In May of 1966, when I was 18, my mother decided having a dog would be good for me.
Around Halloween of the previous year, I had become psychotic for the first time in my life. My diagnosis was schizophrenia, though I was unaware of this, as was my family. I have very vivid, colourful memories of my behaviour at that time, what I was doing and saying, and why I was admitted, but I'm not going to describe them right now. It would take too long. Another time.
After all, this is a dog story.
HOW DOGS HAVE HELPED TO KEEP ME EMOTIONALLY AND MENTALLY STABLE
More importantly, it's a story about how dogs have helped to keep me emotionally and mentally stable for many years. Still do.
Around Christmas of that seven-month hospitalization – my longest ever – I became catatonic. I have no recollection of anything from one evening, when I was supposed to go on a tour of the Christmas lights with a group of patients until Easter of the following year. Four months are gone. Blank!
During March and early April of that blank period caused initially by the catatonia, I had my first course of Electroconvulsive Therapy. It snapped me right out of my catatonic state and brought me back to life. I recovered quite quickly, and in May, I went home – but I was very emotionally fragile.
So my mother decided that it would be therapeutic for me to have the responsibility of taking care of a dog. We had never had a dog in our family. I am the eldest of three girls, but my father wasn't very fond of dogs. Somehow my mother convinced him that the care and feeding of a dog would be a positive focus for me. I had lost a year of school. I remember feeling lost and out of sync with the world. Reluctantly, my dad agreed, as long as this dog was small.
We didn't know very much about dogs. My mother had grown up with them. That's all. My sisters were not terribly interested. So, my mother and I went to a dog show to case out different breeds. I remember that show well. It was northeast of the city in a huge arena. We didn't watch the show. Instead, we wandered about the huge area where all the breeders were set up to groom and ready their dogs for their individual competitions.
I FELL IN LOVE WITH A ONE-YEAR-OLD MALE YORKSHIRE TERRIER
After much browsing and chatting with dozens of breeders, we decided upon the breed for us – the Yorkshire terrier. One breeder's Yorkies seemed more beautiful than all the others. I can't remember the breeder's name, but I'll never forget her helmet of wild, frizzy, bright red hair. She seemed a little odd, a little eccentric, a little obsessive (as I've learned all good breeders usually are) but she took time to talk to us, while brushing and combing her exquisite little wards. She gave us her card, inviting us to visit her kennel in Oshawa.
Within a week, we were there. First, we noticed how immaculate it was. Then, I fell in love with a one-year-old show dog. He weighed about seven pounds. He was perfectly sweet. Gentle. A darling little toy. Reluctantly she sold him to us.
We called him Derrier because he had a silky, tan and black coat made his front look like his behind, but he was always called Derry. He was my first dog and my mother's instincts proved right. I researched the breed and learned to bathe him and groom him. I walked him and fed him. Most of all I adored him.
Fast forward a bit. We thought Derry would enjoy a companion, so we bought another Yorkie from the Frizzy-Red-Haired breeder. A puppy. He was tinier than Derry and quite assertive. My father named him Fang. After that, we bought a third, Yorkie, a darling and quite daring little female. We named her Kismet, but she was known as Kissy.
Caring and loving these dogs had done its magic with me. I returned to school the following September and stayed relatively healthy for a number of years. Eventually, I went Seneca College, then Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and finally Ryerson, excelling all the way.
By 1977, my parents decided to move from our house to a condo. I was still living at home, but had just been hired by The Toronto Sun, so I was ready to move out on my own. Luckily we found a retired couple who doted on our little Yorkies and spoiled them unceasingly.
I missed having a dog to care for and love. Living on my own, I felt it unfair to leave a dog alone for eight hours a day while I was at work, so I repressed the craving.
From 1977 until 1988, I was hospitalized 11 times, often in the month of February, for between one and three months at a time. In 1989, I broke down and bought an eight-week-old male Shih Tzu-Poodle-cross, a Shih-Poo. I named him after my favourite journalist, Murphy Brown.
Murphy was the most remarkable dog I've ever known. My "significant other" for 10 years, sharing my bed, until I met my husband, when we became a crowded ménagerie à trois in my double bed.
MY LITTLE DOG MURPHY NURSED ME THROUGH ALL MY ILLNESSES
He nursed me through all my years of iatrogenic endstage kidney disease (caused by Lithium toxicity), dialysis and transplant. He needed me to walk him and care for him. The routine kept me going. He was also a St. John's Ambulance Therapy Dog, the tiniest in his class and for years, we visited the adolescent and adult psychiatric wards at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. No one else wanted this assignment, but it was perfect for us. Murphy looked forward to our visits and loved nothing more than to lie down on the floor to have his tummy rubbed or to be cuddled in anyone's arms. He seemed to know he could calm and brighten the spirits of those he served.
When I had to put him down at 13 years of age on December 8, 2003, I thought I would die. He was suffering from lymphoma – losing weigh, not eating and his gums were bleeding.
After three months of grieving, on February 13, 2004, we brought home our first Dandie Dinmont Terrier puppy, 13-week-old Riley. I adore the terrier breed, always have, but this particular terrier breed is like no other – and it's endangered.
Riley is every inch a terrier – gorgeous, mischievous, playful – but he's also deliciously sweet and cuddles like a baby for hours, with his head on my shoulder making soft contented little sounds. He is gentle and loyal, with an immaculate pedigree. He became a Canadian Champion in 2005, the fourth top Dandie in Canada that year.
I groomed him, walked him daily and lost my heart to him. He is my dog. My constant companion. And my hobby, too,
In the summer of 2005, a little over a year later, my breeder gave us eight-week-old Lucy. We agreed to give her two litters. Lucy rules this house, though I'm utterly enchanted with her, as is Marty. She's the Alpha Male and a typical younger sibling, although these two dogs are actually cousins.
She is the friendliest dog I've ever known and having two dogs is a part-time job, but I find the grooming calming and bonding, as I did with my first dog, Derry and every dog since. I had no idea what it was like living with a "bitch" who goes "into heat" every six months. She drives poor little Riley mad with desire.
MY DOGS ARE A LINCHPIN OF MY EMOTIONAL HEALTH
For about 14 days of her 28-day cycle, Lucy and Riley must be kept separate at all times, a real challenge in our open-concept house. This will be her last season. The market for purebred dogs is shrinking. After one litter in August 2008 – remember little Auggie, – we haven't been able to breed Lucy and this spring, I am planning to have her spayed with my breeder's blessings, as the market for purebred dogs is shrinking.
Still, as always, the routine of all my dog-related activities and care, plus all the love I receive in return, keeps me emotionally anchored. I love holding a dog in my arms. I always will.
Marty helps enormously with our routine, but I do all the grooming and daily tooth brushing, much of the feeding, organizing and health care. With the dogs, I'm essentially in charge.
They're a linchpin of my emotional health, in addition, of course, to my husband – the heart of my life.
Since 1988, I've never had a major manic episode.
I cannot imagine living without my dogs. They keep me in recovery. They keep me sane.
ANGELA UPDATE – "I SLEPT THROUGH THE HOCKEY GAME!"
Today, Angela is having a very good day following her seventh ECT treatment yesterday.
"Oh, I think there has been progress," she said, with a spring in her voice. "Last night I fell asleep and missed the (Olympic) hockey game!" She's a fanatical hockey fan. "Without my sleeping pills. And I slept through the night until 6:30 this morning. I haven't done that in, oh, at least two years. Maybe more."
A note from a friend made her feel even better. She read it to me on the phone.
"I just happened upon Sandy Naiman's blog... and I have even more respect for you now than before," her friend wrote in an email. "I'm really wishing for great breakthroughs for you."
I think we all are!