The first time I held Otis in my arms, he was handed to me by two strangers taking him out of a crate in a van that had just had a long trip to Connecticut from Tennessee. He was so scared. I was too. I cried as they put his 13lb, shaking little body in my arms and kissed the top of his head. “It’ll be okay,” I whispered to him over and over again. I needed to hear those words too.
Otis is my emotional support animal (ESA). This is not a fake title. Yes, there are many websites you can use to get a letter from a real doctor that says you need an animal for emotional support. No, I did not do this. My psychiatrist wrote the letter. His title as an ESA is not fake and is actually recognized by the Fair Housing Act and a few other laws, which is why I can keep him in my no-pets-allowed apartment. He’s like a holistic prescription, if you will.
There’s a lot of critics on the subjects of ESAs. I get it. It’s too easy to Google the phrase and find 100 websites willing to offer you a letter saying that you clearly need this animal for the low price of $200! But I didn’t adopt Otis as some form of a scam or as a way to trick my landlord or as a way to get a dog that can fly for free on the airlines. I got Otis because I need him.
Okay, we can go back to the word need. Technically, I don’t need him, but he helps. I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) years ago, and at the time that I got Otis, the symptoms of both disorders had increased severely.
In the years between my diagnosis and the adoption of Otis, too much happened for me to deal with alone. My best friend died by suicide, I lost both of my grandparents, I found out I’d never met my real father, I was sexually assaulted, and my uncle was murdered by a guy who then stole my car. And that’s just the big stuff. Not even the everyday little triggers for a student (which I was at the time) — the grades, the work ethic, the social life, the desire to get enough sleep.
Too much happened for even my medications to help me cope sometimes. I was on a high dose of an addictive anxiety medication that I suffered withdrawal pains from if I didn't take it on an exact schedule. I was trying my eighth antidepressant in three years — and all eight I tried at the highest dose.
So in came the idea of an ESA. I’d grown up with dogs my entire life and noticed that I was just happier around them. They were a distraction, something to focus my mind on. So for two weeks I browsed adoption websites, and found my ESA — Otis. I got him sight unseen after questioning his foster home for hours on his behaviors and more. But the answers to these questions couldn’t have even prepared me for the reality of this dog.
Otis is a blessing in my life. He’s the perfect distraction when I need one, a study buddy when I had work to do, a companion when I need to go shopping (for anything but groceries), and so, so much more.
I’m not going to pretend I know psychologically why Otis has helped me so much. Why, in the time since I’ve gotten him, I’ve felt just better when I wake up. Like I can actually get out of bed and maybe even make it through the day.
What I do know is this — he needs me, and I need him. He needs the home, the food, the love I give him, and I need the companionship and love that he gives in return. I saved him from a shelter, and I like to think that he’s saving me from my own mind and chemical imbalances.
Otis is the first animal I’ve ever met that has really made me wonder — Who rescued who?