My dog saved me from suicide – how a puppy stopped a depressed woman from ending her life
Julie Barton, 43, felt she had no hope for the future after years of depression and a mental breakdown. Until a puppy came in to her life
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Looking back, I’d felt depressed for a long time, but this was the 1990s and mental illness was still a taboo. I had no idea what depression was. I’d been having thoughts I didn’t recognise as suicidal but they were, and one day it all got too much.
I walked into my apartment and something in my mind said, “Just stop, you can’t do this any more,” and I lay down on the kitchen floor. I didn’t recognise it as a breakdown at the time, but it was chaos in my mind. I was bawling my eyes out, hysterical, then I’d be hit by a wave of fatigue and have to sleep. I was there, on the floor, all night.
The next day my mum set out on a nine-hour drive to rescue me. She arrived, packed up my apartment and took me home. I thought the comfort of home would be helpful, and might change everything. But it didn’t.
People ask what triggered my depression. I still wonder. I could have become depressed because of how my brain is, but I had a difficult relationship with my older brother, Clay. I didn’t know it wasn’t normal at the time, and it took a breakdown and four therapists to tell me what I’d experienced was extreme.
He was a really angry, unhappy kid and he chased me around the house with knives, smashed my bedroom door down and knocked me unconscious, which was honestly one of the best days, because my dad found me on the floor in a pool of blood, took me to the hospital and finally saw how bad it was.
But even after they found me unconscious, my parents didn’t deal with it – now they say they didn’t know what to do. I’ve spent hundreds of confusing hours talking to therapists saying, “My parents are great, yet they failed me.”
My brother would tell me I was ugly, a loser, everyone hated me and I should give up, and as a girl, getting those messages hammered into me left me feeling I was those things.
When I left home, I’d say, “Everyone hates you, you’re ugly,” and something broken in my mind still believes that. That was why having Bunker was so healing; he would distract me from those thoughts, he was a beautiful thing to focus on.
We had a lot of dogs growing up, and when I was feeling lonely, I’d take our family dog into my room. So I suggested getting a dog to my mum after my breakdown. For her it felt like a miracle, because it was the first time I’d said anything that resembled hope.
I decided I wanted a golden retriever and went to a farm where there was a litter. One of them came over, sat right at my feet and looked up at me. I picked him up, he licked my nose and it was like, “This is it, this is the one.” He chose me, I believe that. My first thought was, ‘This is the worst idea ever, I can’t look after myself, what am I thinking?’
And then I’d pet him and it became less important. He gave me a purpose, he needed me, and I felt capable of taking care of him. I hadn’t felt capable of anything in years. I’d get up at sunrise to let him out and that meant I had a reason to get out of bed. I’d watch him being all goofy and tripping over his own feet, and it made me laugh. It was a shift from the darkness. A miracle.
A few weeks later I started to feel down again and thought, “Getting a dog is not going to cure me, I’m broken.” I sat in my parents’ living room and hopeless tears fell, when I felt Bunker come over and sit on my feet and twist his head up to look at me, like, “Is that better, does that help?” A dog doesn’t ask you to say anything, he’s just there. He accepted me, he wanted to be there. He saved my life, no question.
At the age of 18 months he was diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia. He kept falling, his back legs would give way and he would yelp, so I took him to a vet. He said it was the worst case he’d ever seen and he wouldn’t make it to two, so I should have him put down. I was like, “You can stop talking now.”
Bunker now needed me as much as I needed him. We were both broken, and I was going to save him. I remember thinking, “I’m not staying on this Earth without him,” so there were really high stakes. But I’d moved out of home by then and my room mates had a fund-raising party for Bunker’s surgery and, thank God, all went well. He couldn’t walk for a month after each operation, but watching him recover taught me a lot about taking care of myself – he was calm, he’d just sleep and watch the world go by.
One of those room mates, Greg, became my husband. We married in 2000, and now have two daughters, age 12 and nine. They loved Bunker as much as me. Greg knew Bunker came first, he understood what Bunker had done for me.
In 2007 when I was pregnant with my second daughter, Bunker, who was now 11, had taken to sleeping with our eldest, who was having bad dreams. One morning he threw up blood on her carpet. The vet said his lung was filled with cancer and gave him six weeks to live. I was devastated. The night before we had to say goodbye, Greg and I gave him his favourite steak, and I asked him always to be with me.
His death was a spiritual experience, it was like the colours of the world changed. It was devastating, but at the same time beautiful that I’d had him. I think of him every day, he’s everywhere, I have his ashes next to my bed with a candle next to them.
I worried I’d become depressed after Bunker’s death, but having young kids was a distraction. I have had relapses, but I treat it like any chronic illness – see the doctor and my therapist, and make sure my medication is sorted. My brother’s apologised and acknowledged he wasn’t the best brother. But I still carry around this brain, and even now I have to fight thoughts about being worthless.
We have another dog, a rescue terrier, who really had big shoes to fill. Bunker is irreplaceable. I still don’t know how to be without him, so I work on keeping him with me, and that’s why I wrote a book about him.
After he’d been gone a few years, I felt like, “I miss you, I need to feel something from you,” so I went to the beach and threw a box of his ashes into the ocean. I immediately regretted it and was sitting there crying when the box bobbed in the water and came back to my feet. It was like, there he is again. At my feet.
The power of dogs
According to the charity Dogs For Depression, dogs can help mental health issues in many ways including:
● Physical touch – stroking a dog is calming for people suffering anxiety or panic attacks, and can improve mood and lower blood pressure.
● Pets are uncomplicated – they don’t have their own agendas and love you unconditionally.
● Caring for another living being and receiving affection in return is great for self esteem, and the responsibility is hugely rewarding.
● Dogs get you out of the house – fresh air, physical exercise and a change of scene are proven to boost mood. Caring for a dog helps form a daily routine and structure that can help keep you going, one foot after the other. No matter how depressed you are, your dog still needs feeding and walking.
For more information go to Dogsfordepression.org.uk
Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself by Julie Barton is out now (Bluebird Books, £7.99)
Posted but not written by Louis Sheehan