This is my family’s dog, Ghillie. She is a 13-year-old soft-coated Wheaten Terrier. Though she isn’t the smartest and most obedient, she is rambunctious, loving and BEYOND adorable. I mean, just look at her!
But there’s one problem: Ghillie struggles with anxiety.
It started out as very normal, dog fears: thunderstorms and fireworks were not her favorite. But in the past year or so, she’s become increasingly anxious over a myriad of things, so much so that for the past two weeks she has kept my parents awake all night with whining, jumping on the bed and removing all the contents of her bladder and bowels in very ugly ways around the house. This isn’t a great picture and has caused quite a bit of frustration on our end.
Every night as it begins to get dark, she begins to pant and pace (this is when we know it’s starting again). About this time, my dad gives her anxiety medication, which is basically a tranquilizer we get from the vet. Sometimes this helps her calm down enough to sleep a little, but other times, it doesn’t do much.
We’ve found that she has essentially become scared of the dark.
There are typically two ways in which we respond: (1) Pity – “Oh, you poor puppy,” and (2) Frustration – “Stupid dog. Why can’t you just calm down?!”
These aren’t very helpful for Ghillie, but what else can we do?
Well, a couple of days ago Tim and I were on a walk during our lunch break. Nearing the end of our walk, he asked:
“Has it been a good thing or a painful thing to watch the dog struggle with anxiety?”
Hmm…this is a good question…
I have been struggling with anxiety for years, but was officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder about three years ago. During the past three years, I have had seasons that are better and seasons that are much, much worse. Counseling, psychiatrist appointments, medication and intercessory prayer from others have been added to my self-care regimen, and I can with great gratitude say that currently, most days are good days. Now, there is a reality that seasons will come and seasons will go where I feel it’s a little bit darker, but I have people around me that will constantly be reminding me that even if it feels really dark…the Lord is always present, no matter how I feel.
My feelings are valid, but they are not always realistic.
So when Tim asked this question, I began to think it through. Watching Ghillie struggle with anxiety is both a good and painful thing. I can identify with what she may be feeling. I know she’s a dog and this may seem weird, but there are parts of her inner experience that are similar to my own.
On the other hand, the painful part is not so much that she struggles with anxiety, but rather, it is the way my family member’s and I choose to react to her, in pity or frustration. That’s hard to watch.
There are many times in which I have paced back and forth with my tail tucked between my legs, scared and fearful for no reason other than an imbalance of serotonin and norepinephrine.
I watch Ghillie in her anxious-dog moments and I think, “Wow. That’s what I look like. That’s what I do.”
I can be a completely inconsolable, unrealistic and anxious person.
But how often do we turn to people in our lives that struggle with anxiety and treat them like my family and I treat our anxiety-ridden dog?
How often do we turn and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry you’re anxious,” but never push past sympathy into empathy?
How often do we lash out in frustration saying, “Why can’t you just calm down?!”
I think this is equivalent to turning to a person with a broken arm and saying, “Why can’t you’re bone just not be broken?!”
Obviously, this sounds ridiculous, but I find that we oftentimes don’t realize that mental illness is not just something the sufferer can wish away. I can’t just try not to be anxious and then make it disappear. Rather, I have to implement practices and habits in my life that simply don’t try to extinguish the anxiety but help me to live better with it.
Like a torn ACL that may require surgery, rest, therapy, pain medication and time, so too a mental illness requires care, attention and perhaps medication and counseling.
I challenge you to question: How am I caring for those I am close to that struggle with mental illness? Am I acting in pity or frustration?
Or, am I coming alongside them as they live with their mental illness, encouraging them daily and constantly reminding them of the Lord’s love?
There’s is so much more to be said about this topic and it will be the focus of many blog posts to come. But, I hope my slightly comic and tragic story of Ghillie and these personal reflections can get us thinking.