Julie Barton’s new memoir Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself, chronicles her descent into deep depression in her twenties and how the love of one remarkable dog helped to pull her out. Julie is mother of two, and an animal lover who lives in Northern California. Her writing has been published in Brain Child Magazine, The South Carolina Review, Louisiana Literature, Two Hawks Quarterly, Westview, The Huffington Post, and more. Sweatpants & Coffee’s own Jordan Rosenfeld spoke with Julie about depression, dogs, and the healing process of writing.
Q: Your experiences with depression in Dog Medicine made me reflect on how fragile young adults are to the threat of depression. It feels like an invisible epidemic—these barely adults go off into the world with wounds and insecurities and must cobble an adulthood together without a lot of help, often. Do you think we have enough of a cultural conversation going about depression in young adults? What would you recommend, if not?
JB: This is a tricky question, because I think it depends on the kid. Some kids leave home or college ready to take on the world. They can handle the inevitable disappointments that come their way due to various personality traits, a strong upbringing, healthy minds, a solid support network, self-awareness and a good sense of self-worth. The rest of us. like me, decide in their early twenties that the inevitable failures, rejections and setbacks must be personal to them. Then they feel such searing shame that they don’t dare talk to anyone, or express what’s going on for them emotionally. They’ll smile for the world, show up and toast friends at the bar, then turn around and cry alone, or berate themselves so brutally inside their minds that they’ll start to sink into debilitating depression or anxiety or drinking or eating disorder or cutting or….it’s a long list.
Getting out of a true deep depression is no small feat. It requires intense self-care, self-love (what’s that at age 22?), patience and kindness from all sides, and a stellar support network. I know that I was extraordinarily lucky to have my parents, therapists and doctors rallying around me. And my dog, of course.
Yes, depression is absolutely an invisible epidemic. No question. And I don’t think we’re talking about it enough. We use “I’m depressed,” as another way of saying “I’m bummed out.” But true depression is a real, life-threatening disease. And we still have so much of a stigma against people who are diagnosed with mental illness. This has got to stop. That’s why I wrote this book. Most of the people I have met throughout my life who have disclosed to me that they suffer from depression are amazing people: smart, hilarious, thoughtful, caring, sensitive, kind. Honestly, I want to do a panel with all of them because they’re brilliant.
It’s true that we don’t have enough of a cultural conversation going about depression in young adults, but then every once in a while I get glimpses of hope. The awareness about the disease is so much better than when I was diagnosed. I’d never even heard of major clinical depression when I was handed the slip of paper with my diagnosis in 1996. Now, that’s not the case.
(Some numbers for you: 30% of college students reported feeling depressed which disrupted their ability to function in school. 11% of adolescents have a depressive disorder by the age of 18. Almost 7% of all adults in the U.S. had a depressive episode in any given year. source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/20/depression-statistics_n_6480412.html)
Q: Another thing I often hear from friends who have and do suffer depression is that people looking in often judge a person for not having “good enough” reasons for depression. How was it for you to lay bare your experience knowing that these judgy-mcjudgersons are out there?
JB: One doesn’t need “reasons” for depression. That is like saying that someone needs a reason to have a cancer diagnosis. Depression is a brain disease. It is true that sometimes there are contributing factors: childhood abuse, PTSD, neglect, trauma, bullying, etc. which askew cortisol levels in the brain, alter the way our brain operates. But sometimes there’s no reason, and it’s just the brain faltering. Either way, you are where you are when it comes to your mental health. To try to suggest that one shouldn’t feel a certain way because of x, y and z is a fast-track ticket to feeling worse and entering dangerous territory if a person is truly suffering from a mental illness. Turning away from the reality of what is happening doesn’t make depression go away. It makes it bigger, and behind us, which is scarier than right in front of us. Turning toward it and not judging it is how we begin the path to recovery.
Personally, a very long part of my journey before and during writing this book has been realizing that I cannot control what others are going to think, or take away from my story. If someone comes to Dog Medicine and leaves feeling judgmental, it tells me more about their issues than mine. Perhaps the idea of depression scares them. Or perhaps the idea of an animal bringing true healing is something they’ve never experienced. What they bring is not mine to carry; I’m old enough now to know this.
Q: How is it for you to have your book in the world in the context of your family–how have they responded to it?
JB: My family is extraordinary. They made mistakes. We all made (and still make) mistakes. Every family does. But, after reading my book, they have all been incredibly supportive of me telling my story.
My parents love the book and are my greatest champions. I was worried about how my brother would react, but he has been utterly gracious, giving, selfless and kind. It’s by no means easy for him to read some of the scenes of us at our worst, but he has given the book his blessing. To me, that is greater than any act of kindness or generosity or reparation he could make. In fact, I think his generosity will probably help a lot of families start a lot of important conversations, and even perhaps prevent some harm from happening to siblings now coming of age. In his graciousness, my brother is now, truly, one of my biggest heroes.
And, as tends to happen when a conversation gets going, the book has helped my family further our healing. Mary Karr said, “The books I’ve written set my family free.” I couldn’t agree more. Once I said the difficult things, in the most truthful and loving way possible, the conversations started. And those conversations have been incredibly healing. Not easy, but healing.
That’s the thing about family. No one’s is perfect; we are all flawed and broken in many ways, but in the end, we all come back to love. We all come back to showing up, to listening, and trying our best to love and understand each other with our whole hearts, as flawed and broken as we all are.
Q: The really moving part of this book is, of course, your relationship with your beloved dog, Bunker. Do you think some part of you intuitively sensed that an animal connection could heal you, or was it more of a lucky accident?
I absolutely knew that an intense animal connection could help me heal. I relied on my dogs and nature for solace when I was a child. They steadied my heart when it was on the brink of giving in.
Somewhere deep inside, even when I was at my lowest, I had a quiet faith that the animal I needed would find me. I’d found such solace in my dogs as a child, so I knew that the natural/animal world would take care of me. My mind, when I was searching for Bunker, was a minefield of doubt and fear and self-loathing. But still, even in that darkest place, I knew that an animal could reach in unlike any human or doctor could. I’d always known this. My family always knew this. I was an animal and nature lover. I felt deep, soul-tugging connections to the dogs we had when I was a child, to the tree in my yard that I truly believed loved me just as much as I loved her.
I guess you could say there was some luck in Bunker and I finding each other, but I don’t believe that. I think that no matter what happened in either of our lives, we were destined to find each other. We saved each other. I have faith in the world, in the spirits or heavens or gods or goddesses or mother earth, or whatever you want to call it, that if you open yourself up to healing, to vulnerability and love, the right things will show up for you. If you just pause and breathe deep and go outside. Turn off all the distractions. Listen to the quiet and follow the tiny hopeful voice in your mind, and you’ll be on the right path. We’re all much wiser than we know.
Q: What do you think it was about Bunker’s love that helped you to heal in a way that no human relationship at the time could achieve?
JB: Dogs bring the purest kind of love that I know. They’re always happy to see us. They want, so desperately, to please. They sense emotion—sadness, happiness, fear, excitement—and they meet us there. They don’t try to pull us out. They don’t try to make us feel better. They just are.
Bunker didn’t ask me to tell him how I was feeling. He didn’t need me to label my emotions, to tell him what had happened or why I was so sad. He just met me where I was. He met me physically, on the floor, and pressed his body into mine, licked my face, made me take deeper breaths than I had in days, made me laugh even. He had no expectations. He didn’t care if I felt better. He just wanted me. He LOVED me however I came: sad, happy, scared, smelly, crying, laughing, exhausted, worried…he didn’t care. None of my emotions made him feel uncomfortable. He just accepted me entirely, without qualification. That unconditional acceptance is so very freeing for someone suffering from a dire sadness. And it’s something a human can very rarely do for another human. Only an animal can consistently do this for us. Isn’t that a miracle?
This, plus the fact that he was a puppy, a mere baby, and he needed me, left me feeling elated and for the first time in a long time, needed and purposeful. When you’re depressed, people think that you can’t do anything, so they ask very little of you. In a way, you start to feel like they don’t trust that you’re capable of anything. By “giving you space or letting you rest,” they’re saying in the subtext, “You’re not well enough to do much right now.” This, of course, can backfire and force you to sink further. Bunker came to me with so many gifts, but also with so many essential needs: love, food, water, training, consolation, exercise, discipline, and I knew that he didn’t doubt that I could show up for him. I never once doubted that I was the one who could give this dog the best possible life.
This, and the fact that he was the first one in a long time not to look at me and judge me, say, “You don’t look so good,” made me nearly fall to my knees with relief and joy.
Q: Do you agree that a big part of memoir writing is to lay bare the flaws of the self?
JB: Yes. Mary Karr said, “No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self—your neat analyses and tidy excuses.” The person who looks the worst in this book, in so many sections is me. I did not ever set out to write a book about how much my family failed me. Because the truth is, my family saved my life. My parents rescued me. They didn’t balk when I suggested adopting a puppy might help me. What I did set out to do was figure out what was true. What was the truth of that awful year? What was the truth of my youth? My sibling relationship? My mom and dad? My choices in romantic partners?
I wanted to truly honor how deeply I was suffering, because when do we ever truly do that for ourselves? And the beauty of writing is that if you can articulate that deep suffering clearly enough, your reader can relate—they can see in yours their own deep dark suffering—and feel less alone.
Q: Was that one of the easier, or more difficult parts of writing this?
JB: Depressed people, (and women in general) have no problem laying out their worst traits for everyone to see. “I’m terrible at that. I hate my hair. I failed.” That’s easy. It’s fun for me, in particular, to tell stories in which I look like a complete jackass—a well-intentioned, bumbling jackass. Those stories are my favorite. But the stories where I truly, honestly, look like a crazy person? Where I’m wailing in the shower because the water feels like angels? Where I’m lying on the couch for weeks because I can’t fathom getting up? That’s scary to share. But also—freeing to share. Because once you share it, you’ll find people around you who’ve been there. Little voices popping up, saying, “Me too. Me too.” And then, “Thank you for saying it. I thought I was the only one,” and, “I feel so much less alone.” There’s enormous reward for unselfconsciously and honestly sharing your truth.
Q: What was something that surprised you in the writing of this?
JB: How incredibly hard it was, first and foremost. I wrote twice as many pages as I published.
But mostly, what surprised and pleased me the most was how much love I found when I looked back at what happened. I was young when this story takes place: 22-years-old. I’m 42 now. I couldn’t see the love around me then. But looking back, I can see how deeply my parents loved me, how fully they showed up for me, how loving my aunt was to take me in when I was not fully well. I can see how sweetly and purely Greg loved me, how much my dear friend Melissa (not her real name) showed up and forgave me when I failed her. A beautiful thing happened when I wrote about the love: I cried. I didn’t cry when I was writing the scenes about the sorrow. I cried when I was writing about the love: happy, grateful tears. Because the love, in the end, is what saves and moves us.
Q: What was the hardest part of writing this book?
JB: Finding the arc. I started the book writing by jotting down a long list of memories. Then I wrote one scene a day (for years—and I didn’t write every single day) and didn’t worry about whether the scenes fit together. I wrote hundreds of scenes and memories. When I was finished with that, I had pages and pages, but no real story yet. Of course I knew that my dog was my lifeline, but realizing what was at stake, what I desired, and how to communicate that clearly and urgently in each scene, in the right place in the narrative, was extraordinarily difficult.
At one point, a few years into writing the book, I went away for three nights to the cheapest (but still habitable) hotel I could find on hotels.com—it was in Concord of all places—and I locked myself in a room with my computer, paper, and a bag of groceries: the goal was to find my arc. I knew it, somewhere deep inside, but it didn’t come easily to me. I mapped out the book on that hotel desk—scribbled on notepads like a madwoman, taped pages together, and finally figured out where all of the crises and complications fit in. And even then, once I figured that out, I had a year more of writing, rewriting, arranging and rearranging. But when I found the right way to tell my story, I knew it. It was like the fabric of the story went from burlap to silk.
Q: Would you recommend dogs, or pets in general, as part of any therapy for treating depression?
JB: I do think that pets can help. I caution against a severely depressed person rushing out and getting a dog, especially if they’ve never had a dog or didn’t grow up with them. When I adopted Bunker, I was in a particularly rare and privileged position of having no job, no kids, two capable caretakers in my parents, and no immediate financial concerns. If someone wants dog medicine but doesn’t have a dog or want to get one, ask a friend to bring their dog over. Ask a friend if you can walk their well-behaved dog for them. But if someone does have the time and resources, by all means, yes, adopt a dog. And don’t take the first dog that comes along. Wait for the spark. You’ll know it when you feel it. Also, many people have told me that they have this kind of healing relationship with their cat or horse. There’s all kinds of medicine out there in the animal kingdom. It’s merely our job to be vulnerable, and open enough to see it and accept it.
While I caution against rushing out and getting a dog, I encourage people to try to remember what brought them deep solace as a child. That is your beacon—follow it. If there’s nothing there, if there was no consolation when you were a child, meditate deeply on what brings you a slight modicum of joy now. Follow that with all you have.
Q: Did writing this book help you understand your own struggles better?
JB: Of course. Writing is indeed a big part of my healing. It’s like taking a shattered vase and putting the pieces back together. Little by little. Shard by shard. Therapists have told me for years that my childhood experiences no doubt left me broken and confused and sad. I thought that was ridiculous. I judged them and thought they were weak. It wasn’t until I put the scenes on the page and read them over and over again that I was able to pull myself out of them and sort of see them from the outside—for how truly difficult and harmful they were. Once I did that, when I wrote the scenes where I was depressed and breaking down, the direct line from my childhood experiences to my young adult life reactions and sorrow was as clear as day.
Q: What’s next for you as a writer?
JB: I have no idea! I wrote a novel before I wrote Dog Medicine, so maybe I’ll go back to it and work on it a bit more. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll write another memoir. Maybe I’ll scrawl in journals and that’s all. That’s okay by me. Writing is my way of walking through the fog into the light. As long as I’m writing, I’m happy.
Q: Anything else you want to tell our readers?
JB: Healing comes in many forms. Accept it however it come. It is for you, and you only. Be open to it, especially in your darkest hours.
This is what Bunker would say to you if he could: Go outside. Walk slowly. Breathe deep. Notice the birds and the wind and trees. You are okay. You’re more than okay. You’re exactly what the world was hoping for in this very moment.