Wilhelmina Rose

Two years ago this month, I adopted my dog, Mina.

Mina & I on her gotcha day

I was kind of scared of dogs as a kid, and was always more of a cat person. We already had at least two shelter cats at any one time when I was growing up, and I adopted two shelter cats with my college roommates. But after college, I became pretty obsessed with the idea of adopting a dog.

Mina was three months-old, and was brought to Felines & Canines in Chicago from a high-kill shelter in rural Kentucky. As I soon as I saw her picture, I knew she had to be mine. She looked so open and warm and sweet and happy, even given her circumstances. She arrived in Chicago on a Saturday afternoon and I brought her home on Sunday morning.

Mina’s shelter photo

I really was not prepared for a three month-old puppy, and a very active and intelligent one at that. The first few months with Mina were so difficult – she wanted constant attention and destroyed everything if she didn’t get it. She figured out how to get into things that I never though she could figure out. But we eventually settled into our routine, and while she still has occasional outbursts of crazy behavior – and still has a ton of energy – she’s calmed down quite a bit.

There were a lot of things that I wasn’t prepared for when I adopted a dog, but the biggest and best one was the tremendous positive impact that it would have on my mental health.

I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression my entire life. Before I adopted Mina, I’d been taking antidepressants for quite some time, and they made things much better than not taking any medication at all. But I still had panic attacks once a month or so, and I still had dark periods that could last for a week or two where I didn’t want to do anything and just cried for what felt like hours.

When I adopted Mina, all of that changed. In the two years that I’ve had her, I’ve had only a handful of panic attacks. And each time, Mina was by my side, often crying and pawing at me because she knew something was wrong. I still have dark days, but not nearly as many as I once did.

Running on Edgewater Beach in Chicago

I think that part of the reason why is that even when things are bad for me, Mina gives me something to concentrate on – she has to be fed and go out and be played with, regardless of how I’m feeling. But I think a lot of it is her simple presence, her absolute unfettered sheer happiness. Few things make me so happy as seeing her happy – watching her run at full speed through a creek at her favorite park is the best thing in the world.

And even when I feel ugly or fat or stupid, she thinks I am the greatest human being to walk on the planet Earth. Ever. All-time. Greatest. My presence is what makes her the happiest. That’s a helluva drug.

In a week, another dog will join our little rescue family. He, too, is from Kentucky – he was found in a barn, only a few weeks old, with four brothers and sisters. I’m excited to see him and Mina together, and I’m excited to have another dog in the house. But Mina will always be my first, and will always be my baby girl.

What made you depressed?

A few months ago, I moved from Chicago to my hometown of Pittsburgh, which necessitated finding a new primary care doctor. In Chicago, I used Yelp to find my amazing PCP. But now that I live in a smaller city and I have an HMO, I had a tough time finding reviews on doctors. I chose my new PCP from a listing from my insurance because 1) she was fairly closeby, 2) she was a woman, and 3) she had a few decent ratings on Healthgrades.

When I arrived for my appointment, I filled out the standard new patient paperwork. I ticked off the boxes for depression and anxiety, and listed the medication that I take for these conditions.

I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression for my entire life, though I wasn’t formally diagnosed until college. I talk about it. A lot. People are probably sick of hearing me talk about it. But I talk about my experiences so much because a lot of people don’t. I strongly believe that a lot of the problems with mental healthcare and treatment in this country start with people refusing to talk about it. Our puritanical society has decided that we can talk openly about all sorts of things that I’d rather not discuss, but someone saying that they’re depressed or have a diagnosed personality disorder is just too taboo.

So I was more than prepared to talk about my medical history in this regard. But then my new PCP asked a really stupid question that did not bode well for our discussion:

“How long have you been depressed?”

This is a really stupid question. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how depression works. It indicates that depression and anxiety have a starting point and an ending point. That one day you woke up and felt sad and/or anxious, and you measure your feelings from that day. “How long have you been depressed?” looks like this:

In reality, depression and anxiety look like this:

Image via Frostehzehdragon on DeviantArt

Depression is a two year-old’s scribble. It’s not a straight line. It’s up and down and diagonal and all over. Good luck finding a starting point and an ending point. And anxiety hangs out over your shoulder telling you that everyone thinks your scribble is stupid and ugly.

But fine, whatever. It was a stupid question, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt — maybe it was just bad phrasing. “Well,” I said, “I’ve been depressed all my life, but I was formally diagnosed about ten years ago.”

Then it got worse.

“What made you depressed?”

Again, this line of questioning says when your depression started on [insert date here], what was it that started it? There is such a thing as situational depression, where a particular event directly leads to depression. But most people I know who are depressed have “clinical depression,” which means there is no inciting incident for their feelings. In fact, they may go through a rough time at work and home without any depressive episodes, and they may be doing extremely well at work and have a great new relationship and be depressed.

Sensing an opportunity to educate, I very kindly told my doctor that, “Nothing in particular made me depressed. I just get depressed sometimes.”

“And have you always been on medication?”

“No, I started that more recently. Maybe five years ago.”

And then came the kicker.

“Well, it must be working because you seem pretty chipper.”

Okay. First of all, my medication has absolutely no bearing on my personality. I am a chipper person. I am very nice to strangers and people regularly tell me that I am friendly and outgoing. Which is funny, because I am none of those things. I am an introvert and talking to strangers for too long makes me need a nap. But I know how to turn the friendly part of myself on when I need to.

And even in my most ugly depressive and anxious state, I would still say “thank you” to the bus driver and ask the grocery store cashier how they were doing today. Because my condition has no impact on my ability to be friendly and kind. I try really hard to make sure of that.

And just for the record, my chipper self had a whole slew of anxious thoughts on the way to that appointment, ranging from you’re going to be late to you’re too fat and she’s going to yell at you to what if my insurance doesn’t work? to what if she makes fun of me, so my chipper disposition with my doctor, essentially a stranger, has nothing to do with the anxiety and thoughts that are roiling in my head.

Well-meaning but completely wrongheaded questions and comments like this are why I talk about my mental health. I shouldn’t have to teach my doctor what depression is and is not. I shouldn’t have to educate a physician on what antidepressants do. The more people speak openly about their mental health, the more everyone will understand it better.