A Service Dog?

About a year ago I wrote a very disorganized and personal essay about what it’s like living with ADHD. It was hard to write and it took me a long time to build up enough courage to actually post it here on the blog. But the process was a useful one and I think I’ve grown because of it. That journey also mirrors a conversation I’ve been having a lot lately and, for reasons I’ll soon make clear, can only expect to have with an ever growing frequency moving forward.

My name is Kevin and I have a disability.

Like nearly 43.6 million other adults in the United States, I have at least one psychiatric disorder recognized by the DSM5. And like almost 10 million adults in the United States, I experience significant functional impairment—or disability—as a result of these disorders. Psychiatric disorders tend to come in clusters, a phenomenon known as comorbidity, and I’ve also been diagnosed with severe major depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder. While ADHD is not the only diagnosis I struggle with, it is the one I’ve spent the most time with and is also the least stigmatized of the lot, so it’s much easier for me to talk about openly.

This is often a hard pill for people to swallow, I certainly don’t “look disabled” and it’s very rare that others see the symptoms or challenges of my disability. There’s also a nearly endless list of negative stereotypes and social stigmas attached to mental health and psychiatric disability that we all harbor, often without realizing it.

This is my second “coming out,” and it has taken a very similar path to the first. I began talking with close friends and family a couple of years ago about my mental health and I’m slowly beginning to become more comfortable sharing this information more freely. Writing this and plastering it on the internet is, if I’m being honest, a bit of a running long jump in that regard, but there’s a reason for that which I’ll get to in just a moment.

The truth is that not all disabilities are visible and not everyone with a psychiatric disorder is disabled.
I am, and I’m trying to learn to be comfortable with that and ask for help when I need it.

I, and others like me, shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed or ashamed because my disability isn’t easily explained or seen. We shouldn’t be told to “try harder” or to “believe” in ourselves as if we don’t already but if we did, all of our challenges and struggles would magically disappear. Our society places a huge burden on individuals with psychiatric disorders, even the colloquial language we use—”mental illness“—is loaded with negative connotations. The stereotypes for psychiatric disorders are regularly employed in the subtle, everyday discrimination of public opinion which can make it difficult for people to talk to their doctors and ask for help. Even with an understanding and supportive family, peer group, or community it can be an incredibly challenging process just to admit you need help. It’s my hope that telling my story will help to erode these stereotypes and make it easier for others to start their own conversations about mental health.

I know how hard it is to open up; and I know the kind of damage that hiding and denial can do. Until recently, it’s been hard to acknowledge and admit to myself—let alone anyone else—that I have trouble with many aspects of everyday life. This journey has been an extremely challenging and exhausting process, both for me and my family. Before I sought out help, I lost friends, my relationship suffered, and my career experienced some setbacks. Long time hobbies and passions were no longer interesting or rewarding, and it was a challenge for me to engage with anyone. I’m one of the lucky ones in that I do have an amazing support group of friends, family, and coworkers around me and I still struggle every single day! There are no cures for being disabled, but over the past several years my doctors and I have investigated treatment options and augmentation strategies from A to Z. I’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s more I want to do.

Which brings me to the point of this essay… Last week I started a fundraising campaign to help defray the costs of getting and training a psychiatric service dog.

At first, my reaction to the idea was surprise and amused denial, but as the conversation has progressed I’ve come to see it as an incredible opportunity. This is something that I’ve discussed with my doctors, agonized over privately, talked about with friends and family, completely abandoned, and returned to repeatedly for months. Adopting and utilizing a service dog, it should be obvious, is not a decision I have approached lightly. Medication and therapy have made a huge difference for me, but I still face significant daily challenges that no drug or gadget has been able remedy—there are no magic pills.

Service dogs are amazing, life changing companions that help to mitigate their partner’s disability. These dog’s jobs are management and coping tools, part of a larger strategy to address a disabled person’s unique challenges. And while most people are at least familiar with the idea of guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs, and mobility assistance dogs, psychiatric service dogs are much less well known. These service animals are very different from emotional support animals, therapy dogs, and pets with which they can often be confused. PSDs have rigorous, individualized training to specifically address and mitigate their partner’s disability, just as any other service animal does. This is referred to as the dog’s Tasks or Work, and each service dog team has their own set.

It’s not all work and no play, though, service dogs get to just be dogs, too! A service dog isn’t “on duty” all the time, they get breaks and days off—time when they can relax and do all the things any other normal canine would do (like roll around in the grass, run, play, and sniff butts…) and the bonds they build with their handlers are as rich and full of love as any companion animal or family pet.

In the months since I deleted my Facebook account, I’ve extolled the freedom and absence of negative consequences of the decision. When asked if I miss it, I have enthusiastically replied with some variation of “oh, hell no!” But now, for the first time in nearly 400 days, I have a reason to miss Facebook: GoFundMe relies heavily on Facebook integration.

Without Facebook, my GoFundMe campaign doesn’t appear in a search on the GoFundMe website, so without the link no one can find it. Without Facebook, I can’t “verify” my identity for potential donors and supporters. And that’s the other reason I’m writing this. I need help spreading the word, asking for support, and raising money. So many of my friends and family have heard the same question in the last seven days, “Would you be willing to share my GoFundMe campaign on your Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or blog?” In a way the fundraiser has been a trigger for some of the very things that we are hopeful a service dog will mitigate, like panic attacks and rumination, but if it works it will all be worth it!

My fundraiser has only been live for seven days and already I’ve experienced a tremendous outpouring of generosity and kindness. I’m just shy of ten percent of my goal, which absolutely blows my mind. I honestly didn’t think I’d get a single donation when I created it, so I’m graciously surprised to have been so fortunate so soon. And it’s my hope that, with your help, I’ll be able to make it to 100 percent before the end of the year!

So my request is this: Can you help me raise $7500 to help cover the “initial investment” costs of getting and training a service dog who will help to augment my more “traditional” treatment and enable me to live a more full life? If you can help, even if it’s just sharing my GoFundMe link online, thank you so much for your support!

gofund.me/ak9forkevin

 


UPDATE (14 April 2016): I have updated the second paragraph above and the description of my GoFundMe campaign to remove generalized anxiety disorder following a session with my doctors where we completely reevaluated everything from the ground up.

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