How My Dog—and Exposure Therapy—Saved Me from Life In a Psych Ward
The Dogist's Kate Speer shares how being misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder nearly killed her and how she rebuilt her life with the help of her incredible service dog, Wafflenugget.
Note: This article discusses self-harm and suicide.
My journey with darkness started when I was just 5-years-old. Even at that age, my anxiety overwhelmed me, and I experienced deep, heavy sadness. Like a thick fog, it would slowly roll in and envelop every part of me. But to outsiders looking in, it never looked like I needed help. Most would characterize me as an outspoken, adventurous, and creative mischief-maker destined for success. Consequently, I was never given the tools to cope. So, I found my own.
Years of Ignored Symptoms
I was just a little girl when I first turned to food for comfort, sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night and inhaling a bag of marshmallows or pounding a pint of ice cream. Ideally, my family would've taken note of this behavior, but coincidentally, my dad was also struggling with an eating disorder. So my mom believed that the high volume of disappearing groceries was actually a reflection of my father consuming calories in secret, instead of it being one of her daughters. (Related: How Running Helped Me Conquer My Eating Disorder)
This went on for 11 years without any acknowledgment or awareness. Meanwhile, I was diagnosed with a rare cognitive processing disorder, which meant I couldn't learn well in a standard classroom setting. I also had an abnormally high IQ compared to my classmates—and as a result, was put on an isolated special education track. I spent most of my days in a tiny, closet-sized room with an Education Assistant who specialized in teaching kids like me. Then when my classmates dove into after school activities, I was in tutoring. Little did I know that was just the start of me feeling like I was living life on the sidelines.
As I grew older, my mental health worsened, as did my self-doubt, self-loathing, and feelings of incorrigible pain. But there was one being in my life that never made me feel like anything but absolutely perfect: My first dog, Trouble. (Related: Top 15 Ways Puppies Improve Your Health).
She was the only one who understood that at the end of the day, I was just a scared little girl that needed a friend. She got me in ways that no human ever did. I talked to her about how I feared the bullies at school, how my learning disability made me insecure, and the shame I felt for overeating and feeling like absolute shit afterward. Trouble was always there. She always listened, made me feel seen and loved. That's how my deep adoration for dogs began.
Being Diagnosed and Misdiagnosed
In middle school, my mental health continued to decline and my relationship with food became even more detrimental. I went from binge eating to restrictive eating and by the time I was in high school, I was bulimic.
Then, sophomore year rolled around and my symptoms of depression were now so apparent that I could no longer deny it: I had a real problem. There was no joy to be found in anything I did. No matter how many goals I scored in lacrosse, how many A's I got on papers, how many friends I made, I felt nothing. (Related: The Symptom of Depression No One Talks About)
So began the search for practitioners, therapists, and psychiatrists that could help me manage my deteriorating mental health. In 2003, at 16-years-old I was officially diagnosed with depression and ADHD and put on medication (specifically, antidepressants) for the first time. Showing no signs of improvement, at 17 I was diagnosed with an uncharacterized mood disorder and started taking mood stabilizers. Two years later, I began college at Middlebury College in Vermont.
In the middle of my freshman year, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, setting off a series of repercussions that only worsened my mental health. I spent the subsequent nine years enduring a slew of treatment regimens, including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), 21 psychiatric hospitalizations, and 20 different medications for an illness I did not have. And as a result, I experienced mood lability, suicidality, and hallucinations—symptoms that furthered the belief that I did have bipolar disorder. (Related: Doctors Ignored My Symptoms for Three Years Before I Was Diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma)
These side effects of treatment forced me to find my own ways to cope. I start over-exercising to run away from my crippling anxiety. I started cutting my arms, hoping to push the feelings out of my body. I even scrubbed myself with bleach and took endless showers, hoping to somehow wash it all away. Despite so many people and professionals trying to "fix" me, loneliness seeped into everything. No matter where I went, nobody understood me, not even myself.
By the next year, I wanted to kill myself and started imagining jumping off bridges. This led to my first psychiatric hospitalization for suicidality. It was during this stay that I received an ECT that dramatically affected my memory and seeded obsessive checking behaviors that developed into full-blown OCD a year later. As a result, in the summer of 2008, I was institutionalized for three months at the Obsessive-Compulsive Institute at Mclean Psychiatric Hospital in Belmont, MA.
My One and Only Attempt At Taking My Life
By the time I graduated college in 2011, the side effects of all the medications and psychiatric treatments I'd been on became debilitating and my hallucinations worsened. Soon, my friends stopped calling. Later, they stopped answering my calls. Eventually, my first boyfriend left me because he couldn't handle my mental health. Lost, I moved home. Trouble had long since passed and my family brought home our second Bernese Mountain Dog, Sophie.
Like I did with Trouble, Sophie and I would lay on the floor and talk about my darkness. I told her about the impact of my medication, and the gutwrenching heartbreak I felt as the people I loved kept chipping away from my life. She listened to me for hours. She licked my tears, thumped her tail on the floor even when I shook with confusion. I felt like I was someone who constantly sucked the joy out of the room, but Sophie made me feel like there might be some left.
But despite Sophie's support, my world continued to shrink. It got to the point where I stopped leaving the house—and one day, I no longer wanted to live. (Related: What Everyone Needs to Know About the Rising U.S. Suicide Rates)
In the fall of 2013, when my parents weren't home, I went up to my room, wrote a note, and decided to end my life with an overdose. After swallowing the pills, I laid on my bed as my breathing slowed, and I felt myself slipping away. Then unexpectedly, I heard my parents come home. As I pretended to sleep, my dad entered my room to check on me. He paused and looked at me as I "slept" and took a seat at my bedside. He then slowly rested his hand on my chest. After a few moments, he left and I knew that by ending my life, I wasn't going to take anyone's pain away.
Practically incapacitated, I slid out of bed, made myself throw up, shred up my original note and wrote another one. I shared that I was admitting myself to a psych ward because I needed more help than I was getting.
The Importance of My Rediagnosis
Over the next few months, my care team started to give up hope. Then my therapist was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. In one of our final appointments, he told me that no one could help me anymore; that my only solution was in-patient care and vigilant supervision at a long-term psychiatric facility.
I was shook. The thought of being locked up for the rest of my life just didn't feel right. I needed to find someone who agreed with me. Someone who thought that I was still worth fighting for. That was Dominic Candido, Ph.D., who I like to refer to as Dr. C. (Related: How to Find the Best Therapist for You)
Within three sessions, Dr. C concluded that I did not have bipolar disorder, but rather extreme anxiety and PTSD as a result of all the medical malpractice I'd been through. Following my rediagnosis, he told me that if I was willing to work harder than I ever had my entire life, he would take me on permanently. Desperate to remain out of a psych ward, I promised him that I would do just that—and thus began my experience with exposure therapy.
The idea behind exposure therapy is that by doing exactly what you fear (exposing yourself to the source of your anxiety source without actually putting yourself in harm's way), you will teach your body that you can handle it. But every time I did something I feared, whether that was stepping outside of my apartment or having a simple conversation with a stranger, I had a tendency to, err, shit myself—literally. Unphased, Dr. C recommended I see a gastroenterologist but in the meantime, invest in adult diapers and start tackling my trepidations. (Related: How Your Mental Health Can Affect Your Digestion)
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This guy wanted me to walk into a situation where I actively soiled myself and potentially went insane with panic, on purpose. Nearly every ounce of me wanted to leave his office and never look back. But I reminded myself: It was either him or the ward.
How Exposure Therapy Changed My Life
On my first day of exposure therapy, I slid on excessively fluffy panties and walked to the parking lot behind my apartment. I stood next to the dumpster and for the first time, forced myself to feel my anxiety. My heart began to race, my legs shook, and sweat pooled down my forehead and chest. Then, I soiled myself. I did this—stand, sweat, shit, shower, and try again—for six hours a day, every day. By the fourth week, I felt my anxiety begin to lessen. By the sixth week, I no longer feared to leave my apartment. (Related: 'I Didn't Leave My House For An Entire Year—Until Fitness Saved My Life')
From then on I added to my exposures. I started walking into town, then through town, and graduated to sitting in public places so I could get comfortable with being seen. I'd spent so many years feeling guilt and shame for my sickness that the mere act of people looking at me made me feel naked and inexplicably vulnerable. Four months after I started exposure therapy, I began talking to people and eventually had some guests over to dinner.
By the end of 2014, not only was I making tremendous progress with my treatment, but I also got my first job working for a start-up and met my now-husband Dave. Fast forward to Valentine's Day 2015, and we brought home Wafflenugget, an eight-week-old Bernese Mountain dog who changed my life forever.
Life with Waffle
I worked from home, so Waffle and I became completely inseparable. And soon, the strangest thing happened: Waffle started jumping in my lap or wrapping her paw around my ankle about 30 seconds before every panic attack and flashback I'd experience. (Related: The Surprising Health Benefit of Having a Dog)
First, Dave and I thought this had to be a coincidence, but it eventually became apparent that Waffle had taught herself to alert me to my own anxiety, panic, and PTSD symptoms. Excited and intrigued by this development, I researched psychiatric service dogs ad nauseam. Then, based on my new knowledge, I began training Waffle to really cue in on my symptoms.
In addition to alerts for flashbacks and panic attacks, Waffle also developed alarms for OCD rituals, rumination, and social anxiety. As we started training her to become a full-blown service dog, we were mind-blown to find out what Waffle was capable of doing. We taught her to wake me up on time, make sure I got outside the house, remind me to take my medication, amongst a plethora of other extremely useful tactics.
Through Waffle's companionship, I was soon able to brace myself for moments that used to destabilize my work productivity and put me out for hours. I put faith in the fact that she knew exactly when my brain was planning to blindside me with triggering memories. Being in the know, for the first time in my life, gave me a sense of freedom. Yes, I was still putting in the work through therapy and treatments, but finally, I felt safe and supported at home, which gave me promise.
By 2017, I was barely recognizable. I was joyful, motivated, and most importantly, healthier than I'd ever been both physically and mentally. And it was all thanks to Waffle. I still suffer from panic attacks and flashbacks—and probably always will, but Waffle's warnings have helped me feel in control in what are incredibly unexpected situations.
Today, not only has she become the most incredible psychiatric service dog, she's undeniably my best friend. Every day she wakes me up at 7 AM, makes sure I get out of bed, lets me drink my coffee for 10 minutes before nudging me to take her for a walk. On good days she just offers me companionship and makes sure I stick to my schedule. And when things get rough, she cues me to my visual flashbacks by wrapping her paws around my ankles and actively gets in the way of my OCD rituals, like when I feel the need to incessantly bath myself or deep clean my house for hours.
Mental illness is miserable. I hate it. But Waffle has helped me realize that I have to accept it as a reality in order to live my life. It's because of Waffle that my mental illness is now just a part of who I am instead of being something that defines my existence. The biggest thing Waffle has taught me is that the way dogs love is the perfect framework on how to love others. Love someone as blindly and unconditionally as a dog and you'll always get love in return.
Finally Finding My Purpose
Once Waffle came into my life, I started documenting my recovery on Instagram, and I was so incredibly blessed to be recognized for that recovery. Soon, I started traveling the country to share my story, empowering others to be more open about mental illness and learn through fear. That included giving a TEDx talk on the power of embracing fear and vulnerability as a path toward growth, meaning, and community.
It was during one of these speaking events in 2017, where I talked about my unique bond with Waffle, that I met Elias Friedman, the founder of The Dogist. He was touched by my connection with Waffle and visited me in Vermont a few months later to discuss an opportunity. As we hiked in the Green Mountains, we talked about the future of The Dogist and its potential to grow into a brand that brings community, social-impact commerce, and even greater storytelling to the world. In 2018 Elias hired me to be the CEO of The Dogist where I continue to work today.
My life today is a gift—one of wellness, meaning, and community. But despite where I stand, I remain unsure.
I'm not sure if my mental illness will ever go away. It will likely always evolve and change. I'm not sure if I'll ever overcome the need for therapy. I still go twice a week and probably will for the rest of my life. I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to live without a service animal. Today I have Waffle, but I'll likely need another companion. Maybe even a third. I'm not sure if I'll always be on medication, but I'm not ashamed that I am because it's just a tool I need to manage my illness. (Related: Taking Psychiatric Meds Is Way More Common Than You Think)
What I am sure of is that there is great power in transparent vulnerability. By talking about my darkness, I know I can serve those in pain and hardship and remind them that there's no shame in mental illness. For those who're unaffected, I leave you with this: No one's life is perfect. Accept vulnerability with kindness because the sooner we make space for both pain and joy, the sooner everyone can feel like they belong.