MAN’S BEST FRIEND

How four- legged Frankie res­cued her owner from the depths of de­pres­sion

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Body and Soul - - FRONT PAGE -

“Iwas di­ag­nosed with can­cer on my 16th birth­day. I had a tu­mour in my knee, which needed chemo­ther­apy, then a knee re­place­ment, so I spent a year in and out of hospi­tal.

Phys­i­cally, it was tough, but men­tally, it was harder and I be­gan to ex­pe­ri­ence small episodes of de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety ev­ery six to 12 months. I tried not to give my men­tal health too much air-time at first. I went straight back to high school, then did an an­i­mal and vet­eri­nar­ian bio­science de­gree at univer­sity. It was only once I grad­u­ated that I fi­nally had some down­time to re­flect on what I’d been through. I com­pletely fell apart.

Ner­vous break­downs vary from per­son to per­son, and for me, it came in waves. I went from be­ing a ca­pa­ble and am­bi­tious per­son who thrived un­der pres­sure to some­one who found it al­most im­pos­si­ble to even get out of bed to have a shower. Get­ting through the day with­out trig­ger­ing an emo­tional episode was tough and I be­gan to drive away the peo­ple I valued most as I in­creas­ingly re­treated into iso­la­tion. There’s only so much peo­ple around you can do to help you if you’re not will­ing to help your­self.

At my low­est point – around De­cem­ber 2013 to Jan­uary 2014 – I could no longer go to the su­per­mar­ket. The idea of hav­ing to choose be­tween brands of ce­real was enough to trig­ger the kind of panic at­tack that would leave me ashamed and cry­ing in my car im­me­di­ately af­ter I’d fled the store. Pe­ri­ods of not eat­ing, fol­lowed by pe­ri­ods of binge-eat­ing locked me in a vi­cious cy­cle, and al­though I felt tired all the time, I couldn’t sleep. I was di­ag­nosed with bor­der­line per­son­al­ity dis­or­der and had to step away from a job I loved at an an­i­mal shel­ter be­cause my ef­fec­tive­ness in my role was greatly di­min­ished.

My dog, Frankie, and I found each other at ex­actly the right mo­ment in our lives. She was a res­cue pup who was found dumped in a box and she came to me in early 2014 through my an­i­mal res­cue work.

Al­though I was only sup­posed to be her fos­ter carer, I quickly saw the huge dif­fer­ence this lit­tle Ger­man short­haired pointer made to my life. With Frankie liv­ing in my apart­ment, I re­alised I had to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for some­one who was de­pend­ing on me. I be­gan leav­ing my apart­ment for the first time in ages to take her for walks, and cre­ated rou­tines for play, feed­ing and ex­er­cise – small things on the out­side, but a huge turn­ing point for me.

With a new­found con­fi­dence and with Frankie by my side, I was able to con­nect with a psy­chol­o­gist and com­mit to weekly ses­sions. As I be­gan talk­ing through my feel­ings, I started to feel a shift and the walls I’d built around my­self be­gan to fall down. I felt able to con­nect with the world out­side my apart­ment and I reached out to my fam­ily and friends, which was heal­ing.

Once I re­alised what a pos­i­tive im­pact Frankie was hav­ing on my men­tal health, I de­cided to get her trained as a psy­chi­atric as­sis­tance dog. I was al­ready work­ing with her to some de­gree to help me – for ex­am­ple, if I was feel­ing anx­ious, I’d get her to sit on my lap and that would calm me right down. Frankie, like most dogs, is highly in­tu­itive and of­ten knows if I need sup­port be­fore I even do. She got to a stage where she’d watch me closely, then come over and place her head in my lap, which would alert me to the need to stop and sta­bilise my emo­tions be­fore they got the bet­ter of me.

I went through this process with mind-Dog, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that helps peo­ple like me by eval­u­at­ing our dogs to en­sure they’re suit­able for the tasks be­ing asked of them, then show­ing us how to train them to man­age the needs of the han­dler’s par­tic­u­lar dis­abil­ity.

Over an 18-month pe­riod when Frankie was a trainee as­sis­tance dog, she had to pass a pub­lic ac­cess test, which showed she was happy and com­fort­able in spaces where she’d not usu­ally be able to go – such as su­per­mar­kets, where she wasn’t go­ing to be dis­tracted by temp­ta­tions like walk­ing through the meat sec­tion.

She also learnt a few calm­ing tech­niques such as deep pres­sure ther­apy, so that when­ever I’m caught up in an emo­tional

episode, she ap­plies large amounts of uni­form pres­sure to my body, which is not in­con­sid­er­able given that she’s a 25kg dog! Some­times she’ll lie still on my chest and the pres­sure helps to calm me down im­me­di­ately.

With Frankie by my side, I spent two years en­gag­ing with treat­ment prac­tices – both in one-on-one ses­sions with a psy­chol­o­gist and group ther­apy ses­sions – and to­gether we worked out a way for me to get through each day with­out ex­pe­ri­enc­ing se­vere emo­tional dis­tress. The treat­ment for my par­tic­u­lar men­tal ill­ness in­volves be­havioural ther­apy more com­monly than med­i­ca­tion and I’ve worked hard at it. I guess I did bet­ter than ex­pected, be­cause in 2015, I de­cided to go back to univer­sity and press ‘play’ on my life once more.

Ini­tially it was a ter­ri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but I started my bach­e­lor of in­te­rior ar­chi­tec­ture de­gree in 2016 and Frankie has been with me ev­ery step of the way, at­tend­ing lec­tures and tu­to­ri­als and push­ing me when my tank is empty. On days when I take off the vest that iden­ti­fies her as a psy­chi­atric as­sis­tance dog, she’s just happy to get at­ten­tion.

So, what does the fu­ture hold? Well, I plan to grad­u­ate next year and hope­fully work in an en­vi­ron­ment de­sign­ing com­mer­cial fit-outs, but no mat­ter what I do in life, I know that manag­ing my men­tal health will al­ways be a con­sid­er­a­tion. Some­times it will be a daily chal­lenge, other times weekly or monthly, but I’m now equipped with a wide range of cop­ing strate­gies and Frankie plays a big part in that. She taught me to re-en­gage with the world and grow to be­come some­one I’m now truly proud of. To­gether we can take on any­thing.”

For more in­for­ma­tion about mind-Dog and de­tails on how to get a psy­chi­atric as­sis­tance dog, visit mind­dog.org.au

Proud as punch... Jeremy’s beloved Frankie in her work uni­form as a psy­chi­atric as­sis­tance dog

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