by Beth May
I spent 10 minutes with Leo in January 2017. He and I are nothing alike, so looking at us you would never guess it was a meaningful encounter. Leo wore a blue bandana and exuded a sense of calm while I wore baggy teal pajamas and was manic. Leo is a golden retriever. I was, at the time, a patient in the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. It has been more than a year now, but I still think about those 10 minutes. In the weeks before I met Leo, I rang in the New Year at the peak of euphoric mania. My thoughts were messy and fleeting; every idea seemed undeniably brilliant. I was so up that I forgot a basic principle of gravity: What goes up must come down, sometimes destructively. So I was admitted to the hospital, and that is where I spent my 25th birthday.
I was terrified. I feared for my well-being and for my future. But I feared judgment even more. Judgment is inescapable when you are a psychiatric patient. It is not just the cultural stigma or the social estrangement; the act of treating mental illness involves judgment that is not present with other illnesses. Psychiatrists don’t study bones and blood pressure; they study behavior and feelings. It weighed me down. It felt somehow personal, like my soul itself was sick. I went to group therapy, and I watched television, but even once-automatic tasks like getting dressed felt too ambitious. I measured time in pudding cups — chocolate pudding with lunch, maybe vanilla pudding after dinner. Even 10 minutes seemed to take an eternity. I felt exhausted. Ashamed. Alone.
One morning, the patients in my ward were told that a therapy dog from the UCLA People-Animal Connection (PAC) program would be coming to visit us. The news filled the day room with an electric hum of excitement and a question: What does a therapy dog actually do? A woman walked in with an older golden retriever at her side. Her name was Lynne, and her smile was warm and familiar. She introduced us to her dog, and we reacted like fans in the presence of an A-list celebrity. We started to pet him. His fur was so soft. We rested our hands on his head and back. Suddenly, we were not patients uprooted by our illnesses; we were just a bunch of people petting a dog.
He was gentle and surprisingly zen. He easily tolerated the many hands stroking his coat. His temperament was the exact opposite of dogs I grew up with — rowdy Labradors who would gobble up entire potlucks — and yet I felt instantly at home, as if I’d grown up with this dog as well. I caught the dog’s eyes as I petted his head, and I felt calm — more calm than I’d felt in weeks. I didn’t have to say anything. I didn’t have to explain myself. It was just nice to see a friendly face.
I stayed in the hospital for another week or so. I got healthy enough to appreciate the structure of its routine. I talked with my doctors about how I’d stay well after my release. I continued going to group therapy, and I continued to measure time in pudding cups. Ten minutes still felt like an eternity. More dogs came to see us, a black lab named Bubbles and a big grey sheepdog named Blizzard. They looked at me without judgment; they didn’t pity me or worry about my prognosis. During their visits, 10 minutes passed in an instant.
I thought about the dogs a lot after I was discharged, but I only talked about them in passing. Mentioning cute dogs gave levity to otherwise awkward conversations about the hospital, but it felt silly to elaborate on their impact. Getting discharged came with its own set of anxieties. How would I get my life back on track? How would I make my loved ones proud? How would I stay healthy? Progress was slow, and I didn’t want to look back. In November, I pulled my discharge paperwork out of a folder, intending to stuff it in a drawer where I could forget about it. A card fell out. I laughed: It was a dog’s business card. I don’t have a business card! It pictured a golden retriever with PAC. His name was Leo. I sent an email to PAC to let Leo’s handler Lynne Grande know how much I appreciated her. I was so stunned and excited when I found out I could see Leo again if I wanted. I was also a little nervous. I wasn’t sure how to put my gratitude into words.
I saw Leo for a second time in February, just over a year after we met. I doubt he recognized me, but I immediately remembered his kind eyes and his gentle patience. He had the same calming effect on me, but now I possessed a calmness of my own. I realized how far I’d come since my release. I was able to stay with Leo much longer than 10 minutes this time. It still didn’t feel like enough.
My gratitude didn’t need words because it was clear that receiving thanks or applause has nothing to do with PAC’s mission or the work of Lynne and Leo and of the many other volunteers and their dogs. What they do is an act of heroic kindness. My life is one of frequent disruption, of ups and downs, but I find strength in such kindness. Leo has shown me kindness the way only a good dog can, with a wagging tail, a slobbery tongue and a reminder that to stay healthy I must be kind to myself.