Considering Diet as Part of One's Mental Health Treatment

By now, many people are starting to talk about how diet may play a role in one’s overall mental health.  Most realize that food has some impact on them, whether it is the fast food burger and fries that leaves your stomach hurting and energy level depleted or the bowl of ice-cream that gives you a jolt of energy and then leaves you craving more sugar (and most likely a stomach ache).  As with everything, you have the extremists that will tell you that anything outside of living in a bubble is bad and you have others that are starting simply, making subtle changes in their daily routine, including smarter food choices. Now, I find myself somewhere in the middle, but certainly experienced both ends of the spectrum.  

I started on my own path to wellness, especially where diet is concerned, during a very prolonged period of sickness. I was not getting better with traditional remedies, medications were not providing the relief I prayed for, and therefore I had to consider any and all complementary healing modalities that had a chance of helping me.  One such approach focused on my diet.  I was seeing (and still am) a wonderful integrative medicine psychiatrist that helped me learn more about food and how it affected my body.  Unlike other psychiatrists I have encountered, she was very patient, understanding, listened, and realized that I was only capable of small changes or the overwhelm would be too much.  I slowly tried eliminating foods that had gluten, dairy, and excessive processed sugar, and I felt better. I was less reactive to things, my stomach felt settled for the first time in my life, and I had energy all day.  

As I think back to my start on this healing journey, I can still feel the strong anxiety and overwhelm as I am the type of person that thinks that if I don’t do something 100% it isn’t worth doing at all (sounds a bit like a perfectionist).   Changing a lifetime of eating habits overnight is simply impossible, even for those that are not battling severe depression. Furthermore, I made the mistake of asking everyone in every health store their thoughts on the best supplements, diets, protein shakes, meal bars, etc.  What I noticed is that no one answered my questions the same, thus EVERYONE had their own opinion.  As time progressed, I learned to collect and process as much information as possible, but not beat myself up for having a burger or eating a bag of chips if I was starved and there was no other food available.  I learned that eating food (something I rarely did when I was sick) is more important than eating the perfect diet.  

So, for all those out there beginning your journey with nutrition, please, please, please, be gentle on yourself.  Remember that while Rome wasn’t built in a day, habits can take a long time to break.  Simply become more aware of what you put in your body and how you feel after.  Who knows, you may find that food can act as your medicine, allowing you to take less medication, and empowering you to take more control of your life.  

The Challenges of Living with an Unpredictable Mood Disorder

I’ve decided to revisit blogging and really commit to sharing knowledge based on my life's experiences and studies.  I’m going to expand topics to not only include AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) components but also general mental health challenges.  

 

Today’s topic is learning how to live and thrive with an unstable, unpredictable mood disorder.  This question has come up more times than I can count in my own life and has proven to be a huge barrier to my recovery along the way.  For me, I could be doing relatively well, living a life that I felt was stable and for the most part symptom free.  Then, out of the blue, things would turn.  Decisions became nearly impossible, relationships were in turmoil, irritability was at an all time high, and my thinking went from future oriented to gloom and doom.  This may sound very familiar to others who have experienced similar and as such you are surely aware what it feels like to be knocked down over and over again.  It seemed whenever I got into a groove, had a good job, had relationships that I thought were healthy, and finally getting my feet on the ground, the bottom would fall out. Each time this occurred, I lost a part of me. Every time I had some success to be followed by failure, I remember thinking, “what is the point of trying”?  The reality is, all we have is our ability to fight and persevere no matter how much adversity we face.

 

Now, in looking back on those horribly unstable years, I learned several lessons. First, I will have to manage my mood for my entire life.  In the past, I wanted nothing to do with “mental health” once I wasn’t symptomatic.  I wanted to be like everybody else, working hard, having fun, and being “normal”. What I didn’t realize was that as I grew further and further away from supports I set up while sick, I lost touch with my illness.  This is not suggesting that you live in fear of sickness but instead live in awareness and recognize your limits. A second realization was that my life was not all that stable in those “stable” years.  I was not aware of the role that diet played and the effect unhealthy food had on my system, both physical and mental. Now, I live my life in a more awakened state, paying particular attention to the food that I put into my body.   Third, I realized how important maintaining a schedule is in order to have more stability and help stay ahead of mood changes.  Lucky for me, I have Earl who has to maintain a schedule of going out first thing in the morning, getting exercise and fresh air, eating shortly thereafter, and continuing with exercise and bathroom breaks throughout the day. This schedule has proven invaluable to me, as I can’t afford to have sick days where I just do not feel like getting out of bed.  Finally, I learned the importance of staying connected to peers that understand my struggles. Meaning, continuing to attend support groups, talking with old friends I have made from those groups, and having some accountability for my actions and thoughts. 

 

Please Note: If you are reading this and are in a bad place with no one you would call a friend or support please remember this one thing.  I too was where you are now, reading about the importance of social support while not being able to function around people, thus having no one.  I would get so angry at comments about how important social support is and I would curse those articles emphasizing the importance of a network and support. I can tell you first hand that it is never too late and that trying, even if it is attending a support group nearby or sitting at a coffee shop with strangers, will bring about major changes including that much needed support from others.

There are still nice people out there....

I had a very interesting experience this morning while working at my "satellite office" at one of the thousands of Starbucks in NYC.  Earl and I were working away, well I was working and Earl was sleeping, and we were in a very loud Starbucks.  This particular store has music blasting and people talking on their phones, it is about the worst quiet work space you can find!  So as to keep up with others at the coffee shop, I decided to make a phone call.  I was talking louder than I thought (probably to talk over the background noise) and from a distance I saw a guy yelling in my direction, but I couldn't hear him.  He seemed to be upset and I assumed it was because he was singling me out for causing all the noise.  I thought nothing of it because this is New York City and people yelling at you for no reason is pretty much par for the course.  However, I was very surprised when he came up to me before leaving and said "I would like to apologize to you for my actions.  I have had a very rough morning with kids yelling, car trouble, and took out my bad mood on you." He said I appeared to be a good person and he wanted to clear the air by apologizing because I didn't deserve to be yelled at.  I thought that was one of the classiest things I have come across since moving to the city and wanted to share that with all of you.  


Changing Seasons

 

Well, I guess I am one of the worst bloggers of all time!  Haha, at least I remember to update this every few months :)  The team at Go Fetch Wellness has been very busy this last month.  Travels have taken us to Atlanta to present to two separate organizations and see family and friends.  Earl got to work on his doggy tan at the beach, shown below, while I recovered from a bitter winter in NYC.  Even this most humans don't love the arctic temperatures, I think Golden Retrievers would give anything for year round winter!

Today's blog topic is on the transition for dogs from winter to summer.  As summer approaches (and rather fast), many dog owners are having to change their normal routine to adapt to the hot temperature.  Like people, dogs need to adjust to season changes.  Dogs who shed will begin shedding their winter coats, and that is clearly evident by all the balls of fur in your house!  I have noticed that the change of season also brings about more allergies, most commonly seen at excessive itching.  Earl seems to be itching all over, and while nothing is visible on his skin, I attribute it to the shedding and the pollen.  In response to this, I have added more coconut oil to his food and really try to keep up with brushing him several times a week to help with the shedding.  I was also told to hose them off more frequently and dry them thoroughly after rolling around in the pollen filled fields and grassy areas.  Something else to consider is when you are exercising your animals. For me, I take Earl out every morning by 8am and let him run for a good hour.  This is a nice time of the day, and the weather hasn't gotten too hot yet. I notice that his mid day walk is usually cut to a very short trip to the curb to pee and then Earl pulling to get back inside the air conditioning fast!  Something else to consider is that your pets may not be as active with the heat.  When Earl was younger, I thought something was wrong with him because he was so sluggish in the heat.  I finally learned that is pretty normal for big, hairy dog in the summer time so I don't push him too much.  Some additional things to consider are boots if you live in areas where it hovers around 90+ degrees daily. Boots will help protect your dogs feet from blistering on the hot pavement.  Also, always travel with water.  I offer Earl water all the time and even pour it on his ears, as I was told this is a good way to cool a dog off.  

I hope everyone's summer is off to a great start!

 

 

Service Dogs in NYC

Hello again,

My intent was to start blogging and create an entry at least once weekly. As you can tell, this is my fourth entry and I haven't quite kept good on my promise to myself.  I think this brutally cold winter in the city must have given me writers block since my hands were always left with little to no feeling!  I'm going to free write more, and comment on topics that have important points to them, but are in no particular order.  

Today, I want to talk about having a service dog in New York City.  I would have to say that it is by far the hardest place I have lived with my dog.  Granted, we have only lived in two places prior to moving here (Chattanooga, Tennessee and Atlanta, Georgia), but there are many reasons NYC is a bit tougher. First, I have an 80 pound dog that isn't able to fit in a man bag, purse, backpack, or any other carrier that you see these small dogs shoved into.  He walks along side me, and as anyone that lives in the city knows, space is pretty tight here. The grocery stores have aisles that are barely big enough for people, nevertheless a man and his small horse :)  Restaurants seems to squeeze as many tables into their allotted space as possible, making room for an animal this size pretty much non existent.  On top of that, you have the lovely subway system.  I really have to plan my trips around rush hour, and even during off hours the subway could be packed like its 5pm on a workday.  I wish I could say that people make way for someone with a service animal, but that isn't always the case.  On top of that, the floors can be pretty disgusting (particularly after rain) and I do my best to keep Earl on his feet vs letting him sit down and absorb who knows what is on the floors.  If I decide to upgrade and take a cab, I then have the challenge of flagging a cabbie down that will be willing to take a service animal. While it is illegal for them to deny a ride to someone with a service animal, it is not illegal for them to mistakenly pass by because they didn't see you. In essence, getting a cab to stop is like striking a conversation with someone rushing to an appointment with their headphones in their ears. I have found uber is the best play here, since you can request a car and then let them know you are traveling with a service animal.  In addition to the above mentioned, an overall challenge is the fact that most places you go are packed with people.  That is ok for Earl since he is used to that, but with people comes many that don't respect the general rules of a service animal. Those are to not pet a dog without the owners permission and certainly not let your infants and children poke their fingers at a dogs face while explaining that "their baby absolutely loves dogs"!  Finally, something I have gotten used to here is consistently reciting the law spelled out by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  I would say 1 in 3 places I go into will challenge the fact that Earl is a service animal, that I'm not blind (since that is what most people think of when you tell them he is a service animal), and that I would even need a dog. That prompts me to explain the rules and law surrounding public access, and depending on how much friction is made, will depend on if I decide to even give them my business after the fact.  

While the challenges are greater in a city like this, I will continue to speak out for all those that can't to help make access easier for those with legitimate service animals. There are many out there that don't have properly trained dogs that throw a vest on them and try to take them into public places. These people continue to undermine the real use of working with dogs to help mitigate people's disabilities and hopefully there will be harsher legal consequences for them in the future.  

Invisible Disabilities and Mental Health Service Dogs

Many of you know about service animals for people with disabilities.  Most think of guide dogs which help people that are blind.  Today, there are many types of service animals. The following is a list of some of the conditions that can be improved with service animals:  hearing loss, seizure disorders, guidance for the blind, diabetes, PTSD, physical immobility, and various types of mental health disabilities.

Today, I want to discuss mental health service dogs.  These dogs can provide great relief and assistance for those suffering from severe mental health conditions.  I refer to this type of disability as an "Invisible" disability since the symptoms of these conditions are not always apparent to outsiders.  People who suffer from mental health challenges may appear functional on the outside, but be in great distress on the inside.  Luckily, animals have shown to improve conditions that otherwise have limited success with traditional healing modalities,  such as therapy and medications.  In order to qualify as a service animal, the dog must perfrom a task that helps mitigate a person's disabilty.  Below, I have listed some general tasks mental health service animals may perform.

  1. Retrieve medications
  2. Retrieve water to help with side effects from medications
  3. Calling 911 from a special phone in which a dog can call by stepping on a button
  4. “Grounding", which helps bring someone into the present during a panic attack for flashback
  5. Wake someone up during a nightmare, or in the morning
  6. Interrupting self-destructive behavior, like cutting or other self harm
  7. Assist with finding an exit in the event of a panic attack in a public place
  8. Provide a buffer between handler and the public
  9. Calm the handler during a panic attack
  10. Locate help when needed

The above list is a sample of some of the tasks a service animal can perform. This list can change depending on the nature of someone's disability and specific help needed.  As a side note, it is not proper to ask someone what their dog is specifically trained to do, or even about the nature of their specific disabilty. This information is very private, and many people with service animals do not want to answer these questions, even to their close friends.  

Individuals with “invisible" disabilities who have a service animal may find public access more difficult. Since others can't see what is wrong with you, they assume you just want to bring your dog everywhere.  This common misconception can make it difficult for those with legitimate disabilities when they require public access.  The best way to  combat this is to educate others.  When I am doing well, I make it a point to tell business owners and others who question why I need a service animal, about the appropriate way to interact with a service animal, and about what conditions they help treat.  Many people will say, "why do you have a dog, you look fine, you aren't blind"!  Believe it or not, I have actually had people look me in the eyes and ask me if I was blind!  Usually, I take the time to explain that there are many hidden disabilities.  

Aside from the tasks service animals provide, it is my opinion that the greatest benefit comes from the human/animal bond that has been shared for centuries.  Dogs help people remain in the present.  When I am with Earl, I'm constantly focused on him, and thus not living in my head. For anyone that has suffered with mental health challenges, escaping your thoughts can be very difficult.  I find that when Earl is with me, I am constantly looking around at where he is stepping, what he is smelling, and who is trying to interact with him.  By having him by my side, I shift my focus from inside to out.  Research also suggests that touching a dog or even looking into their eyes, can release the hormone Oxytocin. This hormone is known for having a calming affect, reducing anxiety, and for some increasing empathy.  Many suffering are very disconnected from others, and lack this much needed release of oxytocin.

In summary, I strongly encourage those to learn more about the many benefits of working with a service animal, particularly for mental health challenges.  They provide unconditional love, acceptance, and a sense of responsibility.  Thye can help bring about rapid changes that otherwise may be unattainable with current treatment options.  Remember, just as you "don't judge a book by its cover," you never know what someone is struggling with in the very complex organ of the brain.  



The "Joys" of Flying with a Service Animal

Lots of people will stop me at the airport and ask how I was able to get my dog on boardand how much it costs to take him.  Of course, since I don't have a physical aliment or a disability one key see, they assume I must be a dog trainer.  I carefully explain to them that he is a service animal and, as such, is allowed to fly per the ADA rules.  Usually, I will get comments on how they would like to do that, and it must be nice taking a dog everywhere.  These statements could not be farther from the truth.   Having a service animal, especially training one, is a long, and sometimes very difficult process.  Imagine having to tote around an infant with you daily, always worrying about if their needs are being met and trying your best to keep them calm and under control without meltdowns or crying.  This scenario is very similar to flying with a service dog, especially one in training.  Below, you will see a picture of Earl's first official flight from Atlanta, Georgia to Denver, Colorado,  he was 10 weeks old.

While this first trip was not too bad considering I could still pick him up, it did have its share of challenges that were new to both of us. First, you have to consider when to feed your dog, and how much water to give them prior to flying. Since Earl gets a little motion sick, I decided to not feed him until after we got to our destination. I thought that would keep an accident from happening but I quickly found out that wasn't going to be the case.  As soon as we passed through the security checkpoint and I put him down while I got my shoes on, he took a nice, puppy poop right next to where all the officers with guns were standing!  Of course, this drew a lot of attention to us, and some laughs by passing people.  A lovely couple walked by when I was cleaning it up with all purpose wipes, and said, "Welcome to being a parent!"  They were certainly right, as I toted my puppy "diaper bag" along with me with all the essentials. Once on board, I didn't feel comfortable letting him sit at my feet, so I held him for the duration of the flight.I wanted to ensure he felt safe, and of course, that no more accidents would take place.  Once again, I learned what it is like to be a parent holding a baby and having no hands free.  Lucky for me, I was sitting in the bulkhead with 2 very kind gentleman that helped me during the flight.  Oh to the joys of flying with an animal!

Our first post

Hello out there,

I've decided to start blogging about my experiences both owning a service animal and working with him to help others doing therapy work.  My dog's name is Earl (yes, just like the name of the T.V. show :)  and together we are hoping to change the lives of many.  To begin with, Earl has changed my life beyond what I could ever imagine, so credit is due to him first.  Prior to my getting Earl, I had a very difficult time managing my severe depressions and anxiety.  My condition left me unable to work for long periods of time and really unable to function.  I tried many interventions, yet I was still at the mercy of this unpredictable and devastatingly painful illness.  Medications, therapy, and even many alternative therapies were tried and failed.  However, all that changed the day I picked up this amazing guy pictured to the right. 

Our bond was instant, and the calming affects of having a dog around begin the moment I held him for the first time.  

Through this blog, I plan to take you through our life to the present, and the many experiences we have been through together. You will learn about what it is like to have a service animal helping with mental health, the challenges of raising a puppy, and the rewards of working so closely with a dog.  Currently, my work is focusing on helping others with severe mental illness to get on their own path to healing, and move towards a life that they deserve.  I will speak about the work of Go Fetch Wellness, which I established to cater to those in need with the help of my trusty, furry assistant.  

I learn something new everyday and plan to share new articles along the way, both on mental health and on incorporating dogs into the overall treatment plan.  

I welcome comments from my readers and hope to entertain you while also talking about the real challenges of living with mental illness.  

 

 

 

First time I met Earl, 7.5 weeks old, Springfield, Tennessee

First time I met Earl, 7.5 weeks old, Springfield, Tennessee