5 Ways A Pet Can Help You Through A Major Illness
This winter, I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune syndrome that randomly attacks your nervous system. After the initial onset that started with a sinus infection, GBS took over my body within days, and I became paralyzed for about five months.
It was the worst experience of my life and I’m still recovering over a year later.
One of the most essential tools to my recovery has been my golden retriever, Charlie. Without Charlie, I would not have recovered as well as I have, both mentally and physically. He’s been there during days when I couldn’t stand up and moments when I was so frustrated and tired that all I could do was cry.
Research has shown that pets can help keep us healthy as well as help us recover from major illnesses. Here are five ways pets, like Charlie, can help you through a major illness:
1. Learning to ask for help.
I’m an incredibly independent person, so one of the hardest things I had to learn to do during my illness was to ask for help and allow others to help me (when you suddenly and unexpectedly become paralyzed, you don’t have a choice).
Charlie’s presence helped keep my stubborn ego in check and grounded in reality. I might not always ask for help when I should, but I will if another life depends on me.
Charlie’s cuddles were more helpful to me than some of my medical treatments. His presence was soothing during my scariest moments, even when I couldn’t feel him next to me. Once my nerve functioning started to return, his cuddles became even more critical to help me ease back into a world that suddenly felt like sensory overload.
3. Working through the mental recovery from a major illness, including PTSD.
Most major illnesses involve some level of trauma. For me, my Guillain-Barre came on so fast and was so bizarre that I still have nightmares about it.
When I first started going back out with my friends after almost a six-month hiatus filled with hospitals and doctor appointments, I had flashbacks to the worst days of my illness. I’d have these flashbacks while out to eat, hanging out at a bar on a Saturday night, or just even walking with my friends downtown on a weekend afternoon.
Although he’s not trained as a service dog, Charlie has helped me to work through many nightmares and flashbacks. I live in a very dog-friendly city, so even without formal service dog certification, I can take him everywhere I go and usually do. He has helped me re-enter my social life and rediscover the fun, silly personality I had before my illness.
4. Funny moments.
During a major illness, it’s difficult to find sources of happiness and joy when so much is going so wrong.
I learned that seeking out those moments of happiness are just as critical as taking your medication and going to physical therapy. Charlie’s lovable personality and his goofy, clumsy mannerisms provided me with hours of entertainment while I was sick and recovering.
Even though I couldn’t always throw a ball or go for long walks, I enjoyed watching him do silly, everyday things like chasing his tail or getting excited about a new toy. These moments may have been taken for granted if I hadn’t been sick.
5. Getting back into a self-care routine.
After my paralysis began to fade, I had to find my new normal. I had to somehow return to “normal” life while acknowledging that a major illness had been, and will continue to be, part of my story.
One of the hardest parts of returning to “normal” was trying to find a daily routine for taking care of my house, myself, and Charlie. Charlie helped me with this adjustment because, as I mentioned before, I don't always do something for myself, but I will do it if another life depends on me.
Charlie’s presence forced me to make sure I was eating right, taking my medication, and getting enough sleep so that I could take care of him, too.
So the next time you are suffering from a major illness, just remember...
Pets can be our best friends and have a significant impact on your recovery from a major illness. Charlie has undoubtedly been a key to mine.