How My Dog Helps Me Cope With My Chronic Illness

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By Noelle Chelli Lopez,

As I sat down to write this morning, I heard an old familiar voice whispering to me, “It’s going to be a loooong day!” I was running on little sleep with a pretty bad flare, so getting through the day would surely be an arduous task.

Staring down at my swollen hands illuminated by the computer screen, I felt defeated and it wasn’t even 9 a.m. Anxiety started to wash over me as the day’s unfinished tasks swirled around in my head. As I stared blankly at the email I had yet to compose, the couch shook and I was snapped back into the present. Earthquake, you wonder? No, it was just Bear, my 92-pound lab/boxer. He snuggled up next to me, nuzzling his way under my arm. He looked right at me then placed his head on the side of my laptop. Together, we both let out a collective sigh.

As Bear slept next to me, my anxiety immediately quelled. His mere presence helped me refocus and assured me I would indeed make it through the day with him by my side.

Living with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) — also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy — creates many challenges. Besides the severe, unrelenting pain and loss of mobility, many of us can also cope with depression, anxiety, loss of family and friends and a feeling of isolation. It’s in those areas that my dog, Bear, has been the most helpful to me.

Loneliness is something I often struggle with. I’m fortunate to have friends and family in my life, but during the week while everyone is at work, I’m often home by myself. It’s during those times I struggle the most with feeling left out of life. I greatly miss working and the basic social interaction you have with co-workers. Having Bear around helps me feel not so alone.

My dog also helps keep me active. No matter how bad I’m feeling, Bear needs basic care. Feeding and playing with him, short walks and, on good days, trips to the dog park or even the beach help keep me moving.

Boredom is something all of us who are chronically ill know all too well. There’s definitely entertainment value in having a pet. Bear has an amazing way of making me laugh and smile. I also like to train him to do little tasks to help me out around the house. He drags the laundry basket to the laundry room for me and can even fetch my purse! Training Bear to do tricks and tasks helps to relieve some of the monotony of spoonie life. It also helps create a sense of accomplishment for both of us.

Another fortunate side effect to having a big goofy companion is he helps me meet new people. I’ve become much more introverted since becoming chronically ill. Sometimes I lack confidence or simply the energy to start a conversation with someone new. Bear has helped me meet some amazing people I wouldn’t have otherwise.

My mood is generally better since having a dog in my life. The constant companionship, social interaction and exercise Bear provides me helps keep depression and anxiety at bay.

I also cope with the chronic pain aspect of CRPS much better with Bear by my side. Never was this more apparent than on a trip I took several months back. We were unable to secure lodging for a dog his size and were forced to leave him behind. Traveling caused a huge flare-up, and not having him there providing his unconditional support made it much more difficult to cope. His calming presence and reassurance were greatly missed.

And then there are the days when I become completely overwhelmed living with a serious chronic illness. I succumb to the stress and pain around me and fail to see the beauty that life has to offer. On those particularly challenging days, it’s Bear who guides me to find meaning when all hope seems forever lost.

He is my steadfast companion and bears witness to my suffering without judgment. When I become powerless to express my pain, he licks my invisible wounds.

The connection we have keeps me tethered to the present and offers strength in enduring my future with serious chronic illness.

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