29 November 2017

Living with a Psychiatric Service Dog

I have chronic complex PTSD. I was diagnosed in 2011, out of the blue. I took six months off work, rested, went to therapy, wrote, crafted, and was still staggeringly ill.

I never did go back to work.

I eventually came to get my head more or less wrapped around my diagnosis, but it's really hard: I don't have the typical PTSD triggers, but I certainly have the symptoms - I don't sleep unless sedated, I have an exaggerated startle response, I don't regulate my emotions very well (I can get extremely irritable for no reason, or overreact to simple things, or fall into the Pit of Despair, or be sort of neutral for days on end). I have developed rather noticeable memory and executive function issues: I don't make good decisions, I can't manage the finances and paperwork effectively, and holding focus on any one thing for very long isn't possible anymore, to say nothing of the way I regularly forget what I came into the room for, where I left my glasses, what I need at the grocery store, what we discussed yesterday, or last week, or last month. Yes, everyone is forgetful and distracted sometimes, but I am forgetful and distracted all the time. It's such a dramatic change from the person I used to be that if you knew me before you'd see it plain as day. The thing is, I am not so disabled that I can't pass as a regular, normal, functioning adult ... the troubles are sneaky, low level, and persistent in ways that they aren't in a healthy person.

And this makes me constantly question whether I'm sick or just not trying hard enough.

Surely, if I just put a bit more effort into it, I could concentrate and get the paperwork done.
Surely, if I just tried a little harder, I could keep up with the housework.
Surely, if I just paid a bit more attention, I would remember what people said.
Surely, if I just ate better / exercised more / followed a better routine, I could sleep at night.

Okay, I've given up on the last one. I did try weaning off my night time sedatives, and stayed awake two nights straight and was appallingly out of sorts. The anti nightmare and memory-blocked sleep are critical to my survival, and the meds are essential to my ability to function.

And I know I can't just try harder to make the reactions to some innocuous trigger stop happening: awareness makes a lot of them less powerful, but they are sneaky. I drove home from the doctor's via a different route one day, and was so out of sorts and unsettled the rest of the day ... I finally realized I'd driven past the cancer hospital, site of some seriously unpleasant events. Yeah, I don't take that route anymore. And I know that the mood stabilizer and antidepressant that I take help keep me from the need to self-injure, and put up a safety barrier at the edge of the Cliffs of Insanity so I'm less likely to fall. So yeah, I need those too.

And the meds to buy me a day of concentration (at the price of two days of recovery), and the meds that settle my unsettled nerves.
Plus monthly visits to the psychiatrist and psychologist.

Okay, even I can admit that anyone who needs that much help just to keep going is very sick.

But, it always feels like I'm just not trying hard enough. In reality, that's part of the picture of PTSD - we can't quite accept that what happened to us was a big enough deal to warrant this kind of injury ... we toughed it out, we survived, why shouldn't we just keep going the way we were?

Well. That's the long circular argument that happens in my head all the time, more or less. I know I'm sick, I know I'm disabled ... but I don't feel like I ought to be, because other people have had it worse than me, because what happened to me wasn't all that awful and I must just be a wimp for not being able to suck it up, because surely if I just tried a bit harder I could squeeze more productivity out of my scattered self.

But the truth of the matter is, I need help. I need practical help with managing the household (which I get from my family, bless them), I need lots of time by myself to meander through the kindergarten crafting stations that are my coping strategies. And I need company, at the same time. I need someone to recognize when I'm starting to get frayed around the edges and tell me it's time to go home. I need someone to ground me when my dissociative tendencies kick in. I need someone to tell me it's all okay when I wake screaming from nightmares.

That someone is Ben.

Ben is my service dog. He's five now, and has been working for me for two years. We'll be doing our certification test come the new year.

Ben came to live with us as a pet ... he wasn't meant to be a service dog. But my illness progressed and it became obvious that I was one of the people whose PTSD falls into the "chronic" category. I wasn't going to get better, and I needed to do whatever was necessary to get the most out of the life I've been given, limits and all. I considered acquiring a trained service dog, but I thought that before bringing another dog into the house, we should give Ben the opportunity to volunteer. We started boot camp in December, worked hard on his obedience and public access skills in pet-friendly places for the winter, and by spring, I knew that although I couldn't explain why, having Ben with me made things easier.

And so we began our heavy duty training: we went to West Edmonton Mall on a Saturday. And then I learned more about the standards and training of service dogs, and we worked to the BC public access test standards. And then Alberta got organized and sorted out a certification program, and now we'll be doing that.

And I know that I need Ben. He licks my hands and bunts at my arm if I am out of sorts, demands that I play Toss the Squeaky Monkey or Stuffed Sheep Battles Stuffed Bear at least once every day (which means at least once every day I laugh!), sits on my lap to provide deep pressure therapy (some alchemical magic whereby having a soothing weight on your lap makes your nervous system chill out), sleeps in the small of my back or on my legs and provides convincing proof that I'm awake (or that I'm not - when the Ben in my dreams isn't behaving normally, I often wake myself up, because it's a clue that I'm having a nightmare).

Somehow, having him with me all the time helps me hold my balance better.

Life with a service dog is different. There's a lot more planning and logistics to deal with, particularly if you travel: we are going to Ireland in December and the paperwork for flying with him out of the country is staggering. Hotels sometimes give you grief (we generally book at pet friendly places, or big chains that have 'service dogs are welcome' policies). People ask you for your ID - which our government hasn't even made available for people like me until this past fall (a printed business card with an explanation of psychiatric service dogs usually suffices). Restaurant managers and staff who aren't from around here frequently know the food service rules about 'no pets' but are often unaware of the exceptions for service animals (yet another place those business cards come in handy). People sometimes think you must be training dogs for an organization that places them with disabled people, because you don't look disabled (I have learned to smile and say "he works for me"). Small children shout "PUPPY!" when you walk by (I find this to be a bonus). You overhear conversations about "people with fake service dogs" (I have been known to say, "Some people want to take their dog with them everywhere. I have to take my dog with me everywhere."). You pre-emptively tell the hostess at the restaurant that he's a working dog. You learn to adopt an attitude of "well of course I belong here, he's invisible, we are just doing our thing" ... and have those business cards in easy reach for the inevitable questions about service dogs, and training, and PTSD. You get used to seeing most of the people who walk past you grinning at the cute dog.

You live with nose prints on the inside of the car windows, a dog bed in the passenger seat, paw prints on the console. You live with treats and wet wipes in your purse, business cards in all your pockets, and water bowls in your living room.

You try vest after vest and leash after leash to find the combination of gear that works for you both. You learn to hose off your dog's undercarriage in the shower after every summertime dip in the pond, or a winter run through the slush. You accept that there will be dog hair on everything, even your pillow.

Your family has to get used to the idea that you'll be looked at everywhere you go. It's kind of weird to have a family member who has always seemed to be okay deciding that now they need a dog with them in order to function ... but once they've seen the difference your dog makes, they'll never suggest leaving him at home again.

You have to accept that you are disabled, and that your dog mitigates that disability.
You don't have to explain the mystery of how, just accept that it is.

Ben makes my life better. I can't really tell you how or why, but he does.

Thanks for making us welcome.