*Trigger warning: Discussion of suicide*
For quite some time, I didn’t understand the benefit of an emotional support animal (ESA). The Animal Legal & Historical Center defines an ESA as “a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability.” When I had initially heard of them I was in college, and all I really knew was that they were supposed to be some sort of comfort. Other than that, I knew absolutely nothing.
If I’m being honest, the whole notion of an ESA made little sense to me. What was the difference between them and a regular pet? What “emotional support” were these animals supposed to provide exactly? It wasn’t until I stumbled on a dog therapy session that I started to understand what the hubbub was about.
During finals week, my old university would bring a bunch of adorable Labradors that the students could pet and spend time with in order to reduce stress. As I made friends with a friendly little lady, I did feel better seeing her smiling doggy face. Maybe there was a point to this.
When I was advised to get an ESA from my therapist, my husband and I decided it was a great idea. Now that we have them, I couldn’t imagine my life without them. Here’s why.
They help calm me down in every situation
Whether I’m crying, angry, or battling the overwhelming effects of depression, my ESAs take the heat out of the situation. One particular night, my husband and I were having an argument based on a misunderstanding. While we raised our voices and interrupted each other, Sabrina walked in between us, meowed, and plopped on the floor.
When she plops, she goes head first and looks up at you with the most tired expression. Instantly, we turned to her and started laughing. It was like she was telling us to stop fighting and pay attention to her, which we did. After cooing over her for a moment, we turned to each other and agreed to let it go. It wasn’t important anyway.
Not only that, Santana is always ready to sit on my lap, especially when I’m upset. He’s sitting on me as I type this. That little guy is there when I’m happy, feeling sick, or overwhelmed with sadness. No matter how I feel about myself, he’s always there willing to show me affection.
They taught me a new form of love
Growing up, I had quite a few dogs, but each time I felt like I had to bear the bulk of responsibility. As a result, I saw them as more of a burden than a furry companion. On the other hand, I see my ESAs as family. Yes, they are an essential, therapeutic benefit to me, but I don’t see them as property or something I own. I love them.
Like with any animal, they both have their own personalities, and they both bring a different energy to the apartment that wasn’t there before. Santana is the lovable troublemaker, and Sabrina is the sour teddy bear. She acts tough, but she’s really very sweet and adorable.
As they’ve gotten closer to us, I’ve begun to notice their displays of affection. He shows me love by running into our bedroom the moment I wake up. She shows love when she lets me give her forehead kisses even when she doesn’t always want them.
Without having to say or do much of anything, I feel very much cared for by them, and our mutual care of one another has enriched my life in a way I never would have expected.
They give me another reason to keep going
Depression is a nightmare to deal with, and, quite frankly, so are other mental illnesses. A symptom of depression is suicidal thoughts. When these thoughts take over, it’s extremely difficult to see yourself objectively but instead, as someone who is useless, a burden, or worthless. On top of the other things that helped me, my ESAs provide me with something quite precious: another good reason not to go through with it.
As I was browsing Reddit the other day, I saw a post that said if you commit suicide, your dog will miss you and they’ll never know where you went. I was heartbroken at the thought. The same would be true for my ESAs. On top of the pain such a decision would cause my loved ones, Santana and Sabrina would serve as a painful reminder of my absence for my husband. They would never see me again and, quite frankly, I can’t stand the thought.
They give me a sense of purpose
Though I don’t make it my life’s work to take care of them, when I have the strength to, I play with them, pet them, hold them, and make sure they feel loved. Because I know they need me, I feel important. I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Life of Pi where Pi says taking care of Richard Parker gives him a sense of purpose. Cliffnotes’ analysis of the scene is, “[Pi’s] concentrated effort on training, feeding, providing for, avoiding, and working with Richard Parker is the main reason Pi remains vigilant and focused, which is what eventually saves his life.”
I’m clearly not lost at sea, but I do have to fight for my life every day, and my ESAs are another form of a lifesaver. I don’t feel like I’m a burden to them as I’m tempted to feel with my friends or husband. No matter what, they need me and I need them. Having that foundation helps me broaden my scope back to my writing dreams. At the end of the day, no matter how shitty I feel, they’ll get me out of my head to remind me to feed them.
My ESAs have improved my life in more ways than I could ever have expected. They’re more than just props to serve me, and they’re more than just cats. Even though they’ll never know it, I cherish them more than any other animal I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Adopting them was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, and I encourage anyone who needs them to do the same.