by Aisha Rallonza
I started interning for Communitails on June 11, 2019. A few weeks before that, I was in Medical City, waiting to see a psychiatrist for the first time in my life. Meeting a psychiatrist was a surreal experience. I avoided eye contact with him and rattled off the things I had been going through—frequent and uncontrollable crying jags, constant detailed thoughts of suicide, frequent self harm, hopelessness, loss of pleasure doing things I used to love, complete loss of focus, inability to work or study, inability to get out of bed—and after my long grocery list of what I assumed was belated teenage angst, he told me that all of these were symptoms of a major depressive disorder.
“That’s weird,” I said. “I’ve been feeling like this ever since I was twelve years old.”
“You might have been depressed all that time,” he said.
This has nothing to do with dogs, I know, but I have a point to make here, so bear with me. As a part of my internship, my boss asked me to write three blog posts, and among them, she wanted one specifically about my experience working for this company. I can’t exactly do that without first explaining where I’m coming from, a vantage point which my therapist assures me is interesting and not just weird. It’s the vantage point of being a mentally ill person working for a service that aims to better the ill.
It’s a little bit of an awkward position to be in, at first. I joked about it feeling like being a secret double agent. When I sat in on meetings and the topic would shift to “people with depression” I’d think to myself “Shhhh, these people don’t know I’m one of them.” It’s odd, to say the least, especially because when I began this internship, I wasn’t completely sold on the whole therapy dog thing in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs. At home, I live with six of them, and adore them with all my heart. I just wasn’t completely convinced that they could actually help in concrete ways.
I learned about Communitails from my parents. They’re both HATs, each of them handling one of our two Labradors, Arya and Robbin. When I was looking for internships, Nanay had told me that Communitails would be happy to have me, and I was basically gunning for any company that would take me, so I hopped on board.
Most of my work was clerical. I would write and send out emails, organize the company’s perilously confusing Google Drive, print and arrange files. I was also in charge of posting things on the Communitails Facebook, something that took a while for me to get used to because I’m a naturally cynical person at heart and I was writing captions or posts like “Be kind to yourself!” or “Take care of your mental health!”
It’s not that I don’t believe in these things. I do, but I was skeptical. I’ve been allegedly depressed for years of my life, and the whole struggle seemed like an impossible uphill climb. Those first few days, I didn’t really believe that what we were doing could make a difference.
Then I started going on activities. I went to Animal Assisted Activities, where we would bring a dog to a school or an office for a one hour interaction session. I went to the Handler Training Courses where aspiring humans learn about what it takes to become a Human Animal Team. I wrote other blog posts about these experiences specifically, which you can read here and here, but what I left out of those posts is how it started to change my viewpoint. Seeing students and employees genuinely burst into joy upon seeing a dog is a treat to see each and every time. Seeing people from all walks of life be interested in volunteering their time and energy into helping people is manages to kick away my usual hopeless view of the world. The people I’ve met on this internship believe in what they’re doing, in what they want to be doing, and that belief rubs off on me, especially when I see the effects.
And then, of course, there were the dogs. Oh, the dogs.
I’ve mentioned before that I love dogs. My family has many dogs. When I see a dog outside, no matter what I’m thinking, whether it’s a stray or an impeccably groomed purebred, I smile. With this kind of demeanor, you must understand that interning for Communitails was definitely a blast because it meant I got to meet a lot of the therapy dogs we have. Their personalities vary wildly, from energetic to lazy to proud to inexplicably humble. Each and every one of them has their own special way of making people relax, smile, or laugh. I see this in the reactions of everybody we meet on sessions, and also in myself.
Shortly after my psychiatrist diagnosed me and prescribed me medication, I began therapy. Therapy is weird. If you’ve never been [to therapy], the one thing I want to tell you is that I found it incredibly weird. It’s one hour of talking, and you’d be surprised how difficult it is to get the words out sometimes. On many sessions when I felt particularly like my words were stuck in my throat, I kept thinking that if a dog were here, I’d feel better. I’d feel less nervous. I’d feel less like therapy was a test I needed to pass and more of the conversation it’s meant to be.
Don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t want to be over-inspirational, but instead as realistic as I can possibly be. It would probably be easy to write a completely happy fluff piece about therapy dogs, but this is a piece from the perspective of a skeptic who is beginning to see the appeal. It’s a piece from the lens of somebody mentally ill who worked for a service that aims to uplift the ill.
“…if a dog were here,…I’d feel less like therapy was a test I needed to pass and more of the conversation it’s meant to be.”
At the end of the day, do I believe in therapy dogs? Yes. Not as a cure all, of course. For one thing, dogs haven’t cured me of depression and they won’t, because that’s not how it works. Even with the therapy and the medication, there are still days where I wake up and don’t want to move an inch, thoughts obsessed instead with why I couldn’t have just died in my sleep.
But the dogs can help.
On those days I wake up not wanting to be alive, what gets me out of bed is more often than not the sound of my dogs barking outside. That’s what has me peeling myself off the covers and stumbling to my feet. Not the thought of work to be done, the thought of the progress I need to keep up, the reminders that I can get through this. It’s my dogs. When they’re barking, I need to get up and see what’s going on, because I love them.
I wonder about all the other people we visit. The people who take time out of school or work just to interact with a dog for around fifteen minutes. The people in the future who will be able to undergo therapy with a dog in the room, calmer and less nervous about the hard work it takes to be honest. The people who have to get up and manage to do it.
That’s what dogs can do for us. They can make us get out of bed. Or they can make us want to. For the ill, that hope means a lot. It means the first step to getting better, in whatever capacity that might be.
Aisha Rallonza is a 20 year old Creative Writing major at Ateneo de Manila University. They enjoy collecting marbles, playing with their dogs, and seeing trees. Find more of their writing at birdscreeches.tumblr.com