Disclaimer: One of my best friends and I used to edit our high school’s newspaper together, and I fondly remember his disdain for feel-good stories about pets. During our one-year reign, we responded to everyone who submitted a draft of a fluffy pet story with blunt rejection. My friend. I am sorry. I love my dog so freakin’ much. I had to.
Feminism, as a form of activism against oppression, depends on empowerment to grow and thrive. One of the things that has empowered me—or should I say, emPAWered me most as a young woman has been rescuing a dog and the mutually supportive, loving relationship I have with her.
I met Parsley at a shelter called Hope for Life during a time when hope seemed like something for other people, but not me. I had just begun recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and was looking for something to yeet the trauma out of my life. That Spring, I drove the four hours home three weekends. I spent most of those days crying and scouring animal shelters around the 757, only half-planning on actually completing an adoption.
Then, at the very last shelter, Parsley approached me and we had our first “meet-cute.” This tiny, black-and-white creature with pointy ears and an absurdly long tongue would not leave my side except to occasionally visit an ancient three-legged dachshund that she apparently looked out for. I went straight to PetSmart, and back to the shelter as soon as it opened the following morning. I knew bringing Parsley home would change my life, but that’s exactly what I needed.
I want to stress that there are some important distinctions between emotional support animals and service animals (such as seeing-eye dogs or animals that can detect low blood sugar). Service animals have highly specialized training and can often save an owner’s life with concrete skills. They are permitted in public spaces and, as a general rule, are not to be fucked with or even approached without the owner’s explicit consent.
You can approach my pup, however. Emotional support animals (ESAs) like my sweet Pars are essentially companion animals deemed beneficial by a doctor, therapist, or other professional to help people cope with many different difficulties. They have less legal protections than service animals but can make a huge difference in people’s lives.
This post will focus on how my ESA has helped my recovery from PTSD, but I have friends who have adopted ESAs as a step in their healing from a myriad of challenges including generalized anxiety, depression, and loss of a loved one. Each has a unique story of compassion, resilience, and hope stemming from their ESA. Together, we would make this list go on forever.
Taking care of a pet inspires healthier habits. It becomes difficult to obliterate your sleep schedule when an entire other living being jumps all over you and licks your face around the same time every morning. Parsley keeps me in more of a routine, which in turn keeps me sleeping better, eating regularly, and showing up to my classes. Having a pet also builds exercise into daily habits. For those of us with a mind/body/soul perception of health, the physical aspects of having an ESA lead to mental and emotional benefits as well.
A pet can provide feelings of safety, security, and love. Most concretely, having a dog brings me a sense of literal, physical safety. I have no worries about staying in my apartment without anyone else, going for solo hikes, etc. with Pars by my side. When in potentially threatening environments, I feel more comfortable knowing my dog would probably intervene if necessary. I’ve also had noticeably fewer nightmares since I’ve had her curled up at the end of the bed. I take care of Parsley, and she takes care of me. We are safer together. It’s a good deal that has helped restore my curiosity and ability to move through the world freely.
In unpredictable times, a pet is a constant. Challenging life circumstances can cause feelings of insecurity because of the never-ending change they often bring. Personally, I did lose a lot of “friends” during this time of my life, causing every relationship and achievement to feel uncertain. Since adopting Parsley, I have had a partner through it all. She has traveled in the back of my car, explored new places with me, and slept on random floors and beds at my feet during chaotic times. I can cope with sudden changes because, to use a cliche phrase, she is my anchor through them all.
While therapy and medications are baselines for many people with mental health struggles, adopting an ESA can supplement recovery in joyful, sustainable ways. Taking care of an animal can be a big responsibility, but in my experience, the positives have made the slight inconveniences more than worthwhile. Harrisonburg-Rockingham County has plenty of local shelters to choose from, so remember to #AdoptDon’tShop if you want to procure some emotional support in an environmentally and socially responsible way. What’s more emPAWering than that?