My Dog, My Saving Grace

Written on 06/23/2021
Island Dog Blog

Please be aware that this post contains references to topics that may be upsetting and/ or triggering to some readers.

My heart goes out to all who struggle with their mental health – including my own family members and several good friends – whether it’s a temporary blip or a long-term issue, it’s something we should be able to speak about freely, without judgement.

So, here goes.

The first time I felt suicidal was a beautiful, hot and sunny Friday afternoon in August 2020. Coming from England and its perpetual grey cloud, I’m definitely partial to a few rays, and the searing Okanagan summer was definitely delivering. Normally I love being out in the sun and get a deep sense of wellbeing from feeling its warmth on my skin. It just makes me happy. Except that late summer day was very different. Sitting on my patio, taking a break from work, my mood felt incongruous to the warmth and brightness that surrounded me because in my head, I was in a dark tunnel with no light at the end of it. That day, for the first time in my life, I contemplated just not being here anymore.

I should back it up a little here, because feelings like that don’t just occur out of nowhere.

When my spouse Steve and I moved from our home of seven years in Saskatchewan to Kelowna, BC, in December 2019, we obviously had no idea what was to come. We never imagined for a second that it would leave us cut off from our respective families for over 18 months. I took for granted, as I always have, that we’d be able to get home if we needed to – Steve to Saskatchewan, and me to England.  

We arrived in the Okanagan after a taxing two-day drive (which Tucker handled like a boss) knowing not a soul. Despite the mild winter temperature and picture perfect mountain vistas, I felt a pang of isolation. It was such a big change. For the first time ever, I was working entirely from home and I missed the good friends I’d made during my time on the prairies. With most social events winding down for the holidays and no friends or family in the area, the three of us found ourselves completely alone.

Tucker: always by my side.

We spent a quiet but pleasant Christmas together, and as I usually travel to England for the festive season, it was actually my first with Tucker. Being with him was wonderful – we made him a Christmas stocking just like ours with presents to open on Christmas Day, we did lots of walking, hiking and snowshoeing, and Tucker was just pumped for fresh off-leash adventures and new surroundings. Yet I struggled to shake the underlying twinge of loneliness, and for the first time ever, I looked forward to January and the chance to connect with new people.

When 2020 rolled in, I proactively set about socializing, joining established local meet up groups and creating one of my own. I was gradually getting to know some lovely locals that I’d see regularly at various social events when in mid-March, it all came to an abrupt stop.  

Like so many others, I found the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown difficult to process. My head was all over the place, and my initial reaction was panic at the sudden loss of my blooming social life, especially when it became clear that it wasn’t going to be a short-term situation.

As the first few weeks passed, with everyone in the same socially-distanced boat, I began to feel a little calmer. We were enjoying quality time outdoors as a family in the snow-free early spring, with plenty of new places to explore. But when Easter hit, my mood took a sudden dip. We’d planned to celebrate with good friends on Vancouver Island, but as lockdown persisted into April, we realized we’d have to cancel our plans. To me, that trip was like a lighthouse on the horizon after months at sea, and I realized how tightly I’d been holding to the promise and comfort of seeing my good friends. Denied that succour, the feelings of isolation began to creep in again. From there, I struggled to maintain my usually positive outlook on life, and my mental health spiraled into a maelstrom of loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Initially, I was in denial about my poor mental state, or at least the extent of it, trying to convince and even at times bully myself into thinking that everything was fine. I told myself I had no reason to be sad – I still had my job, a roof over my head, food in my stomach, two legs to stand on – and that many were worse off than me. But I knew I was in trouble when the pursuits I usually enjoyed no longer held any appeal. Being outdoors, hiking, biking, and exploring new places in warm summer weather; watching soccer (I’m a passionate fan); enjoying time with great friends; even small things like reading a good book, working on a craft project, or walking to the local bakery on a Saturday morning to grab a tasty treat; at my worst, none of these activities sparked any joy.

That pivotal August day I could deny it no longer. By the time my spouse came home, I was beside myself – I just didn’t know how to help myself anymore. Steve encouraged me to call a local mental health crisis hotline, which I initially resisted because I didn’t think it would help, and I was ashamed that I’d let myself reach such a breaking point. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to access an online chat service, and someone helped to talk me through my suicidal thoughts.

It’s hard for me to admit that I hit such a low. I pride myself on being someone who, when life gives me lemons, moans with impunity but still makes lemonade. With the Iove and support of my spouse and my dog, I managed to get through that difficult summer night. From there, it was very much a matter of taking one day at a time, with some being better than others, and allowing myself to feel what I felt, whether good or bad.

Using my leg as a pillow!

In our very first post, I mentioned starting Island Dog in honour of the huge role that Tucker has played in getting me through the challenges of the last year. As a constant, loving, positive presence in my life, it’s safe to say that through the dark times, Tucker has been my saving grace.

The most important thing he did for me was give me a reason to get off my butt and keep going. When all I felt like doing was curling into a sad, hopeless ball, Tucker would lope over to me with an expectant look on his earnest face that said “no excuses mum – it’s time for my walk”. Some days, all I could manage was a quick slog around the block or to the park down the street, but he encouraged me every step of the way, his jaunty golden tail beating a comforting rhythm against my legs. His walks helped to keep me active, lift my mood, and make me thankful for small daily victories.

Like the sun breaking through dark clouds, his funny little habits would penetrate my sadness. The way he’d dance with excitement just before his walk and make me chase him around to leash him up; the way he’d yip and wag his tail in his sleep, perhaps dreaming of catching the big juicy squirrel that bounced across our garden fence; the way he’d pad over to me and present his furry butt for a rub, then step squarely on my foot. Through it all, his antics never failed to make me smile, which when you feel like you have nothing to smile about is an incredibly powerful force.

My dog has done me the most incredible service over the past year. He’s inspired me to create this beautiful blog in tribute to him, which has also given me a fresh, positive focus. He has no idea just how much he’s helped me – at the end of the day, all he really wants is my food – and I can’t tell him, so I’ll have to settle for repaying him with love and the very best life I can give him.

I’m much changed from the person I was when I left Saskatoon 18 months ago. But I’m in a better mental space than I was last summer, and I’m determined to continue rebuilding with hope for the future. Thank you for reading my story.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, don’t go it alone – please speak out and seek help.