By: Chloe Pilkerton – Peer 24 Support Specialist
I have always felt a special connection with animals ever since I was young. As a child, I would carry around stuffed animal toys and preferred them over baby dolls. I watched animal documentaries for fun and did research on dog breeds in my spare time. This passion and drive to learn more about animals allowed me to naturally discover my love for veterinary medicine. I took animal science classes as part of the career center program at my high school and that was the highlight of my day. I looked forward to waking up and going to school everyday because I knew that I would be greeted by almost 50 species of animals before taking a bus back to my regular high school each morning. Although, the most memorable thing about high school was when my family adopted our first dog.
Even though I had been begging my parents for a dog since as early as I can remember, by the time my parents finally caved on Christmas of my 8th grade year, my mental health was at its worst. At that time, my anxiety was so high, every little change was overwhelming to me; even something I had been looking forward to for a very long time. “Who would walk the dog everyday?, who would remember to feed the dog?, would this be a financial burden on my parents?, would the dog cause more family problems and arguments?”. These are just a few examples of my anxious thoughts at the time my parents announced that we were going to adopt a dog. Somehow, my excitement turned to worry as my mind continued to torment me as it had been ever since the summer before 8th grade.
My family agreed on adopting a 12 year old pug and I continued to be fearful about how we would adjust to having a dog in our home. “Would the dog be happy in our house?, what if the dog dies after the first week we have it?” Again, my mind was filled with these thoughts and I felt out of control. Once the dog arrived and we all got comfortable with having a new member of the family, things seemed to be pretty normal again and I was left to wonder why I worried in the first place. Dusty-rose and I formed a strong bond right away, and I felt like she was there to support and comfort me when I needed her. Dusty-rose slept in my room and she became my partner in crime. Here we were, an arthritis-ridden geriatric pug and an anxiety-filled young girl against the world. We were a pretty unstoppable team if you ask me.
Since then, my family has adopted two more dogs who have also provided me with ample support and plenty of doggy kisses that heal, if not help, almost any emotional wound you can imagine. After seeing the positive impact a dog could have on my mental health and overall wellbeing, I decided to switch my career path from veterinary medicine to animal-assisted therapy.
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I volunteered at an equine-assisted services program that helps both children and adults improve their confidence, self-esteem, and physical strength. Not only did I watch the horse riders improve in these areas, but I saw myself becoming more independent and confident in my abilities to achieve what I wanted to in life.
After that summer, I accomplished things that I never thought imaginable. I held several leadership positions in community service organizations and I received high praise from my supervisors. I turned my attention from pleasing others to putting time and energy into myself. This was a truly life changing decision and I encourage everyone to take on this challenge if you find yourself caring more about others than yourself. Taking time out of your day to do things for your own good is not selfish or a bad thing. In my experience, this is a very necessary thing and prevents burn out.
Transitioning into my senior year of college, I discovered Sean’s House. I jumped on the opportunity to become a peer support specialist, and I was a part of the first training cohort. This organization has been such a blessing to my life because I got to provide support to people who were going through similar struggles I was facing in 8th grade and beyond. Additionally, the therapy dogs from the PAWS for People program that regularly visit Sean’s House always brighten my day.
I hope that anyone in the Newark area who is struggling with their mental health uses Sean’s House as a resource. I know that taking the first step is usually the scariest part of improving your mental health, but it is one of the best decisions you will ever make.