How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
I wake to a long howl, a jostle of the bed, and the wet, whisker-fuzzy feeling of dog kisses on my face.
“I have to go,” my partner says, blowing a kiss and waving from half behind the door. “Indiana wanted to see you.”
Of course the dog wanted to be with me. She’s obsessed with me.
Now, much like when we first got her, I’m unemployed and depressed.
When we got Indiana, a wild, beautiful, needy, rambunctious 11-week-old husky, I was at home all the time. We were like glue. I was with her 24/7, keeping her from chewing on wires, wiping up her accidents, watching her sleep.
Before Indiana, there were times that I was too hopeless to leave my bed for entire days. There were times when I was afraid to leave my place to buy coffee because I thought the barista would judge me.
These are not options when you have a puppy. Especially not this puppy.
While she never wanted to cuddle, she always wanted to be near me. If I left her alone, she would howl the entire time. Desperate, high-pitched, I’m-dying-here-without-you howls.
She needed me to pay attention to her. She needed me to take her places. She needed me to stay engaged.
Indiana has been good for my mental health, just not exactly in the way that I’d hoped.
Forcing me to engage with the world
You know that feeling when you just want to stay in bed another 10 minutes before you have to face the day? Or when you have a project to work on and you’ve been putting off getting started — a little guilty, a little anxious, you know what you need to do but you just can’t start?
Now, imagine magnifying those feelings as large as you can. Never get out of bed. Never start your project. This is how I’ve felt for the past five years.
But it was different with Indiana. She gives me a sense of purpose.
During times when I was unable to take concrete steps toward bettering my life and career, I was able to read books and watch videos on dog training, and take her on the long, epic walks she needed as a sled dog.
There were days when the only reason I showered and put on real clothes was so that I could take her to her behavior class. (Yes, I often walked her in my pajamas.)
I was able to find energy to take care of her when I had none to take care of myself.
I assumed she’d get easier as she got bigger. I thought the training would pay off. I fantasized that one day I could take her to a coffee shop and she wouldn’t lunge at scones or bark at the real service dogs.
But she’s remained difficult.
She has myriad behavior issues, which I attribute to her breed’s notorious reputation. She’s destructive. She tore up her own dog bed. She learned to steal, sneaking into the room slowly, softly lifting the remote, then running out of the room at a breakaway pace. She’s snagged stuffed animals from the aisles of stores, and I get stuck paying for them. She’s eaten pizza crusts off the street.
Her antics have kept me involved in her training well past her puppyhood. She’s continued to challenge me, forcing me to stay engaged with her, and with the world.
Indiana is pretty confident. It’s her life’s mission to meet and befriend every dog she sees. I, however, suffer from social anxiety. I replay conversations weeks and even months later. I loathe small talk; my mind goes completely blank, and I trying to think of something, anything at all, to say.
The problem is that between her personality and the fact that people are drawn to the beauty of huskies, I meet a lot of people. It’s impossible to leave my apartment without having to discuss my dog with at least five strangers. I always have to factor in extra time for Indiana’s fans when I’m running errands.
The first time we took her to Tahoe, I felt like I was at Disneyland with Taylor Swift: We couldn’t walk five feet without being stopped.
People don’t even catcall me anymore. They just shout “nice dog.”
So, with Indiana at my side, I’ve gotten way more comfortable with small talk. When I avoid people now, I know it’s for a reason other than my anxiety.
Anti-therapy dog prescription: a husky
I thought a dog would be a sturdy, assuring presence, but what I got was a needy, frenetic beast. Still, she helps by being work that I can’t hide from and can’t ignore.
I can let dishes pile up, ghost on text chains, send Sallie Mae to voicemail. I can be indefinitely underemployed.
But in the face of this living, breathing fur ball who loves me, my depression and anxiety surrender. I have to take care of her.
She wasn’t the kind of dog I envisioned. I thought she’d keep me company when I was lonely and comfort me when I was sad. But she doesn’t cuddle or approach me to assuage my anxiety.
Once, I was having a panic attack and crying on the floor, and she just kept nudging me, bringing me toys, and howling to get my attention to go outside.
I couldn’t pull myself out of it to attend to her, and she didn’t understand why, which made me feel guilty on top of everything else.
Often, I wish that she were easier.
The same behaviors that make it impossible for me to mentally check out can, on worse days, spur my anxiety into full bloom. Some days, when she howls at me to tie my shoes faster, or snatches a chicken bone from the sidewalk, I feel like I’m at my wit’s end.
But ultimately, I love her. Sometimes I wonder if I would’ve slipped further into despair without Indiana.
When I think I’m worthless, I think about how elated she is to see me when I come home, how she follows me from room to room. Many dog owners probably feel more self-worth because of the intensity of their dog’s love.
But you know what else makes me feel good? Thinking about what a good person I am for keeping her. Many reasonable, non-depressed people would’ve thrown in the towel.
I read articles about “Game of Thrones” fans buying huskies and then surrendering them because, it turns out, owning a Siberian husky is more difficult than owning a magical dire wolf. But I’m a good dog owner, and I’m committed to Indiana.
If you want a traditional therapy animal, don’t get a husky. Get an old dog, a lap dog, a chill, “who rescued who?” dog that just wants rest its head on your knee and sigh.
Or do what I did: Get a husky, throw your entire self into caring for her — even on days when you literally skip brushing your hair — and hope for the best.
Ryan Ascolese is a freelance writer living in San Francisco with her husband, dog, and cat. When she’s not writing, she about mental illness and maintains an account for her pets. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and has a JD from the NYU School of Law.