Going to the Dogs

Amazingly, one of the things I don’t post much about on this blog is dogs. I have a little dog named Rico who is nearly 4 years old, and I have had dogs almost all my life. My home growing up was a dogs-are-people-too kind of place. The four cocker spaniels we had over the course of about 20 years were like my little brothers and sisters as much as pets. After the last of our dogs passed away and my aging parents decided they wouldn’t get a new one, I knew it was time to start thinking of becoming a pet parent myself.

While my parents chose to get pure-bred dogs from reputable breeders (usually the dogs who were considered “not fit for show”), I felt strongly about getting a rescue dog. I’ve always been partial to small breeds, and I knew that here in Arizona chihuahuas often come up for adoption. I also researched the breed and felt that one would fit my lifestyle, not to mention that as a renter small dogs are less limiting to one’s housing options. This all sounds like a lot of head-work, but in truth when I saw chihuahua mix Rico at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona on September 11, 2010 it was my heart that did the talking. He was dragging around a toy bird as large as him, our eyes met… It’s a classic love story.

Short, dark, and handsome is totally my type.

Short, dark, and handsome is totally my type.

Rico and I have rarely been apart since. He’s come with me on vacations, stayed in a hotel, and even flies on planes! I never could have anticipated how much it has changed my outlook and helped me with depression to know that every night there’s a little one waiting at home to greet me, and every morning there’s someone waiting to hop in my bed and cuddle.

More than that, though, Rico has introduced me to the world of shelter dogs. I’ve become a whole-hearted advocate of dog adoptions and since December I’ve also been volunteering at the Pima Animal Care Center once a week. It’s hard to overstate the difference love can make in a shelter dog’s life, but here are some things I’ve picked up over time:

  • Breed is not destiny: The majority of dogs at PACC are pits and pit mixes. These breeds often get into the news for causing trouble, and they can seem intimidating. But through interacting with many pits, I have a much deeper sympathy for these dogs. People often get them for protection, they may do little or no training with these dogs or leave them outside all the time, and I’ve even seen dogs that were involved in fighting. An adult dog has the mental capacity of a toddler. Like a child, if you don’t socialize them properly they will become unruly. But many of these “problem” dogs are great at heart and can be trained to be good pets.
  • There is no such thing as an outside dog, period: Being from upstate New York, this seems a no-brainer to me. A dog that is kept outside all the time could not survive in a cold climate, but here it’s quite common that dogs are left outside. This is a terrible idea because it deters proper socialization and training, and because it makes dogs susceptible to illnesses like valley fever and to theft, assault, etc. If you’ve ever seen a dog with a serious case of valley fever, which I have, you will think twice about ever leaving your dog outside over long periods of time.
  • A dog’s backstory is only part of the story: Ask anyone who’s adopted a dog and you’ll find out that the “problem” dogs in the shelter often end up making the best pets. Rico was considered a rescue for behavioral problems. He came from a home with four other, larger dogs and supposedly had aggression toward other dogs and humans. In the first few months I had him it was clear that he wasn’t properly housebroken and had anxiety issues, but today those issues are just not there. It’s not magic; it’s just patience, love, and attention. Maybe his former owners could not give him that, but they had the foresight to recognize it before he crossed the point of no return. Many others have similar stories, for example a close friend adopted a lab mix who allegedly jumped fences. Once she got into the right home, though, she’s never tried to escape again.
  • Love can conquer all: I think making Rico feel loved and secure was key to addressing his behavioral issues. Many shelter dogs have never really known that feeling. It breaks my heart to see dogs who appear to have never been walked on a leash, or who don’t seem to know what a treat is. It’s unimaginable to me that someone would not recognize the spirit in a dog or cat and respect that they are intelligent animals capable of feeling. But animals who find something to live for can do amazing things. One of my favorite little shelter friends, the one who made me determined to keep coming back, was a Boxer who was confiscated from the home where he was abused. I met him on my second visit to the shelter and he was in the worst shape that I have ever personally witnessed a dog in. But I spent time with him. I gave him food. I told him he was handsome and that someone was going to love him. Then I went home and I have thought about that dog every day since. Today he is out of the shelter after nearly two months. He lives in a foster home and is supported by a rescue agency. They post pictures of him online. He still has a long road ahead, but he’s put on weight and is getting loved and he doesn’t even look like the same dog anymore. That’s what loving a dog can do. It can save a life.

Ultimately, my message to anyone who is considering rescuing a dog or volunteering at the animal shelter is this–Don’t let fear or sadness stop you from doing it. Even if you just come to walk a dog or cuddle a dog, it means a lot. I get sad about the dogs, I’ve cried about the dogs. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out for them. But it will work out for more of them if they have positive attention in their lives. The benefits of volunteering, for me, far outweigh the cost and the concern. Every time one of these little ones goes home, the world gets a little brighter. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

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2012 in Review: Food, Glorious Food (and Drink)

Pizza with fresh basil and black olives, with a strawberry and baby spinach salad.

Pizza with fresh basil and black olives, with a strawberry and baby spinach salad.

In my continuing series on things I did right this year, I’d like to focus on one of my favorite things: eating. I started 2012 with a week-long vegan challenge, which ended with my decision to go vegetarian again after a several year hiatus. Since then, I’ve really embraced the meat-free life. There’s such a variety of meat-free dishes from cultures all around the world, and if you’re really stuck on eating animals, the wide availability of meat substitutes can help you make the transition. My decision to go vegetarian was primarily influenced by my compassion for animals and ethical concerns, but the health benefits are also clear. I’ve lost just over 50 pounds since last Christmas, and I still get enough calories and nutrients to fuel me through 20+ mile weeks of running.

If weight loss is a goal for you in 2013, here are some tips I’d share from my experience:

  1. Give up meat, at least part of the time. If you’re not ready to make the vegetarian commitment, consider becoming a weekday vegetarian or giving up meat a few days at a time. Meat certainly can have a place in a healthy diet, but especially in the U.S. our portion sizes are out-of-control and concerns about the environment in which meat is produced cannot be ignored. If you’re concerned about a lack of variety in meat-free diets, check out my posts on vegetarian living.
  2. Cook more. This can go hand-in-hand with number one. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and was never one to eat at restaurants every day, but becoming vegetarian really forced me to become engaged in meal planning to ensure variety, proper nutrition, and because the menus at some of my favorite restaurants just didn’t have many options. By cooking at home you can prepare foods with better portion sizes, less salt/fat/preservatives, and you can also share the joy of cooking with family and friends. Cooking to me means love, and it also is a creative outlet. I look forward to every trip to the grocery store these days because of the possibility of finding something new. Some of my favorite sources of meal ideas this year have been Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, The Pampered Chef’s The Vegetarian Table cookbook, Giada de Laurentiis’ Everyday Italian, and of course a variety of Internet sites. The more you cook, the more you’ll find that you also learn tricks to improve every recipe and make it your own.
  3. photo-16Drink less. Giving up booze was harder for me than giving up meat, but ultimately it came down to the same issue: compassion. I gave up meat because of my compassion for animals; I gave up alcohol because of my compassion for myself. Given my struggles with depression and emotional health, I finally had to acknowledge this year that I just drink too much and it makes me too emotionally volatile. Even if you consider yourself an average drinker, consider the double-whammy that alcohol does on you: Every drink is extra calories you take in, and it also slows your metabolism over time so that your other calories burn more slowly. While I haven’t been perfect on this by a long shot, I’m proud to say that I’ve only drank once in the past six months. I know there are people in my life who would never believe that I could do that, but I truly believe that anyone who has the right knowledge, a good reason, and a dedicated will can also kick the habit. If you need some baby steps, I recommend toasting 2013 with sparkling cider or grape juice. The variety pictured here is an affordable $2.99 at Trader Joe’s. A ginger ale or soda from the bar is also indistinguishable from the real thing if you’re worried about looking cool in front of your friends.
  4. Don’t skip dessert. In case I sound like some sort of foodie saint, I’m not. I may have given up alcohol and meat, but I’m a total junkie for pastries and cheese, and you can pry my Starbucks from my cold, dead hands. It’s just a matter of moderation. Make what you eat so you understand portions and calorie counts. Read every label. Share treats with friends. Exercise. If you have to, download a smartphone app (I enjoy the Livestrong calorie tracker, which has an extensive food database and syncs your mobile data with your online profile) or keep a food journal to ensure balance. As Buddha would say, the Middle Way is best. Total deprivation, just like total indulgence, is a path to failure.

I hope these tips will help some folks looking for success in 2013. In the days to come, I’ll also talk about exercise and particularly running, which has been a major part of my life this year. In the meantime, stay warm out there and enjoy some food porn–courtesy of my holiday baking frenzy.

Brown sugar cookies with white chocolate chips and almonds.

Brown sugar cookies with white chocolate chips and almonds.

Chocolate Chip Muffins, recipe from Food.com

Chocolate Chip Muffins, recipe from Food.com

photo-17

Last known photo of my Cocoa Brownies (recipe by Alton Brown) before they were scarfed up by me and my two friends. Lousy photo, delicious food.

2012 in Review: Community

Screen shot 2012-12-26 at 12.56.15 PMWell, yesterday was Christmas, and it’s amazing how much difference a year can make. Christmas 2011 was unofficially the date that I started to make big life changes. After spending last Christmas Eve at the bar, nursing a broken heart, I woke up on Christmas alone and disgusted with myself. I started thinking then about ways to be a better person, and the changes I’ve made since helped make this season a little brighter even though my little dog and I were still on our own. I know many others are also thinking of making life changes at this time of year, so over the next few days I’m going to highlight some of the best things I’ve done for my well-being this year.

Being involved in my community has been one of those positive changes. When I was at my most depressed, my family and my therapist always recommended volunteering as a way to get myself out of the house, interact with others, and feel better about myself. But I resisted because of anxiety and because I just felt useless, like my contributions couldn’t matter to anyone. In fact, it was only about halfway through the year that I found the energy to make a real difference. In May I was offered the opportunity to teach at a summer leadership program for young women. I enjoyed it so much that I started looking for other ways to help young people, eventually getting involved as an assistant coach in a running program this fall. Coaching became something I looked forward to every week, and seeing my young runners gain confidence helped me feel more worthwhile in return.

Christmas Day at the park near the animal shelter.

Christmas Day at the park near the animal shelter.

Aside from that, I also got involved in other causes. In October I helped at a local diabetes walk, and this holiday season I gave to a local toy drive and spent part of my Christmas Day walking dogs at a local animal shelter. In 2013, I hope to be able to coach again (though I’m still waiting to hear on the schedule), and I’m already planning to spend time with the dogs again on New Year’s. Most exciting, I’m planning to go with a group of students in March to Honduras where we will assist with a health clinic and provide basic health education to rural populations.

Honduras: Courtesy of the U.S. State Department

If you want to become more involved in your community but feel you are held back, I understand. Depression and anxiety can make it hard to motivate yourself. You may find you need to start taking care of yourself before you feel “worthy” of taking care of others, but once you do it the rewards are great. And the opportunities are out there: Start with a one-time event if you’re timid, or look for activities focusing on animals or where there is less direct interaction if you are shy. If you feel like you can’t contribute, think about what you’re good at. I don’t think a soup kitchen will ever be the place for me, but I’m good at teaching and running and that was enough to get me started. I still get a little bit nervous when I go out to do something new, but consider this as well: An activity is only “new” the first time you do it. After that it only gets easier.

Once in a While…

…it occurs to me that I could walk into the bar I used to go to any time and order a cheeseburger and a beer and they would give it to me for a nominal fee. Absolutely nothing prevents me from going back to who I used to be a year ago. When I am at home alone again, when a “friend” has cancelled plans with me again, when I wonder if I will ever be loved again, I very often miss the taste of a beer and a late night burger. Only my own willpower stands between me and this.

What holds us to the paths we choose, in the end, is almost nothing.

Be Careful What You Wish For (and, A Hike at Catalina State Park)

After repeated conversations with my parents last week about being depressed, afraid, and worried about being alone, my father decided I was genuinely too depressed to be alone and came out to see me. It is the first time in 4.5 years that any of my friends or family from New York have come to visit. I’m feeling a lot of things about it: happy not to be alone, frustrated to be ambushed and kind of babied (since no one actually asked if this was OK and I was only told about it when he was already on his way), annoyed at being distracted, but relieved to feel loved by someone (a human being) for the first time in months. The panic and depression is less this week… but only because I’m completely being distracted at every single moment.

Anyway, today’s distraction was visiting Catalina State Park in the north of Tucson. What’s great about this park is that it offers a range of trails for everyone from beginner to expert, and even for horseback riding! My father is not much of an athlete, so we just did two easy trails: The Birding Trail, which offers mountain views and a range of birds if you come early in the day, and the Romero Ruin Trail, which offers ruins of an ancient Hohokam village and early Spanish ranch. If you’re into more advanced hiking I recommend taking the trails to Romero Pools, but today this was enough. The entrance fee to Catalina State Park is $7 car, $15/night for camping, but my father’s verdict is that it was well worth the money for great photos. I only took a few, but here are a couple I like. Plus some chocolate dreidels from nearby Sabino Artisan Chocolates. Yum!

Cheesecake and Suicide

Well, despite skipping a long run this past weekend I still managed to get in just over 22 miles this week. That’s about the only good news I have to report.

This has been a rough week. Very rough. I hesitate to write about it because I think this will come across as a cry for help. The real problem is that I just want to say what’s on my mind, and I have nowhere else that’s a “safe” place to say it and no one to say it to. My roommate told me this week that he is moving out on me mid-lease after 3.5 years to get a place with his girlfriend who apparently “can’t do the long distance thing” for six more months until we both finish our Ph.Ds.

Seriously, aside from the completely asinine nature of his move, having him move out on me just reminds me of how alone I am and how little my life has really changed, for all of the work I’ve done this year. I lost nearly 50 pounds, I run faster than I ever did, I’m a vegetarian again, I’m a coach, I stopped drinking. And yet, almost exactly 11 month ago I was crying every day because someone I loved had run out on me, because I was spending the holidays alone, because I felt isolated and worthless. I have cried every day this week. I still feel isolated. I feel worthless. I have had this discussion already with my parents but, aside from them, there is not one single person in my real life that I feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling to say, “I’m having a crisis.”

I had suicidal thoughts. This week, I chose to eat cheesecake instead.

I am ashamed to write this on a blog. I am ashamed at who I am, and how far I still am–at age 32–from everything I wanted to be. I feel like a let-down to myself and others, and I feel like this will never change. How many therapists have I seen since I first went to therapy for depression as a pre-teen? How many combinations of anti-depressants, therapy, exercise, whatever, have I tried without success in an attempt to treat this? When I’m at or near bottom, as I’ve been this week, my therapist and my parents are fond of reminding me that these bad times are never permanent. But the in-between times are never permanent either. I never seem to reach any true, lasting happiness or security and life always, cruelly, has a way of reminding me that somewhere up the road is another cliff for me to plunge off of. If you are not depressed, just try to imagine how it feels. Try to imagine the anxiety, and imagine always doing it alone. Coming home at night to no human companionship, friends who don’t return calls and never want to hang out, family who doesn’t seem to care that you spend the holidays alone. You’d think I must be a horrible person to deserve this. I think I must be a horrible person sometimes, though I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. Sure, I used to drink a few too many beers. And for that I deserve this?

I’ve become so convinced that I’m of so little value to anyone that I don’t try to reach out much anymore. When I spoke with my parents last, I pointed out to them that if something were to happen to me I likely wouldn’t be missed for very long at all by anyone. The fact that I would say this to my parents just shows how detached I’ve become. Things that once seemed like reasons for living now seem like things that would go on without me. I’m not threatening suicide, but I feel like I’ve known for a very long time that this is how things will end for me. I am convinced of these truths:

  • There is no great, romantic love waiting for me.
  • The longer I live, the more of a burden I will become to those who are forced to deal with me.
  • Eventually, I will get tired of this life, I will run out of hope, I will feel I’ve done all the good I can possibly do, and I will realize that nothing but loneliness stretches out in front of me. That is when I will end it.

This isn’t a cry for help. It’s just me trying to make a clear statement on what my life with depression is like. Maybe these words will ring true for someone else with depression; maybe they will help someone else understand all the things that go on in my head when I’m saying nothing at all. I don’t think this will make any difference for me, though. A handful of people who know me in real life know of this blog. I am betting none of them will read it and care enough to say anything to me. That’s how convinced I’ve become of my own invisibility.

But I really wish I wasn’t spending another Thanksgiving alone.

Gloomy Sunday

I knew today was going to be a lousy day when I started off with a lousy run. Well, actually it started a few hours before that when I was awakened around 3AM by the sirens and shouting of police breaking up a neighborhood Halloween party. I got up a few hours later to run on too little sleep, too little food, too little motivation, and some knee pain left over from last week. Unsurprisingly, I struggled and cut things short just shy of 6 miles, much less than I was hoping to run today.

Though I tried not to be too hard on myself after the poor showing this morning, I failed at that too. Nothing with me is ever as simple as, “I had a bad run, I’ll do better next time.” A day like today reminds me of how out of shape I used to be. It makes me feel like a pudgy girl again. It reminds me of when my fiance, who broke up with me almost exactly six years ago now, told me I’d put on too much weight and how I was unattractive and lazy. It reminds me of how much heavier I was when I was drinking, and how the last guy who broke my heart told me he didn’t want to deal with me because I drank too much and had too many “issues.” Maybe it doesn’t make sense that I lump these things together, but if you’ve been depressed or know someone with depression, I think you’ll understand what I mean. It’s hard to forget those words. Even if you believe they aren’t true or if you’ve moved past that point in your life, the messages never go away. In your worst moments you let them attack you over and over. What is said can never be unsaid. And even a bad run creates the opening for those voices to remind me how worthless and damaged I am, and the extent to which I have failed to create the life that I wanted.

Today I meditated on the disordered thinking. I tried to practice forgiveness for myself and compassion to others, even to the guys who have hurt me and left these messages that haunt me. I cooked myself a good meal. I managed to get just a little work done. I gave some old clothes to charity. I’m not going to say I turned things around, but I survived that one little moment where I wondered if life is worth living. I had a bad run. And now I move on.