A Reluctant Emotional Support Animal

Gouda.JPG

That gorgeous beast right there is Gouda. She’s 18 lbs of solid tortitude. Gouda tells it like it is, locking eyes before letting out a wall-shaking howl. She has strong preferences about where on her body she is willing to be touched (armpits) and where she will be located while being touched (her Amazon shipping box). She has a toy chest overflowing with Christmas gifts from her grandma but will only play with a glittery orange spider, a hard-shelled gray mouse, and a green electric “bug.”

Gouda is as much my best friend in every possible way as she is NOT a voluntary emotional support animal in any single way. Each morning she wakes up first, waiting for the alarm to go off so we can head to the bathroom together. She sleeps in her Amazon box next to my desk while I work, reaching out with her right front paw when too much time has passed without acknowledgment. But when I cry because I’m overwhelmed, hurt, or sad, she heads to another room. If I, god forbid, try to cry into her fur, she wiggles her way to freedom.

It doesn’t take peer-reviewed scientific studies for me to believe pet ownership is beneficial to a person’s mental health. But also, the studies exist and it’s true. Interacting with pets lowers our stress hormones and increases serotonin and dopamine. That’s science for “decreases anxiety and depression.” Pet ownership has been shown to increase self-esteem and improve well-being. People with pets are less lonely, less fearful, more conscientious, and less preoccupied. Pet ownership encourages mindfulness, the foundation of dialectical behavior therapy.

Most of us are familiar with the services trained dogs provide for the visually impaired. Service dogs are also trained to alleviate common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder many veterans experience upon returning home. When these dogs sit on a veteran’s lap or lie on a veteran’s chest, the warmth, weight, and pressure of the dog’s body reduces anxiety and panic. If a veteran finds him or herself in a trauma flashback or having a nightmare, the dog can help ground them in the present by licking, nudging, or pawing. These dogs are trained to stand guard at a veteran’s back, helping reduce hypervigilance. Also, they’re dogs. Dogs make for natural companions with their eager-to-please and jovial temperaments.

It’s not just house pets that have a positive impact on our mental health. Equine therapy centers provide people of all ages with experiential therapy which includes feeding, grooming, haltering, and leading horses under the supervision of a mental health professional. Equine therapy has been shown to help people in treatment for substance abuse, mood disorders, ADHD, autism, trauma, bipolar disorder, and depression. Patients treated with equine therapy have shown improvement in emotional awareness, stress tolerance, problem-solving skills, impulse control, and interpersonal relationships.

When I adopted Gouda, I was 24 years old, just two years out of an abusive relationship. I was in therapy to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder and brutal bottom-of-the-barrel depression. She, a palm-sized pile of fur, needed me to push past my pain. I had to get out of bed because she had to be fed. Even if I didn’t have the strength, energy, or desire to shower, she still required a clean cat box. She gave me no choice; I had to show up. Caretaking for Gouda trumped any symptoms of depression that would typically keep me locked in bed all weekend.

While adopting Gouda was beneficial to my ongoing battle with depression, her presence in my life, initially, had the opposite effect on the obsessive-compulsive loop in which I found myself trapped.

I became obsessed with accidentally harming her. I was afraid I would leave the refrigerator door ajar. What if she climbed in and the door shut behind her? She would suffocate. I was afraid to leave the windows open at night believing she might fall through the screen and plummet to her death from the second story. There was a period of time when I was routinely late for work because I would drive halfway to the office before the fear that I had left the front door unlocked would overwhelm me. I would drive back home to ensure my meth-addled neighbor wasn’t able to kidnap her. I checked the stove over and over again every night before going to bed. Then I would wake up in the middle of the night to check again, certain the apartment was seconds from burning to the ground.

She, miraculously, survived. I, miraculously, powered through cognitive behavioral therapy to better manage the obsessions and compulsions driving nearly every moment of my life.

I was never a good fit for Orange County. My meager administrative assistant salary didn’t support designer clothes, blonde hair extensions, luxury car payments, or Sunday Fundays on the peninsula. The only friends I made while attending UC Irvine were transplants from Northern California. I lost every single one of them over the course of the abusive relationship that spanned my final year at UCI. When that relationship ended, I had one friend. One.

Weekends were long and lonely, even when I was in a new relationship. He, cat-like himself, would head out before dawn to secluded surf spots along the coast. My texts and phone calls went unanswered for hours. Sometimes days.

We adopted Gouda together after a bottomless champagne brunch at El Torito Grill. I wanted a gray kitten and a new furever friend, but he was drawn to her tortoiseshell markings and big green eyes. When he picked her up, she crawled up his forearm and buried her face between his elbow and his ribcage. We later learned fear triggers her to smash her face in whatever is nearby until the danger passes. She was telling us, “NO THANK YOU!” not “I want to love you forever.”

Mistakenly believing she had chosen us as The Ones, we filled out her adoption paperwork. I began planning for a less lonely life with my new best friend.  

Despite carefully laid plans to establish an immediate camaraderie with the cat, the beginning of our relationship was more of a reluctant roommate period. At six-weeks-old, cats are mostly ears and feet. Whenever I spoke to her, she pulled those giant ears as far back on her tiny head as she could, a clear indication that she was not pleased by the sound of my voice. When I picked her up, she would shoot all four legs out directly in front of her, making a rigid perimeter that prevented me from getting closer. The only time I was able to pet her was when she passed out belly up after her morning zooms around the apartment. Gouda slept on my desk chair, fortified by a pleather wall to the north and plastic arms to the east and west. She perched on the back of the couch out of reach while I read.

Gouda buddy iconb.jpg

I was heartbroken…until one afternoon a few months into our courtship. I came home from work to have lunch with her and, hoping to catch a glimpse of how she entertains herself while alone, peeked through the window beside the front door. She was sound asleep, her cheek resting on the door frame. We were buds after all.

This discovery shifted our relationship. Gouda’s personal brand of companionship wasn’t what I had expected. I was never going to read a book while she sat on my lap, kneading my legs and purring. She was never going to sleep on my pillow like a little cat crown framing my head. And that’s ok.

Gouda’s companionship, though not cuddly, is still supportive. She’s the kind of cat who likes to help with chores – sitting nearby while I wash dishes, burrowing into piles of sheets while I make the bed, supervising me while I clean her litter box. She likes to talk and loves hearing her name in song. She even likes to visit the Women’s Circle I run with my neighbor, cruising the perimeter to sniff the ladies before settling into her box to nap with one eye open until everyone leaves.

I can honestly say I haven’t felt loneliness in that same soul-crushing way since Gouda came into my life. There are still times when I don’t know who to call if I want to go for a hike or when I need to bare some of my soul to help ease my suffering, but I don’t ever feel alone in this world. Gouda is always here, snoring on her pillow or sunbathing on our desk chair.

Together we have weathered two more major depressive episodes, a move across California, marriage, divorce, and a full mental health breakdown. Her consistent presence and our daily routines are what anchor me with purpose. Sometimes mental illness tricks me into believing life isn’t worth living. Regardless of the lies my brain tells me, I know her life always matters.

Gouda doesn’t care for the days when I weep rivers of black mascara into the toilet. She doesn’t love when I starfish on the floor to stave off a panic attack. But she’s always waiting on the other side with a howl to let me know her dinner is late and she’ll be expecting a round of spider catch when she finishes her meal. Her throaty demands are a reminder that no matter how bad the symptoms get, we can always return to life as normal. Just the two of us.