What Animals Mean to Me as Someone with Mental Illness

Ever since I could remember I have loved animals. And I wasn’t picky. I loved my childhood dog, but I obsessed over the wild and spent many years longing to move to Australia and marry Steve Irwin. (I was a kid, don’t judge me the man was amazing.) I would daydream about catching snakes and wrestling crocodiles, nursing a baby kangaroo back to health or pulling over on the side of the road and checking a dead possum to see if it had babies in its pouch, and you guessed it, saving the little guys. I know that seems extremely specific but it happened in one of his episodes…

As I got a little older, I started begging my parents for pets. I had a parakeet, then a hamster, and then my parents were fighting so bad the pets stopped for a while. After the divorce and years later I convinced my mom again and got a mouse, then later still a cockatiel. Only one of those pets died, the hamster that was probably already sick when we got him. But the rest, I was forced to give them all away at some point. It broke my heart each time.

So I went in another direction. I don’t remember which animal started it, but I turned myself into an amateur wildlife rehabilitater. From my early teenage years, then moving out of my moms house and in with my grandma, up until I was engaged and ready to move out, I took in whatever needed help. I mean, I’m not in Australia so there was nothing too crazy. Countless baby birds, a mourning dove with a hurt wing, a baby crow that was sick in some way, a baby raccoon, baby bunnies, and a baby squirrel that gave me a reputation at the ASPCA when I took him out of his cage to kiss him goodbye before turning him in. (Whenever I turned an animal in, it was because the SPCA or the vet had found a real, qualified rehabber to take care of them.)

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But to be honest, I didn’t only do this to help the animals. I did it for me too. Caring for animals is the most natural therapy for me and it helped me through years that I didn’t even realize I was not okay. And when that all stopped, because I started having kids and needed to focus on them, I didn’t even realize how much it was helping my mental health until it was gone. It felt like a huge part of myself died and I have gone without therapy for a long, long time.

Now, my husband and I rescued a giant German Shepherd who was sick and weak and sad, and he has grown into a happy, and very anxious, beautiful boy over the last two years since adopting him. He’s mamas big baby and I love him to pieces. And I gotta say, shoving my face in his fur and loving on him when I’m down really does help. So much.

Lately I’ve been in a depressive episode, and although I’m medicated and functioning well, I’ve been finding it hard to be truly happy and care about much of anything. Until I finally convinced my husband to let me get another pet. And ever since, I have been going nuts finding a tank and supplies and contacting a rescue group and it’s all made me so happy. And now that I’m just about done, and almost ready to go pick up my new friend, I’ve realized that this is what’s been missing in my life for so long.

So it’s time. I’m starting over, and sticking to pets for now, but this time no one will be forcing me to give my babies away. The rehabbing will wait until my youngest is older and I’m certified to do it the right way, but that’s okay. Because I’ve finally remembered my first therapy. My best, most natural approach to happiness and good mental health. And I am finally so excited to see where the next few years take me.

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