The author of Dog Medicine turns to companion animals, mindfulness practice, her support circle and more to maintain her mood.
A profound emotional connection with a golden retriever puppy named Bunker helped Julie Barton survive her first severe episode of depression. That’s why her New York Times best-selling memoir is titled Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me from Myself.
Spoiler alert: Bunker passed away in 2007. Barton doubts she will find another “forever dog” like him, but that doesn’t mean she’s given up on companion animals. She gains other benefits from keeping company with two rescue dogs: Holly, a Chihuahua mix, and Jackson, who is mostly terrier.
“For me, just watching them—their lack of self-consciousness, their ability to find joy in the littlest things—it’s still teaching me,” she says from her home in Oakland, California.
As a practical matter, “having a dog gets me outside,” Barton adds with a laugh. “And dogs like routine, so that keeps me on a regular schedule, too.”
The household currently also includes a guinea pig and a cat that Barton’s elder daughter found on her way to school and nursed back to health.
Barton wouldn’t, however, recommend getting a pet to everyone struggling with depression.
“If your question is, ‘Should I get a dog, so I’ll feel better?’ . . . the better question is, when you were a child and things weren’t great or you felt lost or you felt scared, what did you turn to? What made you feel safe?
“Was it painting? Was it writing? Was it going for long walks alone? . . . Whatever it is that brought you solace, it’s worth returning to, to see if it still works.”
Barton, a lifelong worshipper of the natural world, filled her childhood bedroom with guinea pigs and hamsters and birds. She took special comfort in the family dogs.
“A lot of my mental health problems came from really chaotic thinking, in terms of whether I was worth anything, whether I was OK or not, whether I was likable. … I knew that the dog didn’t judge me. When you’re a teenager or a young girl, you’re just so concerned about what people think—at least I was. You don’t have to worry about that with a pet.”
Barton’s memoir spans the year following her catatonic collapse in the New York City apartment she’d moved into after college. Her relationship with Bunker—the healing power of his unconditional love, the way he helped her rediscover joy, the confidence she found in caring for him—forms the central thread.
Although the book ably portrays the paralyzing murk of a depressive episode, the overall arc trends upward. By the narrative’s closing chapter, set in May 1997, Barton has benefitted from antidepressants, resettled in Seattle, formed close friendships, and found love with her future husband.
For Barton, however, depression was stamped “to be continued.” Today, at 45, she still works hard on maintaining her wellness and dealing with the self-critical voice that remains a constant background hum.
“I’m still beating myself up for the silliest things—for the way that I went into a room and forgot what I was doing,” she admits. “I can beat myself up for the way I look first thing in the morning.
“For me, it’s so subtle that it’s like breathing. You don’t notice that you’re breathing until you stop to notice that you’re breathing. It’s similar for me with my negative thoughts.”
Over years of psychotherapy, Barton has thoroughly explored the childhood roots of her feelings of worthlessness and destructive self-talk, which primarily stem from her brother’s verbal attacks and physical pummeling. This abuse went largely unchecked by their always-at-work father and caring but disconnected mother.
Her more recent work with a life coach-slash-spiritual mentor has increased her mastery not only of cognitive self-correction—“really just asking, ‘Is that thought true?’”—but also of a bemused detachment.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really gotten into mindfulness . . . just noticing the thoughts, without judgment. . . . ‘Oh, that’s curious.’ ‘Oh, I’m doing that again.’
“It doesn’t always work,” she adds, “but it’s a way better antidote to depression to anything I’ve ever done.”
Another thing that’s shifted for her since her 20s and 30s: no longer feeling the fear she describes as, “Depression monster, please don’t catch me again.” In part, that’s because she’s grown more confident about weathering the downturns in her mood.
“The older I get, the more coping mechanisms I have, the more ways I have to tackle this disease,” she notes.
When things start looking dark, she can turn to the spiritual comrades in her Women’s Circle and to her “posse of writing sisters.” The calming influence of her husband, Greg, provides a steady counterweight to her more excitable reactions.
“That can be annoying to me sometimes—like, ‘Freak out about something, please,’’’ she says, laughing again. “But it’s good for me to see somebody who doesn’t have emotional distress.”
Greg’s serene strength was crucial when she had another depressive “collapse” as a young mother, triggered by stress and exhaustion from trying to meet caregiving’s demands (and her own expectations) while also nurturing her writing.
In raising their two girls, now 12 and 15, Barton has done her best to be attentive, emotionally open, and physically present. In other words, the opposite of how she experienced her own growing up.
She tries to be honest about her own state of mind and her imperfections. She apologizes for collateral damage from her negative moods.
“Hopefully they see that everybody messes up and that’s OK.”
To tell the truth
Another change that’s come with maturity: feeling comfortable “owning” her depression and sharing her story with others. Two years after Dog Medicine’s publication, Barton continues to get emails from people who have been moved by the book.
Some readers thank her for shining a light on the hidden world of sibling violence, which Barton speaks candidly about in the opening chapters of her book. Others relate to having or losing a “forever animal” like Bunker.
“I sometimes still feel this flood of grief about it,” Barton reflects, admitting that she still talks to Bunker occasionally. ““I think that one of the most important things when an animal dies is to treat it seriously
. . . really letting yourself grieve.”
Then there are the readers who see their own lives in her words.
“One of the things I found to be so affirming is that when you are extremely vulnerable with the world, it’s scary, but people are so incredibly grateful that you told your truth because then they can tell their own—shame be damned.”
* * * * *
What works for Julie Barton
WINGED VICTORY: “Because it’s so therapeutic to me to connect with nature, I have bird feeders right outside my dining room window, where I teach and do a lot of my writing. I also put out 10 or 12 almonds on the railing of our outdoor stairs every day for the crows. It’s said that if you leave things for the crows, they’ll bring you things in return. I’m still waiting.”
SENDING OUT AN SOS: “I have a code with my husband. If I feel I’m beginning to flip into a dark place, I say, ‘I’m suffering.’ . . . Just the act of saying to someone, ‘I’m really struggling,’ releases pressure. Instead of, ‘I’ve got to keep it to myself; I’ve got to keep going; I’ve got kids’—just to say, ‘I’m suffering, but I know what to do.’”
Printed as “Dogged Determination,” Summer 2019
via hopetocope.com | Hope To Cope With Anxiety & Depression
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