The Dog Days Are Over

STORY AND PHOTOS BY
MICHELLE MENDEZ

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At a dog park one day, I sat on a small wooden bench that had dog slobber all over it. A man approached me. His skin was pale, and he had short brown hair that made him resemble Tom Cruise. We began chatting, and he told me how cute my dog Buddy was.

I asked him which dog was his, and he pointed to a miniature Australian Shepherd. I noticed the dog was wearing a vest, which I assumed would have “Service Dog” written on it. Instead it read “Emotional Support Animal.” I asked him why his dog wore that specific vest, and he told me that his dog comforts him. He was a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

I’ve dealt with depression since I was about 13 years old. Many people who know me probably find that hard to believe. I am known for being loud, goofy, full of energy and always joking around. What people see is the mask I wear to hide from those around me what I am truly feeling inside.

They do not know that I often lie awake at night with hundreds of thoughts running through my head. Most of the thoughts are about how my life feels meaningless and I have no purpose. I’ve always felt alone; my life felt as if the lights in a dark room would not turn on despite me struggling to turn the switch on.

The constant darkness in my life led me to believe that the only way this darkness would go away was by removing myself from existence. I have been in and out of therapy due to my inability to cope well with situations. I never found anything that has made me truly happy, that would give my life something worth living for. After the man at the park left, I sat there looking up into the deep blue sky, replaying my conversation with him over and over again.

Although the man and I did not share the same story, we had both been in a place in our lives where we felt microscopic in this vast world. He found a muse that would take his mind off the negative things and give him reassurance and comfort, something I was missing in my life. But the answer was there all along. Nothing made me happier than my dogs. I did have something worth living for.

For some, it may seem out of the ordinary to find hope and reassurance in creatures who do not walk on two feet and go around sniffing each other as an activity. To me, my dogs were part of my family. They were there when I needed them the most.

My dog Courage was with me when my mother had cancer; he comforted the both of us. I felt defeated during her time of battle because she was both my mom and dad; if I lost her that would be the end of me. Courage kept me going. When I cried, he would cuddle up next to me and look up at me as if trying to say that everything would be okay.

During one of my sessions with my therapist, I told her about the man I met and how that conversation led me to research emotional support animals. She was pleased to hear that I had found something on my own that she had not recommended. But neither of my dogs could fully function as my emotional support dog. Courage is 11 years old and has lost his vision. Buddy does not like people and would not work well with the environment I am in daily.

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In April, I was in class searching through Craigslist when I came across a listing about a free dog. The owners were giving it away because they wanted a more social pet. My first thought was that the dog could potentially fall into the wrong hands. I messaged them immediately asking if the dog was still available. When I received a reply, I left class and drove from Long Beach to Fullerton.

Once I met the dog, I noticed that he was a shy puppy who needed to be socialized in order to shake off his shyness. After a few weeks, Seven had become very social and was able to fulfill the emotional support animal requirements. Although I came up with the name “Seven” without giving it much thought, with time, his name grew to be meaningful. There are seven days in the week, and every day, he gives me a reason to keep going and push through everything that comes my way.

For many people, college is extremely stressful. However, those years are worth it once they reach their dream career. As a first-generation college student I am working hard for my diploma and to prove that I am not just a statistic. I am also doing it for my mother; her cancer has come back twice and we are both frightened that she will not see me graduate. I used to spend a lot of time crying in the library, feeling worthless that I could not overcome my anxiety to finally have a normal school day. I had no friends at school. I ate lunch alone. I just wished I had someone to keep me company.

Those moments spent alone led me to researching about people who bring their emotional support animals to campus and how they benefitted from it. Seven had been helping me at home, and I realized he could comfort me in the place that mattered the most for my future.

I am now two months into the semester and everything has changed for the better since I started bringing Seven with me. When I feel overwhelmed, I look down at Seven, and he is there staring at me with love in his eyes. He not only makes my days better, but he also makes a difference for the other students on campus. Some look tired, distraught, angry or sad, but the minute they see him, huge grins emerge on their faces.

I have friends this semester who hang out with me. To be honest, they probably only want to hang out with Seven, but that’s OK. I cope better with life now. I have my muse. I am no longer crying myself to sleep. Dogs are a blessing, and I am grateful everyday for my blessings.