August 17, 2018

How Emotional Support Animals Can Help Our Mental Health – Shannon Kopp

how my pup supported my eating disorder recovery

For the longest time, I was the only person working at the San Diego Humane Society who hadn’t adopted an animal. I told my coworkers that I needed to move to a bigger apartment first, before I got a dog, but the truth was that I could barely handle a loaf of bread in my kitchen cupboards, let alone be responsible for a puppy in my care.

After almost a decade-long battle with an eating disorder — after rehab and hospitalization and hundreds of sessions with the bravest, most compassionate therapist — I had finally stopped bingeing and purging. 

At twenty-five, I was no longer physically engaging with the eating disorder, but I still hated my body. I still feared food. I still blamed myself for developing an eating disorder to begin with.

But one day, I believed that a pet just might help me get stronger in my recovery. My therapist and I agreed that I was ready to adopt a dog and we came up with a specific plan:

  • Dr. M. would write a letter of support and I would register the dog as an emotional support animal (ESA).
  • I’d bring the dog with me to my therapy and dietitian appointments, to work and to restaurants.
  • Before I ate any snacks or meals, I’d pet the dog for three minutes. When I was finished eating, I’d pet her for three minutes after.
  • I’d pet and talk to the dog out loud whenever I felt anxious. I’d try to take her outside for a short walk whenever I felt depressed.

When I first saw Bella at the Humane Society where I worked, she was just six weeks old: two pounds of curly, soft brown fluff. While her Poodle/Terrier littermates played in the back of the cage, Bella pressed her tiny nose through the front bars, craving human connection. Her beady eyes shone and held mine. Instantly, I knew she was to be my emotional support dog.

emotional support dogs and recoveryLife with Bella

A month after adopting Bella, I had a panic attack in the shower. I honestly don’t remember what the panic attack was about, but I do remember just how fiercely that terribly anxiety rushed in. I cried into my hands and struggled to breathe; it felt like my throat was collapsing into my chest.

Bella, now three months old, whimpered and pawed at the glass shower door. Finally, she cracked it open and jumped into the shower. I bent down and picked her up as the warm water poured over us. Bella licked my chin and mouth profusely. Then she pressed her nose in between my eyes and I exhaled the deepest breath. 

I don’t know how long I stood naked in the shower with my soaked puppy. All I know is that she calmed my heart and released the tightness in my chest like no binge or drug or prayer had ever done before.

How my pup supported my recovery

It's a strange thing to claim that someone so small could be my protector, but over the past eight years, that’s exactly who Bella has been. She has protected me from a terrible aloneness that lingers just beneath my skin. She’s protected me from anxiety and depression, from destructive tendencies and urges. Sometimes she's gone a little overboard and protected me from the mailman and the vacuum cleaner — but I have to admit that I love her fierce little snarl and how oblivious she is about her size.

In my mid-twenties, my father sent me a letter from jail. I kept rereading and agonizing and having nightmares over that letter, until one morning when Bella ripped it from my hands with her teeth. She then ran away, ripped up the letter, and ate it. I never had to read those painful words again.

therapy dogs in recoveryBella would stand next to the scale when my therapist requested "blind weigh-ins." I'd close my eyes while the doctor took note of my weight, listening to Bella shake her coat or move her paws on the tile floor. The mere sounds of my dog made me feel like no matter where the number landed, I was going to be okay.

At other times, Bella was the loving presence at my feet when I ate “fear foods” in my dietitian’s office. With her in my lap at a support group, I felt brave enough to raise my hand to share my truth.

Bella was the soft coat I cried into when my friend died in her early thirties. Bella was in my arms the night I finally ended an unhealthy relationship. Most recently, Bella was the face I pictured when I went into labor with my son, because nothing calms me like her sweet eyes. Nothing empowers me like her love.

On the most profound level, Bella made me feel like I had purpose and value when, for years, only my eating disorder could.

My little dog is so much more than an “emotional support animal.” She is the puppy who opened the shower door to love a girl at war with her body. She is the tiny nose pressing into my forehead, making it easier to breathe.

She is the steady presence who convinced me that life could be more than just not bingeing and purging every day. Her unspoken devotion gently nudged me past physical recovery and into soul recovery.

Sweet Bella, I’m infinitely grateful for you.

Learn more about National Dog Day here.

shannon kopp eating disorder recovery and animalsShannon Kopp is the bestselling author of Pound for Pound (A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life) and a National Recovery Advocate for Eating Recovery Center. In partnership with Insight Behavioral Health Centers (877-737-7391), Eating Recovery Center (877-957-6575) provides specialized treatment for eating disorders as well as related disorders, including PTSD. 

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