Crazy Talk: Should I Get an Emotional Support Animal For My Mental Health?
This week, let’s talk about whether to get an emotional support animal (and my cat, because I’ll take any possible excuse to talk about my cat).
Welcome to Crazy Talk: a mental health advice column written by yours truly, a mentally ill and queer writer reclaiming his “crazy” to educate and empower. In a world that tries to push us to the margins, I’m all about getting loud and kicking the stigma where it hurts. In this column, we explore what it’s like to live with mental illness without shame or apologies. Expect frank advice, a little self-deprecation and a good dose of humor.
If you’ve been anywhere near my instagram lately, you’ll notice that I recently got a cat. You’ll notice this because he’s basically the only thing that I photograph anymore. His name is Pancake. He is a perfect creature that is too good and too pure for this world.
Here is a photo:
We brought Pancake into our home because both myself and the partner that I live with struggle with mental illness. We both experience significant depression and anxiety. My partner also grapples with chronic pain and autoimmune disorders; I have a history of complex trauma. Simply put, feeling whole, safe and well has been challenging for us both.
Posting so publicly about my emotional support animal has led to a lot of questions popping up in my Twitter inbox. What led to my decision to get an emotional support animal? Why did I choose a cat in particular? How did I know that I found the right cat? And most importantly, have I noticed a difference with my mental health?
So this week, let’s talk about emotional support animals (and my cat, because I’ll take any possible excuse to talk about my cat).
Related: Swipe Right for PUPPIES!
My partner and I had a long conversation about the potential pros and cons of bringing a new critter into our apartment. We knew that the added responsibility could encourage us to have a better and more consistent routine, as well as getting us more active, which in itself has a lot of mental health benefits. We knew that the unconditional love and affection of a pet could help us deal with our anxiety and stress levels.
As trauma survivors, we were also aware that relational healing can be immensely helpful in recovery from C-PTSD — which, yes, can absolutely include non-human connection and trust.
But we worried that having a new member of the family could introduce its own stressors, as we would have additional tasks and responsibility. We would have to support not only ourselves but our animal companion as well — emotionally, physically and financially.
We asked ourselves if there were a way to minimize the drawbacks, and we found a way to compromise. We chose an animal that’s a little more independent (a cat), a little more self-reliant and calm (an adult cat specifically) and chose a foster-to-adopt arrangement to make sure the cat was a good fit with our personalities and needs before we officially adopted him.
The verdict? We can’t imagine our lives without him now.
We’ve already noticed a huge difference in our mental health. Rather than staying in bed late and succumbing to the lethargy that’s so typical of depression, Pancake wakes us up and encourages us to get out of bed. When we’re upset, he headbutts us affectionately, cuddles with us and quietly listens as we express our frustrations.
We’re more inclined to clean up and create better routines at home, being mindful of the fact that how we keep the space affects more than just us now. We spend less time glued to our phones, worrying ourselves sick about the state of the world or engaging in self-defeating internet arguments. We now spend our time bonding with this critter who seems to have such a big capacity for uncomplicated love and care.
Sometimes I spend hours just staring at him, because looking at him makes me feel happy and full of gratitude.
Should you get an emotional support animal? Not knowing your individual situation, I can’t say for sure. But I’ve known many mentally ill folks who found their companion to be a source of love that helped carry them through difficult times. Some people have even told me that their bond was so strong, their animal companion became a reason to live when they had lost their will to survive.
There are so many options with pets — fish, rats, chinchillas, cats, bunnies, dogs, birds, pigs, snakes, even newts. I knew someone whose pet fish helped them during the worst depression of their life. Take some time to consider the level of responsibility you’re willing to take on, what your perfect companion has to offer, and what you have to offer in return.
It’s important to note that, as with any big life change, timing is everything. I’m at a good place in my recovery; I’m a lot more capable of caring for another living creature than I was immediately after being hospitalized. I waited until I knew I could reasonably take care of myself — at least on some basic level — before I committed to taking care of another living being.
I checked in with my therapist to help me make the decision, as well as other friends who also had cats to gauge what I could expect. You can always crowdsource information and resources to help you make the transition into animal adoption.
The love of an animal can sustain us, motivate us and soothe us. The research backs this up, and you’ll never run out of people who can testify to it firsthand. Animal companionship can be life-changing — and having Pancake by my side as I navigate the ups and downs of recovery has been a comfort that I wouldn’t trade for anything.