This is my story that was published in the Stigma Stories book and on their website.
My Little Dog Spike
I glanced down at the little dog beside me and my lips curved into a smile, despite my nervousness. Spike looked back up at me, his tail wagging a bit of encouragement. This was our first time going into a store and my dog, with his 'service dog' insignia, was doing just fine and so was I - I was ready. As we entered the store all eyes turned our way and I met them with a smile.
A few months earlier things were not going well for me. Bipolar symptoms were threatening to over-run my life again and I knew if I didn't do something, they would. A memory of a website I'd seen wound its way into my consciousness and with excitement mounting I started an Internet search. Sure enough, there was site after site of using Service Dogs for mental illness. This was right up my alley and I knew just the dog to take on the job. My miniature poodle, Spike, was a quick study and loved to work; he was small and could be picked up in tight spots; he didn't shed. He already had much of the groundwork done.
It wasn't just a simple matter of deciding and then having him by my side - there were months of intense public access training, conferences with doctors, meetings with the accommodations people at work and of course getting the approval of my manager.
There was one other thing, a rather big thing. Apprehension could have been the word of the day. Having a dog by my side would open me up to all sorts of questions - how honest would I be? What would happen by putting myself 'out there'? Having a dog at my side would almost be the same thing as having a giant flashing arrow pointing my way. I thought long and hard about my path and in the end decided that being open and honest would be my policy, and that in my own small way I'd take on the fight against Stigma.
To get ready for our first official outing, Spike and I practiced the skills needed to present a professional image. He couldn't be pulling on the leash, sniffing every lamp post or jumping up on people. We took classes with a professional trainer to help get us ready. Meeting service dog legal requirements means the dog must do three tasks related to the owner's illness. Two of Spike's tasks were to bring me medication and interrupt anxiety behaviours. During training I always had a pocketful of treats ready to reward the right thing. I wanted him to bring no criticism to us, but rather to leave a smile on people's faces.
I picked up a basket and continued into the store. I had a few things to pick up but also wanted to practice my ‘lines’ to see how well we'd be received. As I watched the first person approach, butterflies fluttered in my stomach (they didn't actually flutter, they flew like crazed fiery dragons). Keeping a friendly look on my face I said “Hello”. The questions started about Spike. I could see that they wanted to ask the obvious question, but were too polite. So, I volunteered the information … "I have bipolar disorder and Spike is my Service dog. He helps me stay in a normal mood state”. Understanding dawned in the person's eyes and they mentioned a loved one with a mental illness of some type. They were thrilled to see me functioning so well (I could see a sliver of hope glimmer on their faces) and wondered what they could do for their loved one. The dragons transformed back to more easily managed butterflies.
When the day came to bring Spike to work, we had a similar reaction. My immediate co-workers already knew, but people in other sections did not. If there were any negative reactions, I did not hear them. All I heard was acceptance. I don't think many of them knew much about bipolar disorder, but they were open to learning more, and all worked with me regardless of my illness.
Often, conversations would bring up family members or friends that suffered from the same illness. It seemed that many were touched by the scepter of mental illness, and most seemed to be relieved to be talking about it. The dark closets doors had chinked open just an inch to let in some light.
Spike worked with me for seven months before stress caused me to retire him. He didn't like wearing the vest and I wasn't going to force him to do something that made him so uncomfortable. He still waited by the door for me every morning hoping to go to work, as he did enjoy his job, just not the uniform.
In my months with Spike at work, interaction after interaction occurred in much the same way as the first one - questions, surprise and understanding. Instead of facing Stigma, I felt embraced by the acceptance of so many people. No doubt having a cute dog at my side helped to smooth some interactions. Plus, I think that my positive outlook that didn't leave any room for negativity, helped too. I wasn't looking for signs of Stigma either - I was just looking to get along.
During those months that I actively interacted with people, I was in a good emotional state and wasn't often showing signs of depression or mania. My normal facade may have helped people to realize that mental illness isn't always about being sick and that there are times of wellness. They would have seen that it can be an invisible illness. They may have seen that I was just the same as they were, a regular person trying to get along in life. Hopefully they learned that help is available for their family, friends, or even themselves and that opening up to others does make a positive difference. We can't fight Stigma by hiding behind closed doors!
By Laura S.