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Maisie, my guiding light

Thursday, 27 January 2022 Jo

Trigger warning: Anorexia, suicidal thoughts

Jo blogs about how her labradoodle’s unconditional love has kept her going when she’s been on the verge of giving up.

Its long been said that a dog is man’s best friend but to me, that doesn’t go nearly far enough.

I am the owner of a gorgeous, eight-year-old, labradoodle named Maisie and she means the world to me. She is always there when I come home, wagging her tail and bringing me her favourite toy, but more than that she is always there when I need her, full-stop.

I have been battling mental illness my whole adult life, initially developing depression and anxiety, then having to be hospitalised for anorexia. Alongside those conditions though, there was always something else going on too. My emotions were always so intense, I felt deep attachments to people but then totally abandoned by them as soon as they let me down in some way. I was prone to angry, irrational outbursts and despite appearing sociable, I was terrified of being around people because I had no idea who I really was. It made a lot of sense to me then when, ten years ago, I was finally diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD, also known as borderline personality disorder).

“The nature of my EUPD means that my moods fluctuate very rapidly and I feel every emotion to the extreme.”

My initial relief at finally having a diagnosis was somewhat tainted later, as I discovered just how much stigma and misunderstanding surrounds the condition, but I was determined that it wasn’t going to define me or my life and I attempted to carry on regardless.

I loved my job as a Special Educational Needs teaching assistant but had to work harder than most to maintain my mental health whilst giving so much to the children and my colleagues. Life was a roller-coaster. The nature of my EUPD means that my moods fluctuate rapidly and I feel every emotion to the extreme. Living on my own meant that when I returned from work, I would often feel overwhelmed from spending the day with a mask on and there were times when I just couldn’t cope - retiring to bed to escape the world, or self-harming to try to get relief from the intensity I was feeling.

The only thing that has endured longer over the course of my life than my mental illness, is my desire to get a dog. I have wanted one since I was a child, more than anything else. As I started the job as a teaching assistant I also moved house into somewhere where they allowed pets.

They say that often, you don’t choose a dog, rather it chooses you. That was certainly the case with Maisie. Whilst all her littermates slept soundly, she was up exploring her surroundings and came straight over to me as I entered her pen. The bond was instant and has only grown stronger with time.

Puppy training was no walk in the park (no pun intended!) – there were times when I felt like the worst dog owner ever as Maisie ignored my commands and did her own thing. But on reflection, knowing that I couldn’t just give up, has taught me a lot.

What Maisie knew

Sadly, I am no stranger to suicidal thoughts and during very difficult times I can become consumed with hopelessness. But then I think back to those times with Maisie as a puppy and compare them to where we are now. She’s still very independent but I often get complimented on how well-behaved she is and she does now walk on the lead without danger of pulling my arm out of its socket! What’s more, she can really ‘read’ me and my emotions.

I often sit on the floor to feel more grounded in myself but Maisie seems to instinctively know this means I am struggling and will always come and lie down next to me. Similarly, if I am feeling upset and make eye contact with her, she will come and lean into me. It’s almost impossible to ignore a 25kg dog leaning on you, demanding a fuss(!) and stroking her soft fur seems to help me process my emotions. I might cry or tell her why I’m angry at the world and she just listens, non-judgementally, taking the raw edges off my feelings, until I feel calmer. Coming home to her and having this far safer coping mechanism has greatly reduced my self-harm and desire to hide away from the world.

“Maisie has shown me that trusting her can bring about so much joy and it is those moments that I need to treasure.”

Maisie has also taught me to trust. No-one in life is there forever, and sadly the same is true of dogs. However, Maisie has shown me that trusting her can bring about so much joy and it is those moments that I need to treasure, rather than waiting for the inevitable abandonment feelings that my EUPD makes me concentrate on.

Being there for Maisie

The unconditional love I receive from Maisie has shown me it’s ok to be ‘me’ and has also developed into a protective factor when I am feeling suicidal. I know that she loves me no matter what, and it would break my heart to think of her being left behind. I want to be the person that Maisie thinks I am, and that person wouldn’t abandon her.

On more than one occasion, I have planned to end my life but couldn’t see it through because shutting the door on Maisie for the final time, knowing she would become distressed when she couldn’t raise me, was just too much to bear.

I love my dog, like most dog owners do. But I love her more because she has kept me here when things were so dark that I thought I would never see the light again. The truth is, even on bad days, she can be that light herself and guide me towards far brighter days ahead.

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