by Julie Barton
When she was 22, Julie Barton suffered a major depressive breakdown. Therapists and family tried to help, but nothing lifted her despair – until the arrival of a puppy called Bunker…
The first morning back in Ohio, I woke at 11am, once again disorientated from a deadened sleep. I had been out for 12 hours, but felt as though I’d merely blinked. I couldn’t fathom ever getting out of bed. At 11.30 I was still lying in bed not moving. I had no idea what to do. Every move I made felt wrong, awkward. I had sensed some version of this malaise my whole life, but now it had taken over. I craved stillness, silence and darkness. I could not bear that I had failed in New York and returned to my childhood home. Day after day I would wake up, walk from my bedroom to the sofa, fall asleep, maybe weep or think about going to the bathroom, before drifting back to sleep. It was late spring. The weather was warm and bright, but I lay inside completely inert.
I hoped to die. I hoped for a heart attack that would send me to the hospital where nurses would tend to me with care and ask me what was wrong. What I felt was more than sadness. It had become an irresistible blackness. I began to love falling into that dark place. I clung to the awful feelings because they were so familiar and they shut out everything else. There was no room for considering that I could try again at life, that I could try even though I might fail, that someday I could feel better.
They say that people don’t choose their dogs, dogs choose their people. I like to imagine that at this point, Bunker knew to wait for me. I like to think that when I was at the bottom, Bunker was fighting to make sure he found me. And in that moment, when I picked him up and he licked my nose, I knew. There he was. I hadn’t been forced to choose, I’d been chosen. ‘This one,’ I said, turning to my mum and the breeder. I was sure, and that surge of confidence came as a jolt. It had been so long since I’d felt sure of anything. We said goodbye to the breeder and I held the puppy close to my chest. ‘Thank you, Mum, for paying for him.’ I couldn’t adequately express my gratitude. She watched me carefully, probably because I actually appeared happy. It was as though the moment I picked him up I was lifted. Already, I couldn’t fathom the thought of ever letting him go. I felt a perceptible shift the moment I met him, a glimpse of hope.
It occurred to me as I gently stroked his side that this was the first time in recent memory that I was reassuring another living thing. I knew in that moment that I was more than capable of caring for him. I had to create a space for Bunker that felt safe and for the first time in a long time, I felt as though I had a purpose. I couldn’t imagine treating myself kindly, with gentle understanding. But I could without question do that for my dog. Perhaps what began to save me was that I started creating this sacred, safe place where he and I met. In this space there was no doubt or loneliness, sorrow or anger. It was just us, looking at the world with wide-eyed, for-ever-hopeful puppy wonder.
Without Bunker, there was no reason to get up. Now, at 6.45am I heard his first high-pitched barks emanating from his crate by my bed. I opened my eyes and saw his face, felt his breath on my cheek. As soon as he saw me stir, he stood up, wagging his tail so hard that the metal crate rocked back and forth. He poked his nose out of the crate’s wires, his eyes locked on mine. I laughed and said a slow sleepy, ‘Hi Bunk.’ This must be how non-depressed people feel when they wake up. No dread, just ready to start the day. It wasn’t until the awful waking dread was gone that I realised that it had been there as long as I could remember. The fact that it had lifted meant there was a chance I could get better.
After just three days, we had established a routine and waking up in the morning was getting easier. But something dark still lingered. Just getting a dog can’t cure me, I thought. I was a failure, a crazy person, truly unlikable. I walked to the sofa and sat down, feeling both afraid and comforted by the reappearing blackness. There was no stopping the cascade of terrible, dark, frightening thoughts. Such is the nature of depression: even the most Herculean effort to find light and positivity will be extinguished. There seems to be no such thing as solace. My face was still in my hands when I felt warmth on my toes. Bunker had walked over and sat on my feet. I pulled my hands away from my face and saw him sitting looking up at me, his bottom squarely on my toes, his back leaning against my shins.
Could this dog somehow sense that I was sad and comfort me? I wondered if the new psychiatric drugs I was taking were causing me to anthropomorphise my dog. But I needed so desperately to be comforted. I needed a companion who wouldn’t judge me, with whom I had no history, who would never, ever hurt me.
So I decided to trust what I was feeling. My therapist had suggested I shouldn’t fight the sorrow when it came. ‘Everyone is sad sometimes. Let the sad feelings in and be with them.’ I decided to be as sad with Bunker as I needed to be, because he didn’t care, because he didn’t need me to be happy. He had witnessed my change in mood and that alone improved it. He didn’t judge me; he simply saw me. So I told myself, ‘Bunker understands.’ But this was a whole new kind of understanding. It was wordless. I was safe with this dog and the near-instant effect was that the desperation and darkness disappeared, burst into the air like soap bubbles.
Two months later, Julie moved in with a friend in Seattle and started a new life. But soon she noticed that something was seriously wrong with Bunker… Everything before Bunker felt as if it had happened in another lifetime. I wasn’t awake until I found him and he found me. Our bond felt that strong, my essence renewed in his presence. He healed me and to thank him I planned to give him the best life possible.
In October my parents arrived for a three-day visit around my birthday. Their encouragement and enthusiasm were a salve. I was already doing well, but their delight at how things had turned made me think I’d managed a miraculous recovery. The question was whether it would last. We spent a day with Aunt Aurora at my new favourite park. I watched Bunker throw himself into the river after sticks and balls. He loved the water and when Bunker was happy, I was happy. He ran ahead of us, then tripped and his back legs gave out behind him as if they’d suffered instant paralysis. He whimpered and yelped, then fell down, screaming a nearly human cry of pain. I ran to him. My dad started running too, and soon we were kneeling over Bunker, not sure whether we should touch him. He was lying on his side wagging his tail, panting.
‘What the hell happened?’ my dad asked. I gently touched his hips, his hind legs, but Bunker just lay there panting and smiling at us. My mum and Aunt Aurora caught up with us and Aurora said, ‘Was that scream from Bunker?’ She knelt down and whispered calmly to him, ‘Ssssh, it’s OK, buddy,’ but looked at me with alarm. I imagined the worst. Bone cancer. Doggie leukaemia. My hands were shaking. ‘Bunker,’ I said backing away from him slowly, ‘come here, buddy. Can you get up? Come on, let’s get you back to the car.’ Bunker panted and then stood up and walked towards me shakily. Then he limped next to me for the rest of the walk. He didn’t romp. He didn’t play. He didn’t walk like a seven-month-old puppy, but rather like a geriatric dog that couldn’t manage exertion. I saw Aurora whisper to my mum. I imagined the worst. My parents left the next morning. I promised I would take him to the vet but the idea left me paralysed with dread.
The vet furrowed his brow, his white coat crunching as he crossed his arms, and listened while I explained the froggy legs as Bunker climbed the stairs, the yelping. The vet examined Bunker and his face seemed to darken. He asked if Bunker ran with all four paws or if he ‘bunny hopped’, running with the front legs staggered and the back legs together in one motion. This, he said was a sure sign of weakness in the back legs. This, I knew, was exactly how my puppy ran. The vet asked if he could take Bunker to the back room for a few quick x-rays. Sitting alone with Bunker’s empty collar, I felt like a helium balloon that had just been let go. The longer he was gone, the less oxygen there was in the room.
‘I’m afraid I have some bad news,’ the vet said when he returned, and his voice began a long descent through a tunnel of sound. I couldn’t take in his words. ‘Really the worst case ever… I don’t know how he manages to walk. Severe hip dysplasia. Only two options… Put him down… Probably the most humane. Surgery is very, very painful, difficult…’
‘We’ll do the surgery,’ I said.
He began speaking and again I fell backwards into the tunnel of this man’s voice. ‘Several thousand dollars… Months of recovery… Two operations… Really the most humane option is….’
‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘but if you mention putting him down one more time I am going to scream bloody murder.’ My whole body shook. I thought of mothers who could lift cars off their children. The vet looked shocked. I didn’t care. I wanted to call my mum and scream and cry. I imagined collapsing on to the floor of the vet’s office. Instead, out of my mouth came, ‘Who’s the best hip-dysplasia surgeon in Seattle? I want a consultation with him immediately.’ I knew how to do this. I knew how to come to someone’s rescue and, whether or not this white-coated man cared, I was going to save my dog.
I drove home, my eyes flooded with tears. The road blurred. Bunker sat on the passenger seat beside me. At traffic lights I held his shoulder and felt my breath steadying. Just one touch of his body helped me collect myself. I was panicking. The depression seemed to be threatening a return, as though it was sitting on the back seat with a smirk and a knife. It would take out Bunker first, then kill me once and for all.
But when I slowed down and took an inventory of how I felt, instead of being defeated or scared or sad, I was furious. I wasn’t broken this time. Though the depression seemed closer than it ever had since Bunker arrived, I felt capable of tamping it down, of facing the situation and saving my boy. I wasn’t broken, my dearest companion was This situation uncorked a reserve of strength that I didn’t know I had. Perhaps it wasn’t just Bunker who had come to save me. Perhaps we had found each other so that I could save him, too. The vet had said something about several thousand dollars and how most people balked at the price. He didn’t know that I would have gone into lifelong debt and homelessness to save Bunker. I would have crafted a wheelchair out of sticks and rubble just to keep him with me.
Parked in front of the house, I petted his soft-as-silk ears and said, ‘We’re a pile of broken parts, aren’t we Bunk? But we’ll fix it.’ He opened his mouth, panted, blew his warm puppy breath in my face. His breath had become my favourite scent. I inhaled, knowing logically that he had no idea what I was saying or what pain and suffering lay ahead of him. But part of me, that same deep-down part that had, since childhood, communed with trees and deer and birds, stirred when I held his head in my hands. I knew that our connection was not of this world and that my determination and his pure goodness might just conquer any malady that either of us suffered.