As you may know, mental health is a big theme in my work. I create artwork from the portraits of people and pets to serve as daily affirmation to my clients as to what's important in life. I love my dogs; they are my family and bring me stability in my ups and downs with mental health challenges.
I recently shared Alison's story about how her life journey led her to work with dogs. Seeing her story, Nikita reached out and after we met, we discovered we had so much in common in our way of thinking - in the lessons life has taught us.
Nikita has been a teacher for many years and is currently studying at the University of Calgary to become an educational psychologist. Nikita has focused her studies on attachment in children and how dependency and relationships with adults help children to develop and reach their full potential. Nikita also has an interest in how we can use our understanding of true play to help inform the study of children’s development. She has two rescue dogs, each of whom have had a great impact on her life, her play, and her personal growth. I’m excited to share Nikita’s unique perspective on mental health, which has brought new concepts and ways of thinking to my attention and will hopefully inspire you as well.
Tell us about your personal experience with mental health challenges. How has your journey changed your way of being?
In my life, I was fortunate to be surrounded by very driven and goal-oriented care-givers. I learned from an early age that the world was a place that offered many opportunities to those who strived to succeed. As a result, I focused most of my efforts on work: working for achievement, working for recognition and consequently... working for relationships. Looking back, although the “work mode” granted me a life of value through achievements, I often found myself feeling overwhelmed or relating to others in ways that did not reflect my true nature. As time went on, this way of being became my status quo, and I found myself defined by strength, fearlessness, and capability. Needless to say, by the time I reached mid-life, I crashed.
That crash involved low mood, high irritability, clockwork bouts of tears, loss of interest in things that usually engaged me, many sleepless nights and several very unpleasant physical symptoms. In the end, thanks to a very supportive network of family and friends, I was able to identify that something was not right. At this point, I began my journey to Planet Vulnerability. This was the trip that re-introduced me to myself, and through my own feelings, I was able to provide the kind of nurture that I needed... to myself. In sum, I began to parent my own inner child, sending myself encouragement instead of blame, sympathy instead of criticism and warmth when times were tough. In doing so, I opened the channels to emotion, vulnerability and a softening of my own heart.
Looking back, what was truly missing in my life were tears. I had lost my tears and my soft heart. I was a highly functioning ice-cube. As a mother, a spouse, a daughter and a teacher, I had pledged to order the universe for those who needed it, and I proceeded through life as a victor. Nothing got me down and nothing was impossible. “I’m fine” was my mantra. What I realized in the end is that what I am is a being. That means I’m fragile, I’m vulnerable and I need help. I have learned to practice a new self-talk: Hold me and Help me. Now that my ice-shelf has melted, and I have embraced this new mantra, I feel newly inspired to face the world as my true self, and particularly, I feel even more capable of holding the hands of the children and adults in my care so that they may experience their true selves as well.
What advice do you have for someone going through a difficult time with their own mental health struggles?
To anyone who is facing struggles related to mental health, I would say… get help. Mental health issues are being brought into open spaces where people are more ready to discuss their inner experiences with others, and the public is becoming more aware of the needs of their friends and family members who struggle with mental health challenges. I would also say that as families, we need to make more time for deep connections and down time. Life has become too busy and as a result, we live a hectic, frenetic pace that divides our attention between too many things. Lastly, I would say, especially to those in care-giving roles, take time for your own tears. It does not help to move through life numb to our own feelings and needs in order to care for others. Finding a friend or a loved one, or perhaps a healer or therapist can provide us with the empathetic listener we need. I think it’s important to attend to our mental health before our symptoms become advanced.
Tell us about your dogs and the role they play in your family. What do they teach you about life?
I have two male dogs, Mac and Brody. Both of my dogs are rescues. Mac is four years old and Brody is three. Mac is from a kill-shelter in California and Brody is from the streets of Acapulco. They are gentle and sweet and without them our house would not be the same.
It is impossible to choose one contribution that our dogs have made to our lives, but if I had to choose one, it would be “safety”. With them, we know that we are ultimately loved without condition and that in turn provides us with a feeling that our love is safe with them. They have communicated to us through their patience and forgiveness, and the way that they “show up” for us every day that we matter. In the end, these are also the cornerstones of our relationships with each other. Without trust, safety and a sense of unconditional love, the deepest of bonds cannot be formed. Our dogs provide us with a sense of safety to be ourselves. With just one look, they approach, lick the face and sit down beside the one of us who needs the most help... not being able to offer much more than just a steady presence. I would ask anyone who has a dog to look into the eyes of the animal and feel the unbelievable, unconditional love that is there for us.
There are cultures in the world where when someone is in distress, the family sits with them and looks deeply into the eyes of the troubled soul to soothe, comfort and remind them of the vast love that is available to them. To me, these beings have much more to teach us than the sweetness of a lick or the humour in a trick. In the words of Temple Grandin, animals make us human, and Mac and Brody have certainly provided us with many chances to return to our own human-ness through our tears and soft hearts when we are with them.
How can dogs foster attachments in children? What can we, as adults, learn from that?
Our dogs are our family members; I don’t think anyone would argue that. In my studies, I have learned that the hierarchy of mammal needs is not what I once learned. Previously, it was thought that our first need was for food and shelter. We now know differently, and we fully realize that our primary need is for closeness with others through our attachments in our relationships.
If that is our primary need, then our primary concern is to be separated from our attachments. Dogs can help children during times of separation by bridging the gap for kids when they are without their loved ones, such as at night. A dog on the bed can be the perfect solution to bedtime woes*, or the presence of the dogs in the house when parents are away can help a child feel connected to absent family members. Also, because of the unconditional response of a dog to its human, many highly sensitive children find it easier and less hurtful to relate to a dog than to people.
As adults, I would suggest that we observe our children with our dogs and encourage that kind of safe interaction, understanding that when children seem comforted and connected more to their dogs than to the adults in their lives, this is not something to worry about. In fact, there is a great deal to be learned by the importance of unconditional love to a child. Our dogs show us every day that many children depend on this love from their dogs as a safe place to land.
* Dr. G. Neufeld, Neufeld Institute
What is the concept of "true play" and how can our dogs help us practice it?
During my time in graduate school, and throughout my involvement with the Neufeld Institute (home of the attachment-based developmental approach of Dr. Gordon Neufeld), I have developed an interest in the study of play. This refers to True Play which is separate from playing games or playing sports. True Play involves the instinct that drives play; more of a mode of being than any one activity.
I have learned that all mammals play; and it is through play that recovery and healing can happen. We only have to watch our dogs to observe play behaviours and the intricate relationships between our animals at home that occur within the mode of play. Play signals are easily observable in dogs, and this leads us to wonder if our own play mode is in need of some help...
When it comes to my own dogs, especially in the case of our Mexican rescue dog, it was astounding to one day realize that the quiet, gentle, meek dog that came into our home was replaced by a zany, excitable, humorous dog full of play. Literally one day, our dogs began to play with each other non-stop, all day long. We quickly realized that when Brody arrived, he was too sick, too weak, too alarmed and too unsure of himself to play. But low and behold, on that one day, everything changed. That is how we knew that he was well... he started to play with Mac. In turn, Mac responded to the signals cast out by Brody. Together, through play, they forged a trusting relationship, with Mac allowing Brody to play the alpha for awhile and Brody returning to his submissive role when play time was done.
It was amazing to watch the gentle nipping and soft howls of these two rescues as they played out their relationship in a way that helped them each learn what their roles were really all about. It was especially incredible to watch The Mexican emerge from such weakness to a strong, healthy dog full of play once he returned to good health and felt safe in our home. The dance of play between these two animals reminded us of how important it is to feel safe, secure and loved in our relationships so that our true play nature is free to appear.
People are not any different in their needs. As mammals we will lose our own play mode when we suffer trauma and experience a fracture in our worlds. Play is something we cannot take for granted as it is a mode that lives inside of us, but is so susceptible to our circumstances. It can easily disappear leaving us without expression of our deepest selves.
Big thanks to Nikita for sharing her story with us! It is fascinating to get to know new people and learn bits and pieces of their wisdom. I love this concept of true play, and although I have already been practicing it with my dogs, now I can do so with more awareness. I challenge you to find ways to bring play into your daily lives (hint: adopt a dog if you don't have one!).
Thank you for reading. I hope you found inspiration and connection in Nikita's story. If you'd like to chat about possibly sharing your story - send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave us a comment below and share any questions or insights!