How Waffle Saved my Life
By Kate Speer
I've always been unabashed
in my humanity.
I was unapologetic in my humanity from the very beginning. Unlike my family, composure, conforming for sake of “fitting in”, and keeping my mouth shut did not come naturally to me. I was a wild child and no one understood me. And then, we got Trouble. Trouble came to us an 8-week old ball of Bernese mountain fluff when I was the age of five. Named for her knack to do everything wrong and everything dramatically, she made my antics look trivial.
Trouble and I were fast friends and whether we were adventuring in the mountains of Vermont or racing around the house playing dress up, we were a clear force to be reckoned with. But beyond the loud, colorful, fantasy-filled chaos that we left in our wake, what people didn’t see was that Trouble understood me, all of me, in a way no human did, myself included. Trouble understood that inside that outspoken, adventurous, creative and constantly-dress-changing mischief-maker, was simply a scared little girl that just needed a friend.
Although most remember our friendship for the broken furniture we left behind, this is how I remember Trouble.
Her lying next to me, hugging me after a long day. It was there, on the floor, that I was able to talk about my actual feelings - my fear of the bullies at school, the repercussions of my learning disability, my insecurity about not being smart enough to become a doctor like both of my parents, and the shame I felt for my chubby legs.
"My love for dogs grew during this dark period of my life."
Trouble would listen attentively every single night and hold her paw on my shoulder as my truths spilled out, truths I was only willing to share with her. It was in those moments, when I was truly seen as myself, that her love mattered the most and where my deep love for dogs began.
Trouble was not the only dog to be a part of my family. Since Trouble, my family has had Sadie the Corgi, Sophie, a second Bernese mountain dog, and Bindi, the Australian kelpie, as pack members. Each of these companions has had their own dynamic personality and given me a unique friendship built through time in the woods and on the floor, my two happiest of places. Yet, in each of these relationships, one element always held true: I felt accepted by them wholeheartedly and loved no matter how I felt.
This truth became particularly important for me in my young adulthood when I struggled with mental illness. At 16, I was diagnosed with depression and ADHD and two years later, after my first semester at Middlebury College, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. The result of this misdiagnosis was profound and I spent the subsequent nine years suffering from its repercussions.
With a care team adamant that I did indeed have bipolar disorder, those nine years were full of a slew of treatment regimens and medications for an illness I did not have. The result of these medications and treatments were extreme mood lability, suicidality, and hallucinations - symptoms that furthered the belief that I did have bipolar disorder. Those nine years were a total mess - a blur of gut-wrenching hallucinations, psychiatric hospitalizations and a loneliness that seeped into everything. No matter where I went, nobody understood me, not even myself.
But then I would go home and there would be Sophie, my family’s second Bernese Mountain Dog, and we would lie on the floor just like Trouble and I did. There, I would tell her all about my darkness, my invisible tormentors and the pills I hated but took so diligently with hopes they’d bring back the joy. She used to listen for hours, lick my tears away when they came and thump her tail on the floor when I shook in confusion. To this day, I still think of her as the greatest teacher when it came to helping someone in pain - just be there.
My love for dogs grew during this dark period of my life, and whether it was a dog on the street who offered a wagging tail, a therapy dog in the psychiatric ward who offered a paw when I was hospitalized, or a treasured session of lying on the floor with Sophie hugging me at home, dogs were my sanctuary and salvation. They were the only ones who didn’t have an opinion on what I “should” be doing to better myself, who didn’t stigmatize or judge me and who didn’t have a problem with endless days in bed or hours on the floor weeping in confusion.
After I finally graduated college in 2011, so debilitated by the side effects of the medication I was taking, I was placed on psychiatric disability. I’d love to write here that everyone believed in me when this happened, but they didn’t. Friends stopped calling. And then, the worst part - friends stopped even answering the phone. Alone with my hallucinations, I stopped leaving the house in daylight and quickly I plunged into suicidal darkness.
My world became tiny; Days performing OCD rituals and one walk with Sophie per night once the neighbor's lights had gone out. I stopped wanting to live and my brain tricked me into thinking that no one else wanted me to live either. My illness took over and convinced me to end my life with an overdose. Fortunately, I survived. But after my suicide attempt, even my doctor - the man paid to help me - gave up on me too. He sentenced me to a long-term psychiatric facility.
I remember that day vividly. He sat me down on the couch in his practice and gave me a cup of chamomile tea. He then proceeded to say that no one could help me anymore, that I was a lost cause, that the only way I would survive this life would be to live out my days in an institution. His words echoed as I drove home to my parents' house. There, with Sophie by my side as I lay on the kitchen floor, I pleaded with my parents, my final lifeline, not to agree with my doctor. I pleaded for them to use their healthcare connections to find me a doctor who would take me as a free woman, not a jailed bird.
My parents - bless their incredible souls - did exactly that and obtained an appointment with a world-renowned behavioral therapist. In a matter of sessions with this doctor - three to be precise - he concluded that I did not, in fact, have psychotic bipolar disorder and instead suffered an extreme anxiety and panic disorder that dated back to my childhood. Additionally, he concluded that the manifestation of bipolar disorder - my mood lability and hallucinations - was a result of the medications I had been taking since I was 17, not a result of mental illness. This truth turned my entire world upside down.
Instead of dwelling in anger at the misdiagnosis, I attacked life with a newfound vigor and a determination to grow back into joy. I committed wholeheartedly to exposure therapy and weaning myself off the antipsychotic medications. It was grueling work in every way, but it was absolutely worth it. After one year of intense behavioral work and routine visits with him, I was hardly recognizable: I was fully employed, growing in the business world, surrounded by a close group of friends, and had a boyfriend, Dave.
With the return of my health came an intense desire to have a dog of my own. I was finally well enough to give the love back to the animals that had so clearly given me so much over the years. My now husband, Dave, and I, smitten with Sophie after many weekends dog sitting, reached out to her breeder and were lucky enough to get Sophie’s own niece as our pup. Wafflenugget, as we named her, came to us on Valentine’s Day three and a half years ago. She was named after my Dad’s first childhood dog - Waffle the Newfoundland - and we added nugget to her name because of her supposed “runt” status.
Like Trouble and Sophie, and most Berners for that matter, Waffle’s personality was dynamic from the beginning. She was stubborn, exceptionally loyal and absolutely obsessed with food. Her days revolved around three things: snuggles, outdoor adventures, and her quest for handouts. When she wasn't in one of those three states of existence, she made her displeasure aggressively known by chewing the drywall and every item of furniture in our home. Although we pretended to feel otherwise at such moments, we loved every minute of her silliness and those first few months with her will always be treasured as a sleep-deprived blur of hilarity, destruction, and, I’ll be honest, spoiling her rotten even when we shouldn't have.
After three months with us, I started a new job as a social media marketer for a coffee company. Working remotely from home, Waffle and I got to spend every single moment together. After a month of being inseparable, the strangest thing started happening - Waffle started jumping in my lap or wrapping her paw around my ankle about thirty seconds before every panic attack and flashback I experienced.
At first, Dave and I were convinced it was a random coincidence. But, after a few weeks of her alerting me to every flashback I had and reading online about dogs’ ability to pick up on the pheromone release that occurs when a human experiences anxiety, we realized that Waffle had taught herself to alert me to my own anxiety, panic and PTSD symptoms. Fascinated and excited by this development, I researched psychiatric service dogs at length and read everything I could get my hands on.
Now, as I’ve told you and as you certainly will see on her Instagram, Waffle is beyond obsessed with food, so as soon as I added the bacon reward component to her alerting, she became even more focused on her skill set. What started as alerts for only flashbacks and panic attacks quickly developed into alerts for OCD rituals, rumination and social anxiety. It blew both of our minds, but it excited us even more.
With her companionship and the newfound ability to know when my brain was going to blindside me with triggering memories - moments that used to destabilize my work productivity and deplete my social bandwidth - I found freedom and a bolstered stamina at work and in life. With a wealth of energy that I had not experienced since my youth, I developed an unrivaled commitment to growth and a determination to learn. With Waffle by my side, I devoured online courses in marketing, social media, brand strategy and sales. I was soon promoted to Director of Sales and Marketing for the coffee company and thereafter, founded my own consulting firm. Within a year, I was almost unrecognizable - joyful, motivated, successful at work and healthier than I had ever been in my entire life. Waffle was to thank for this.
Waffle gave me my life back and continues to help me every day. Through her unconditional love and incredible skill set, she has become not only my psychiatric service dog but also my very best friend. Our days together are always different for that is the reality of mental illness. Some days, she cues me to a visual flashback every hour and offers a snuggle and paw as the waves of my dark past flood over me. Other days, she alerts me to my OCD contamination habits and keeps me from washing the house or myself excessively for hours. Mental illness is a beast and also a shapeshifter, an ever-evolving opponent in how it affects those who live it but with Waffle, I lean into the truth that I do not have to love my illness but I do have to accept it in order to love my life. Waffle has given me this acceptance with her service, she has given me a way to make peace with it and work on it all the while. She and I, together, have tamed my beast and now it is merely a part of our landscape and not the all-powerful demon that it once was.
I truly do not have words for the gratitude I feel for her but, after six months of trying to write what she means to me on this very page, I am finally okay with the fact that I cannot express it. That said, for all of you who have a dog or have ever had a dog, I know you know the love I feel deep within my soul because you are here, reading this. You are part of this incredible Dogist community that Elias Friedman has so beautifully built, and that I am now honored to be a part of as well.
Just as I don’t have the words for what Waffle means to me, I also don’t yet have the words for the gift that this new role is for me. In time, I’m sure I’ll be able to write the extensive story of how Elias and I met in New York and then connected in Vermont during a snowy photo shoot in late November last year. I’ll tell you how Waffle did anything and everything just for a cookie that snowy day but, for now, all I will say is that he, just like all the dogs that have accepted me wholeheartedly, did the very same thing. He saw me in my truth and accepted me for it. He listened as I unapologetically told him in my outspoken manner to build an even greater digital storytelling space for the world to share its stories and find community and then, invited me to help him do so.
I am honored to be the one chosen to spearhead this next chapter of the Dogist and oh my goodness, please know this - I cannot wait to hear your own story.
And if I’m lucky, snuggle that pup of yours too
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