I’m writing this from Ontario Canada during an impulsive visit to see my folks. I come from a dog family. I can’t recall a time when my parents didn’t have a dog. In fact, I was so used to having a dog around that when I moved to New York City at 18 the first thing I did was buy a Maltese I named Soprano. That dog was my loyal companion for nine years. When I moved to Los Angeles in 87 not expecting to survive my addiction, I left Soprano at my mom’s house. Even when I had no hope for my own life, I managed to put her safety first.
After I got clean, pulling Soprano out of her cushy retirement home (my mom’s) didn’t seem fair and it didn’t occur to me to replace her. She was, to me, irreplaceable. Besides, my social life in early recovery kept me too busy to want to get “tied down” with another pet. By the time I moved back to New York and discovered a “no pet” clause upon signing my lease I’d grown used to living pet-free. I’d forgotten the brand of joy that comes from a furry friend.
Three years ago my parents bought Harley (the dog in the photo). A Jack Russell puppy is not the sort of dog you’d expect a couple of 70-somethings to own. The dog has boundless energy. I made it my mission to lavish playtime on him whenever I visit. What happened was this: Harley opened up a place in my heart that I forgot was there. The dog-shaped hole. Now I have this new unrest inside of me that is crying for a dog of my own. This will mean either leaving the apartment I’ve been in for 21 years or it could mean leaving New York. Dog-ownership’s going to require a major lifestyle change – but I feel it coming because of the longing I now experience whenever I see a dog on the street.
I once had a friend in recovery who suffered from severe depression and suicidal ideation. He tried every medication but found no relief. Instead of tormenting himself, he began adopting cats. At one point he had close to 20 of them. I’m sure his neighbors were horrified but he loved his cats and felt responsible for them. He said that no matter how he felt he could never kill himself because he wouldn’t want his cats to starve or be put in a shelter. Years later he said that his cats had saved his life until he was able to find the right medication.
Animals have the ability to soften us, to make us laugh, and to help us learn how to play. They provide companionship, get us outside for long walks, and they’re able to lure strangers into conversations with us. A pet can teach us patience, kindness, and accountability. They bring out our best qualities. A relationship with an animal is a channel for love. For many addicts, this may be the first love they are comfortable experiencing.
Animal-assisted therapy is being used in a wide variety of settings to help people with acute and chronic illnesses including addiction. Numerous treatment centers now see value in allowing pets to accompany clients into rehab. Equine therapy has also proven beneficial as a treatment modality. This is based on the many physiological and psychological benefits documented in patients during interactions with animals. These include lowered blood pressure and heart rate, increased beta-endorphin levels, decreased stress levels, reduced feelings of anger, hostility, tension and anxiety, improved social functioning, and increased feelings of empowerment, trust, patience and self-esteem.
Owning a pet is a long-term commitment and not one a newcomer in the early stages of rebuilding a life should take on. Wait until you have income and housing stability first. But you don’t have to be a pet owner to enjoy the benefits of animal love. There are other options. Fostering dogs and cats is a short-term commitment. Walking dogs or playing with cats at no kill shelters is another option. Pet sitting for friends is a way to get a quick no-strings hit. Or you can hang around the local dog runs and befriend some of the regulars.
Furry friendships bring out our gentler side and this can be a game changer on a tough day.