On a quiet Sunday night last spring, in her ranch-style home in Bay Bulls, NL, Esther Vardy almost died. As she lay on the cold, marble bathroom floor, slipping in and out of reality, the 40-year-old mother of two thought she might soon take her last breath. In those abstract moments that didn't feel real, she believed she wanted to take her last breath. Esther was experiencing a psychosis - a symptom of a mental illness she has been living with for decades. She was losing sight of what was real and going to a dark place she might never return from when a big, furry pup brought her back.
Esther was 23 years old when she was diagnosed with Bipolar II, a mental illness characterized by distinctly high (hypomanic) and low (depressive) states. She had just given birth to her second daughter. In the years following Esther’s diagnosis, she would experience depressive episodes that would cause her to become withdrawn, agitated and angry. Other times, she would be elated, energetic and seemingly high on life.
“When you’re hypomanic you’re very optimistic, you have a lot of energy, you don’t sleep, you have a lot of great ideas, you want to do everything - a lot of people say it’s a positive thing, but it’s not. You don’t really have a conscience, you make very impulsive decisions and you don’t think of consequences, and that can lead to a lot of negative things after the episode is finished. When I’m hypomanic, the scariest part about that is that it always comes with a crash.”
Esther says each “crash” brought her lower and caused fundamental changes in how her brain worked. Although Esther fought to stay in the middle of the two extremes, it was in the midst of a depressive state when the concept for Pawsology was born. The idea for the organization, which trains psychiatric service dogs and pairs them with people who need psychiatric support, came to Esther after a doctor recommended she get a service dog to help mitigate the symptoms that couldn’t be controlled with medication.
Esther describes the painful lead-up to what she identifies as the tipping point in her disorder. “Unable to function or think clearly, I was whisked away in my own mind, as if I never existed. The most I could hope for was numbness. This brought me to the first trip ever to the psych ward. The hospital meant a loss of control, a loss of autonomy, enforcement of drastic measures, and a forced admittance to myself and others that I was seriously unwell,” Esther says. “That night at the Waterford [hospital], the absolute disconnect made it very real to me that suicide is the worst possible outcome of mental illness. If I allowed myself to live with mental illness as the benchmark for everything I did, it would eventually win.”
Esther began to take a more holistic approach and she started to discover new ways to help her get through times when her disorder took control. She searched for a Canadian organization that could provide a psychiatric service dog, but her search came up empty. Most organizations offered service dogs for other, more visible illnesses, and the ones who would provide dogs for mental illness were mainly focused on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But she was determined. Esther started researching Canadian breeders who had provided service dogs. She connected with a dog trainer and started working on getting psychiatric service dogs to this province.
Gabe was the first pup. Esther and her family travelled to Ontario to bring the German shepherd home in March. He was only a few weeks into his psychiatric service dog-training program when he was put to the test. Gabe and Esther were lying on the couch on a Sunday evening in May when Esther started slipping into a psychosis. She managed to get to the floor in her bathroom. Gabe followed.
“I was cradling my knees and rocking back and forth talking to myself,” Esther says. “He was licking me the entire time. My hand, my arm, up in my face and that was the only thing that was keeping me connected to reality.”
Esther says the puppy lay on her lap, licking her uncontrollably and nudging her with his cold, wet nose. “Feeling that sensation stopped me from getting carried away with where my brain can go,” Esther says. Eventually she made her way to bed, where she fell asleep with Gabe next to her.
Since that episode, Esther’s doctor has adjusted her medications and part of Gabe’s job is to remind her to take them. Every morning he sits by the medicine cabinet expectantly until Esther takes her prescriptions. Gabe accompanies her everywhere she goes, giving Esther and her family the security of knowing she is safe.
“Living with bipolar means I will never know what it means to be ‘normal,’” Esther says. “My normal is nothing more than a moment in time where my brain is able to generate the right amount of chemicals to allow me to feel a sense of peace - a peace I can only assume others living without bipolar feel all the time. I live for those moments, but I always know it is just a matter of time before bipolar appears, and a cloud of darkness over takes my reality. Even my moments of peace are shadowed with a knowing it won’t last. It keeps me as a prisoner in a shitty world that’s stuck on repeat. Having Gabe allows me to create a different world than the one I am used to existing in and allows me to experience a sort of normal and the kind of peace I never thought possible - a world where bipolar takes a back seat and I can just be, without fear. There are no words to describe the depth of love I have for Gabe. The bond is immeasurable, and without him, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Esther hopes the Pawsology dogs will help save more lives. “What I came to understand about service dogs is they go way beyond just being trained for specific tasks to mitigate a disability. The real service a psychiatric service dog provides is the gift of hope and a reason to live,” Esther says. “A dog makes it possible for the cloud of fear to be lifted; they remind us that the only place that matters to be is right now, this moment. They make it easy for us to connect. They make us feel needed and important. They show us no judgment; they ground us.”
The organization has accepted six recipients this year and Esther is working on raising money to get the service dogs partnered with their new owners. “We have an amazing group of volunteers ready to work. We have recipients waiting for dogs. We have breeders lined up to provide dogs, and we have our training program in place,” says Esther. Each dog will cost $15,000 and Esther is looking for support from the corporate community. She hopes to have the dogs in the province before the end of the year. - By Amy Stoodley
Click here to find out more about Pawsology.