Category Archives: service dog
I’ve been absent (again) on my blog. For awhile it was touch and go with things related to my eating disorder. I’m back on a more level playing field but I wouldn’t call it stable ground yet. I began to struggle a few weeks ago. For numerous reasons that would take a lot of time to go into here and honestly I’m not quite ready to share. Anyways, after a lot of days of little nutrition, negotiations with parents and treatment team I’m at a place where I’m eating again with supervision and my safe foods. We are doing a step by step approach to add on scarier foods each week but this week was safe foods.
I’m eating because I’m supervised but I do have a choice. I could sit in front of my parents and say “nope. not going to eat that” but I haven’t. I guess it’s because I didn’t go totally downhill. I didn’t loose enough weight for my mind to become crazy and everything rational to be gone. I could still think and what I thought about was Gus. If I had had to return to treatment (which at several points was looking likely as the amount of food I was consuming was not acceptable at all) Gus would not have been allowed to go with me. At this point in our relationship and his training it would be hugely detrimental. We would loose all of our progress and he could potentially not become a service dog. I know this because I’ve done it before.
In August of 2010, I had adopted a young pup from the shelter. I named her Shona which is the name of the native language my friend from Zimbabwe speaks. I was just back from Laureate’s eating disorder program and was in a fast relapse after being home a month. I loved Shona deeply from the first time I saw her but a month after adopting her I was off to Utah to The Center for Change for another 5 1/2 months of treatment. While I was gone Shona had a great life, living with my parents but it wasn’t the same. They purposely didn’t try to bond with her so she would know she was my dog when I returned and she did but important time was lost. Shona was never meant to be a service dog at that time but those early months of her first year where she would have learned basic obedience and manners were lost and we never quite regained that ground. Shona never quite developed the level of obedience I wished until she was much older. And I believe this was due to my leaving her at a young age.
If I left Gus now at 8 1/2 months of age when he is so impressionable and our bonding is so important not to mention his service dog training and obedience training I truly believe we could never make it up. We would never become a service dog team. The idea terrifies me. I love this dog more than most things in my world right now and to be without him seems unbearable. So I was close to going back to some sort of treatment be it full inpatient or a partial program with boarding but I managed to create structure with my parents and treatment team where we created our own sort of partial program where I am basically receiving the same support I would had I gone to a partial program. I have meal support and we have defiantly upped the therapy time and amount of time I’m spending with my dietician.
Without meal support would I be eating? I wish I could say yes, but I can’t. Not right now. My eating disorder is really strong and the grip it has on me seems to be unbreakable. But I’m learning that this can’t matter. I do what I need to do anyways just with help right now. I don’t give myself a chance to skip meals or restrict my intake because I have a support team around me.
So am I in a relapse? The answer would be yes – if left to my own devices as I was a few weeks ago. Now I’ve been pulled out by other people. I’m letting them do the work right now while I comply and follow directions. I’m letting myself go on autopilot for awhile. I don’t have the motivation for complete recovery. I do have the motivation to allow others to help me. And this is the first time I’ve gotten to this place and allowed others to break into the dark, isolated world that my eating disorder has created. Progress.
And so I’m going along. Still living and existing. Starting school. Beginning a pet sitting business. Working with Gus both on obedience and service dog skills. Teaching him to swim. It’s nice to keep these things going and not have to loose them all while I go sit somewhere and relearn how to eat in an artificial environment. I am hugely grateful that my family has made it possible for me to remain in my world and still receive the help that I need. Hugely grateful. And so thank you family. Thank you for allowing me to stay home and remain with my Gus.
I’ve been putting off writing this post. I’ve been doing a lot of crying and a whole lot of mourning the past couple of days. On Friday, Benny had a seizure followed by several more in the following 72 hours. What does this mean? Well, it means Benny probably has epilepsy which changes his life in many ways and also means it immediately moved him into retirement from service dog work.
Watching Benny have a seizure is one of the scariest things I have had to witness. The seizure itself is scary but the aftereffects even more so for me. He is confused, seems to forget where he is and can hardly walk. He is uncomfortable and moves from the floor, to the chair, to the couch and back again. The only thing he wants seems to be me. He is extremely clingy.
After his first seizure I loaded him into the car almost as soon as it was done. At that point I didn’t really know what had happened. On the way to the vet it dawned on my mother and me that he must have had a seizure as he appeared to be coming out of whatever happened to him. The vet confirmed this. Blood was taken and the preliminary diagnosis is epilepsy. Within 48 hours Benny had had two more seizures (one serious, one less so) and another one later.
On Thursday Benny and I will travel to Kansas State Veterinary Clinic to meet with a specialist and to determine if it exactly is epilepsy and hopefully get him started on a medication regimen. More than likely Ben will have to take meds for the rest of his life.
I expect Ben to by and large live a happy and full life. Yes, it will be marred by seizures (hopefully only occasionally) but they can by and large be controlled by medication is what I am told. He can no longer be my service dog something both him and I must come to terms with but he can live his life out as a loved and spoiled pet (and trust me he’ll be spoiled).
I would have liked for our partnership to end with Ben retiring in old age but it is not to be. I will have to mourn this for awhile. I will miss my boy but I do have Shona to work (and someday another dog). I am extremely lucky in that I have my Shona girl to step in. I am also lucky that I can keep Ben and have him with me everyday. So yes, I am sad. Devastated really but Ben and I will move forward as a team and face this together just as we have faced every other challenge placed before us.
So I recently wrote that I had been admitted to the psych ward twice (the first time just short of three days and the second time just short of a week). What I failed to mention was what I did with my service dogs, Benny and Shona, while I was admitted. This was deliberate. There is so much criticism in the service dog world about how people treat their dogs and represent service dogs as a whole. In fact, there is a whole Facebook page dedicated to finding “fakers” or people they deem irresponsible or misrepresenting service dogs and publicly exposing them. I was reluctant to share my decisions in how I handled my stay and my dogs in fear of judgement and bullying but I am choosing to in order to perhaps help someone else think through how they would like to handle a similar situation.
First, I need to say that I always consider my dog’s needs first before my own. The hospital I go to is a safe environment with a well trained staff. In addition, it sits on a large area of grounds and easy access to these for potty breaks at anytime. In addition, I could take my service dog for short ten to fifteen minute walks. Staff was more than accommodating day or night in allowing me to take Ben or Shona out. Before staying at the hospital I considered my dog’s temperate. Ben is a dog that is not easily effected by other’s emotions. If Ben is a dog that naturally picks up and feels all the feelings around him a psych. hospital would not be the place for him. But Ben is very emotionally stable and stern. He loves people but their emotions don’t effect him negatively (Shona struggles with this more) so Ben was the dog I chose to take with me.
Ben did not remain “on duty” the entire time he was at the hospital. He was allowed to visit with the other patients, play and act like a dog. If he had remained “on duty” the entire time he would have become worn out and burnt out. Instead he had time to just be Ben and be a dog. There were times I needed him on duty but I also made sure he could be Ben. I deliberately made sure I spent time in my room during the day so he could sleep just like he would at home and wouldn’t be overstimulated. This way he got enough rest.
I considered the population of patients. I was not in a severe mentally ill unit. For the most part there were not psychotic patients. Most were struggling like me so Ben was in no danger. He in fact provided much needed relief to these patients and when not working was allowed to be petted, cuddled and hugged. He served as a therapy dog as much as anything. This is important to note. If you are considering taking your dog inpatient you need to be clear to yourself before going in what your boundaries will be. Will you enforce the no petting rule? I did when Ben was on duty but when he was not I allowed him to be petted like a normal dog. This will require interaction. People naturally want to pet your dog. They will ask questions. You will have to be near them. This was hard for me. But Ben craved their attention and in order for me to make the stay positive for him I allowed him to have the attention he desired.
Another factor that made the hospital stay feasible was my parents were able to visit every night. My dad took Ben out for a thirty minute walk each night. So Ben got plenty of exercise and a chance to run. Each day when they were there I evaluated his mood, attitude well-being, exhaustion and stress level to see if he was able to stay another day. If he had indicated he was stressed at all I would have sent him home immediately.
To sum up my experience with Ben I made the right decision to take him with me. It worked for us. It’s not going to work for every situation. It’s a combination of having the right hospital, the right population of patients, the right timing, the right access to resources and the right dog. Ben has come out of his stay a better service dog. His behavior is more focused and concentrated. He learned a lot from his time there. And how do I know he was not harmed from his stay? Every-time I return there for outpatient Ben wags his tail and becomes increasily excited thinking we are returning to the hospital. He would like nothing better. Sorry buddy if I have anything to say about it we are staying far away.
In May of this year I announced that my psychiatric service dog, Ben, would be retiring. At that point I didn’t know if it would be temporary or permeant. In the meantime I was very blessed to have another dog (Shona) to step in and fill his duties. In five months since then Shona has become a great service dog in training who has learned, grown and proved to be a great partner. Our bond has grown and she has proved that she is meant to be a service dog. However, in the last month or so Ben began to indicate a desire to work again. I was cautious for many reasons. Ben was retired due to some fairly serious problems but at the time I also wasn’t completely convinced it would be a permeant retirement due to the adolescent period labs go through, our relatively new partnership and a variety of other factors. So when he began to show interest I cautiously began introducing Ben to non-stressful working environments around the beginning of September.
Since then Ben has shown that he is truly ready to be a service dog. He is a different dog than he was four or five months ago. He is now a focused, secure dog that shows little to no signs of stress when out. Of course he still retains that goofy temperament that makes Benny, Benny but it is tempered by the attitude of a (mostly) mature dog. A very, very different Benjamin than who he was back in May. I contribute this to several factors. Benny and I hadn’t even begin together for a year when he began to show signs of needing at least a temporary retirement. We loved each other but really we were still getting to know each other. It’s understandable that he and I needed time to bond and learn to trust each other without the stress working in a public situations brings. Taking time to play, snuggle and spend time together without worrying about going out was so beneficial to both of us. Benny is now my constant shadow. Even more so than when he first arrived. He is more intuitive to my needs (although not quite as much as Shona) and I believe as time goes by he will continue to be.
In addition, I began comprehensive obedience work. I am very confident in this situation. I have shown in obedience since I was seven years old and the structure is comforting to me and familiar. This is a direct contrast to public situations. So this gave Benny a time to trust me. To follow my lead and for me to demonstrate that I was the leader in our relationship. He could relax and follow my lead and he loved it! In addition, the extra training and commands helped Benny to focus his scattered mind and keep him sharp as he took a break.
Finally, the break allowed Benny time to just be a dog and I really think he needed this. He played. He ran with my dogs. He wrestled. He soaked up attention from my grandmother. He was able to be petted whenever he wanted. He was in heaven. But then one day he suddenly wasn’t. He wasn’t okay when I left. He started asking to have his vest put on. And so I put it on him. I took him for a short outing to a low stress place that we could leave at once if things didn’t go well. But they did. And so we went again. And then to a different place and gradually we’ve kept going and I’ve been really proud of him. He’s learning new things (a “where’s the car” command and a “lead out” command where he finds the exit as well as leading me to my parents in the store). And so far he’s been great.
I’m not pushing things though. I don’t work him too much or in stressful situations. I switch him out with Shona and Shona does a lot of the more stimulating and stressful situations (she does well with them). I think Benny will always work part time or quarter time and Shona will fill in the gaps and I’ll never hesitate to retire again and permanently if he needs it but honestly? I think Benny is ready to work. I think he wants to work. He’s happy. I’m happy.
I’ve gotten some questions/suggestions lately that perhaps I should pursue therapy. I’m not offended in the slightest. I think most of the comments came from a fairly good place and therapy ceased to embarrass me a long time ago. Because the truth is that I do see a therapist. Twice a week right now but this is actually the least amount of treatment I’ve had in four years.
In January 2009, after ending an abusive relationship I began seeing a therapist (a really crappy one but that’s another story). I was humiliated and embarrassed that my anxiety had become such that I couldn’t function in everyday life and that I had to seek professional help. The whole idea that I was seeing a “shrink” embarrassed me beyond belief to the point I went at great lengths to hide the fact from my college classmates that I was driving an hour once a week to seek help. I truly believed that it was “just anxiety” that was causing my obvious decline in my mental health but instead of getting better from treatment I felt downhill. Fast.
In September of 2009 I entered treatment for anorexia at Laureate’s eating disorder program. I stayed for ten months going through inpatient, residential, transitional living and back to inpatient for another short stint. I left OK (where Laureate is located). This was in July 2010. By September 2010 I was hospitalized again this time at The Center for Change in Orem Utah. This treatment stay was focused on my eating disorder and my PTSD. I left in February 2011 (after five and a half months) in a much better place, stable mentally for the first time in many years and armed with coping skills.
The next two years were rough. I was in and out of the psychiatric hospital. For a stretch of time I was in every month. In December of 2011 I went to Washington DC to The Psychiatric Institute of Washington’s Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I learned a lot here but it also opened a lot of wounds and closed memories and so my cycle in and out of the hospital continued until July of 2012. This is when my service dog Ben entered my life.
Since Ben arrived I have been stable. I have not had to be hospitalized for my eating disorder, self-harm, depression, anxiety or PTSD. I receive the least treatment I have in four years, simply seeing my wonderful therapist twice a week.
I tell you all of this because like I mentioned at one time I was so filled with shame that I was in therapy. I saw it as a weakness, an embarrassment, a sign of failure and something that made me somehow “less than” everyone else in my life. I went so far as to tell professors when leaving college to go to treatment that it was due to heart problems (not a lie at that point my heart was severely compromised due to my eating disorder) instead of due to my anorexia (however they probably guessed anyways).
Therapy is so stigmatized. Especially by young people. I believe that this is due to a number of factors but a primarily one being the lack of information regarding mental health. This not only harms those who struggle with diagnosed mental illnesses but also those who need help but refuse to seek it out of shame. The media does not help. Crimes (such as the recent Naval Yard shooting) are blamed on mental illness. Yes, this may be the cause however the media fails to mention that the majority of people who suffer from mental illness are in no ways violent or dangerous. How can someone feel unashamed of their mental struggles when they unintentionally compare themselves to a deranged man who killed many people?
The reality is that seeking help is a sign of strength. I never would have believed this four years ago but working through treatment and recovery has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Much harder than making straight A’s in high-school, much harder than transitioning to college and much much harder than staying stuck in my illnesses.
So yes, I see a therapist and no I am not ashamed. Not anymore and I can say this:
I am Kate. I have PTSD, depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. I see a therapist. I have been hospitalized for my mental illness. I have a psychiatric service dog who without I would not be able to function. But I am no less a person because of these things.
This last week was Invisible Disability Awareness Week as well as Suicide Awareness Week. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that they fall on the same week but it is fitting that they do so. Suicidal ideation like all mental health conditions is an invisible illness that seeps into the conciseness and can be as deliberating as many other “visible” illnesses.
I remember the soul crushing weariness and hopelessness I felt for many years before receiving treatment of any kind and not having any kind of validation for this feeling caused even more hopelessness. At this point in my life I had no voice with which to speak. I did not know how to share my pain or advocate for myself. As I spiraled further down into anorexia and my weight loss began to mimic the sickness inside me there was some relief. Now someone knew I was not ok. Now it showed. However, as my weight climbed into the normal range again I was left once again with all of the challenges that come with an invisible illness. (important thing to note: you cannot tell if a person has an eating disorder based on their shape or weight. In fact, an eating disorder can be one of the most deadly forms of an invisible illness and I was in fact very sick at an acceptable weight).
And these challenges that come with an invisible illness are many. As I began to inch my way towards recovery my activities were limited. I did not attend school nor did I work. However, I often got the question ‘where do you go to school?’ and when I said I wasn’t in school it was followed by ‘okay so where do you work?’. I was often considered to be lazy because I didn’t do something productive. I didn’t look sick or ill therefore in society’s eyes I wasn’t. This extended to friendships. Some friends didn’t understand that I didn’t turn down invitations because I didn’t like them but because mentally I had limited resources and reserves for what I could and couldn’t do. I lost some of these friends who didn’t try to learn. And then there were my long absences from life which was the time I spent in the hospital. This was also hard to explain to those who would see me one day looking fine and the next I would be hospitalized for up to a week at a time. As hard as many people tried to understand many couldn’t and some wouldn’t try.
Now I face new challenges – having a service dog while while not looking disabled. Benny sometimes wears a patch that says not all disabilities are visible as a reminder that just because I don’t look disabled doesn’t mean I am not. Most people assume I am training Benny and Shona for someone else and when asked and I say that yes, they are service dogs and yes they are mine. I get probing questions that quite frankly sometimes I struggle to answer politely.
Mental illnesses are not the only invisible illnesses. There are many others. Wonder into a service dog group and you’ll find at least ten other handlers that have a service dog for an invisible disability and each has a different illness.
And from these handlers I have learned that it is impossible to know someone’s story just as it is impossible to know my story. I hope you’ll join me in dropping judgement about mental health, the use of accommodations and other disabilities.
Well I’m popping in on my blog to let everyone know that I’ve decided to officially take a break from blogging here until September. It’s probably been obvious I’ve taken a break from my lack of posts but I wanted to let you know that I have made that “official” in my mind and will be back starting in September. I’ve been busy working with my dogs, starting my Animal Behavior College classes, continuing Shona’s training and of course attending therapy along with a variety of other things. I’ve blogging some on my tumblr site as it is a very quick way to post and update photos there almost daily (here is a direct link to those photos) and updating my facebook page. Here is the new link to that. I’ll continue updating those throughout August so you can for sure find me and the pups there.
I’ll talk to you soon!
– Kate (and the pups)
Where to find me in the Meantime:
My tumblr – Life with Ben and Shona
Instagram – kate_givan
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
My youtube account – videos of the dogs
It’s been awhile since I’ve last posted. I’ve been living life instead of blogging about that and I find that I can’t apologize for that. I have’t *lived* into life and been this busy in a really long time and it feels good. Weird but good.
My life is filled with new things but some things remain the same and these are as always my dogs. Although, it has taken me awhile to see this. For some time I wasn’t sure how to approach the changes within Benny, Shona’s and my life. Benny was moving into full retirement, Shona into full service dog in-training status and me into a two dog mom again. Recently, though I have realized that at heart Benny will always be a service dog. I’ve taken him out of public access, yes. But he still performs his jobs at home. Better even than before. He follows me from room to room. Does deep pressure tasks and takes care of me in a loving and gentle way. He and Shona often “tag-team” at our apartment (although sometimes they do have a few disagreements about who gets to sit on the couch with me – these mostly look like Shona herding Benny and Benny trying to go around her. I really should try and catch it on video sometime).
I feel so blessed to have these dogs in my life that are so devoted to me. And they truly are. They love the other members of my family but both Shona and Benny truly prefer to be with me. This makes it hard to leave Ben when Shona and I go out but it also reaffirms my decision to continue having him live with me. And so all three of us are happy. Benny is adjusting well, Shona has slipped into her new role effortless and I am at peace.
Could I really ask for much else?
At some point I stopped counting the months. At some point I stopped celebrating them. The first year I was home from CFC I celebrated (and usually blogged about – check the archives if you are interested) each month I was home from CFC. One month, I would type into my faceboook status leaving the world to guess. Two, then three and finally the big one SIX MONTHS HOME IN RECOVERY. I shared then because I had stopped hiding behind any facades. I had a two year gap on my profile from when I was in treatment, no answers from well meaning (or not so) people when they asked what I was doing (I actually started spouting off ‘finding myself’ if I got too irritated) and of course I’d started this blog. Hard to hide when you have a blog with your real name attached …And that was just it I didn’t want to hide anymore. So I didn’t. And I shared each of those milestones on here….seven months.eights months. nine months….ONE YEAR.
And after a year I continued celebrating. I didn’t count the months on facebook or on my blog. In fact, I didn’t count them for myself unless I delibratingly stopped and thought. There was a rough patch. A long one right after six month mark and into the year and a half mark while I waited for Benny to arrive. It’s seems like I spent more time in the psych. hospital than out while we tried to get me mentally stabilized and diagnose me correctly and a short stay at a trauma facility. But I never relapsed back into my eating disorder. I came close a couple of times but somehow I kept a hold of my recovery.
And then this year I celebrated my two year recovery anniversary – this past February actually. My parents and I went out to dinner (how appropriate and wonderful way to mark a recovery from an eating disorder). They gave me a sweet gift and so did Ben (:D).
And so I’ve continued. I’m not counting the months anymore. I suspect I’ll always mark the year. Maybe not publicly Maybe not with anyone else but to me February 22nd (or aroundish there) will always be a day of rebirth. But the moments, the minutes, the months that I stay in recovery? Oh, I let those fly by.
Except I stopped the other day. I was handing cash to a person in a drive-through and I looked down at my left wrist where I have a tattoo that says hope with the o replaced by the eating disorder recovery symbol and was suddenly stopped dead in my tracks. And as I drove away from the drive-through I replayed it in my head. Slowly.
I. Am. In. Recovery. From. An. Eating. Disorder. That. Almost. Killed. Me.
I’m here. Handing cash to a person through a little window. Driving with the windows down and a dog’s head stuck out the back. Bad music coming from the radio. Not in a sterile hospital room. Not running laps around the block. Not dead. I am in recovery.
There are a thousand other scenarios that could be taking place today had I not stumbled onto hope and held onto it and let it lead me into recovery. But I did hold on. I did make it here. And I realized that yes, I do celebrate my recovery once a year perhaps it is something I should remind myself more often how precious it is. Not only is the reminder tattooed on my wrist it is around me in every way. All I have to do is look.