been with him through his own life events (good and bad).
I rescued Ollie 6.5 years ago. I was 22 and he was 6 months old and the only thing I knew about him was that he was saved from a high-kill shelter in California, a day before he was set to be put down. In his adoption photo, instead of the energetic, happy puppy he should be, I saw a sadness in face; his eyes had this weathered look that told me he had seen too much in his short life. I thought how good it would be to make this dog happy and see his eyes light up. It didn’t matter to me that I was a 2nd year University student with little to no idea of her future. I just knew I wanted to rescue a dog, that I wanted this dog, so I could show him life could be so good. It’s funny, now, how years later, Ollie has returned the favour tenfold.
I have had 6.5 years of goofy, sassy, Ollie love and watched him grow from an unsure pup to a wise senior that prefers couches over coffee walks, squirrels over cats, and has mastered the long-lost art of the judge-y side eye.
I have watched him run out onto a speeding highway and return unscathed. I was there when he had to be get stitched up after puncturing his chest. He has been to tops of Yukon mountains with me, swam in the ocean with me, peed on the side of highways with me. I have witnessed him get trampled by a moose, get chased by a ravenous goose, watched him side eye my tinder dates, and, most recently, seen him do somersaults over my passenger seat while we almost, but not quite, went over a cliff in Northern BC.
I am lucky to know him, feed him, house him, pick up his poop, and call him my friend. Because above being super cool, really brave, and having met a moose and lived to tell the tale, Ollie, bless his pure soul, saved me.
It is no secret to my family and close friends that I live with mental illness; I’m not ashamed of it. But that still doesn’t make it easy to admit or talk about. And that tells me a great deal. It tells me that talking about it is still in great need.
For people who don’t live with mental illness, it is easy to excuse and harder to understand. It’s because the battle that someone is fighting is completely invisible. Every day, someone with a mental illness wakes up and goes to battle with their mind, which, to me, makes them a badass motherpupper. But not everyone understands the symptoms of mental illness or why it’s something that grapples them so. And in an attempt to bridge a connection with this person who is struggling in ways that aren’t comprehensible, words often escape one’s mouth that, in I’m sure are well meaning, but do more damage than they intend. Words like just snap out of it. Have you tried exercise? Have you thought about just getting outside more? Smile! Let it go and be happy – there are people out there who are worse off than you.
I have heard many of these. In fact, I’ve heard all of them. And while their intentions may be good, the impression that is left is that I am burdening that person with something that even I don’t understand fully.
So, on days when it’s good, when I’m not in the clutches of its invisible claws, I live life to the fullest, like Ollie. Because I know that sometime soon, around the corner, there could be a bad day. And that I can try all the things in my cocktail of crazy remedies to make it better, which may or may not work.
The one thing I know of all my tried and true methods for self-love is that when all else fails, I have Ollie.
Ollie has seen me through and brought me back from the depths of dark places that I know I’ll likely revisit again. We all will. Mental illness isn’t something that can be shaken from your shoulders. It can’t be smacked out of you like ketchup coming loose from a bottle. It’s ever present. It’s deep and tangible. It looms. On good days, it feels like there is nothing wrong with you at all. On the bad days, the dark days, everything is a struggle and the weight of it is enough to make you believe the lies that it tells you.
Dogs have that magical ability to simply just be. They’re there, with a goofy smile or kind eyes that just kind of say, “Oh, hey. What’s up? Wanna go for a walk or something? No? We could eat? No? Cool. Well, whatever you want to do is really cool with me. Let’s just chill here.” And will be unselfishly happy to do so for as long as you want to. Because dogs just are. They are just. They will sit with you, love you, comfort you, just by being there, regardless of what you are doing or not doing. They are wonderful creatures who love you more than they love themselves and that is what makes them pure magic.
It’s no coincidence that people with mental illness report improvements to their wellness after being around a dog, even if it’s just for 30 seconds. Dogs simply live in the moment, unaffected by the complex emotions that humans do. Time is constant and linear and they move forward effortlessly in ways that I truly envy.
Ollie is the best remedy to every dark day I know. He’s the one thing that always brings me back to myself every single time I get to the brink of something that can never be undone.
Ollie has sat by me through 2 breakups and 1 soul crushing, air deflating heartache. He watched me through a hospital scare and sat by me for a 3-week recovery. He was there when I graduated University and had whimsical dreams of taking over the world with a good word and a pen full of ink. I held his fur when I was first diagnosed with major Depression, feeling a sad comfort that I had something to define the dark urges I was having, disappointed that I wasn’t “normal”, but calm that I had a four-legged tether to anchor me to my new world.
He moved up north with me and then back down south with me. Sustained injuries in a car crash with me. When my mental illness took me to haunting places that pushed the boundaries between thought and action, he was there. Just being a dog. Every time my fingers twitched on a steering wheel, when I eyed a bridge with adrenaline, when I thought how easy it could be to finish my cup of coffee, go outside, shut my eyes and walk in front of a passing bus, I thought of his face of love. His eyes, his fur, his soft woofs while he sleeps, and always always always Ollie brought me back to being here.
Ollie is the one purest, good thing that I have in my life. His health, his happiness, his entire being depends on me. If I did something to myself, if I left, if suddenly I was no longer a presence, he would be alone. And I could never do that to him.
For how little I love myself in those moments (which, with a lot of daily work, time, and care, are now few and far between these days) for how strong the desire I have had to end everything, always, I feel this strong anchoring, the four-legged tether to this 7-year old sack of love, gas, and gracelessness.
I saved Ollie 6.5 years ago. But Ollie saved me, too. And he saves me every day. He is my constant; my northern star. On the days when it’s hard and the weight of my invisible battle is a pressure on my chest that cannot be moved or shrunk or stilled, I reach for his fur and he meets my hand with a gentle bob of his head or a heavy sigh that I choose to interpret as his way of saying do not worry, I am here.
Please join us May 13th for our first ever #DontShopAdopt event, where we will walk to raise awareness of the importance of dog rescue. Because, most often, it’s not just one life you are saving. Rescue goes both ways. We have so many incredible dogs that need your help, who need saving, who, like all of us at some point in our lives, are scared, alone, feeling lost, and need someone to reach out, remind them they are not alone, and to just be there.
If you’re struggling with mental illness, please: reach out to someone. You are not alone. A friend, a co-worker, your doctor. There are anonymous hotlines you can chat online or call where you can speak to someone – sometimes all we need is someone to listen (dog or human) and often, though it may seem small, it can make a difference.