When I was 22, I had my first major depressive breakdown. I was living in New York City, and after I collapsed, my mom took me home to Ohio. My parents found a psychiatrist and a therapist, but nothing helped until I adopted a beautiful golden retriever puppy that I called Bunker Hill. More than a doctor giving me a diagnosis or a therapist asking me to explain my emotions, my dog made me feel like life was worth living again. Our connection gave me a reason to wake up in the morning. I knew I could survive as long as I had my dog by my side.
Bunker lived 11 beautiful years. Nearly every day of his life, I feared his death. I didn’t know how to live without him. When Bunker was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was 33 years old. I was married, had gone back to graduate school for writing, had a two-year-old daughter, and was pregnant with my second child. So much had changed. I had grown, matured, was more stable and definitely happier, but nothing took away the fear I faced on April 4, 2007, the day I lost my beloved boy. How could I go on without him?
I held his head in my lap when he left this earth, and I thanked him over and over for saving my life. When I left the vet’s holding only his collar, I didn’t know where I would turn in my sorrow. What would comfort me now? I had been writing here and there, which brought me great joy, but mostly I was overwhelmed with my darling but exhausting toddler, preparing for a new baby, and helping support my husband in his new career as a professor.
The day after Bunker died, I went to my computer to check my email. There was a message from an editor of a well-known literary journal notifying me that I was a finalist in a prestigious writing competition. My first thought wasn’t that I was happy about placing in the contest. My first thought was, “Bunker wants me to tell our story.” It felt like a directive from him: write about us.
But I couldn’t write that my dog had saved my life, could I? I couldn’t write that when no one else seemed to notice my sorrow, my dog came to me and leaned his whole body against mine, and that helped me want to keep going. Right?
When no one else seemed to notice my sorrow, my dog came to me and leaned his whole body against mine, and that helped me want to keep going
My favourite writers all say this: tell your truth. In school, my writing teachers said that nothing is more impactful and beautiful than a memoirist sharing her most vulnerable truth. Without shame. Without fear. So I decided to go for it. I would tell the story of how I almost ended my life before Bunker came to me. I would tell the story of how this adorable, goofy puppy made me want to wake up in the morning for the first time in my life. He made me laugh when nothing else could. I would tell my very real story of desperate sorrow and unlikely, four-legged hope.
The baby was born – another beautiful little girl. My life was full and exhausting, and the ache to tell the story of my beloved dog never went away. I found small pockets of time and sat down and wrote about Bunker. Writing about him became the best way to curb the grief of his loss. I wrote about the day I found him on a small farm in rural Ohio, how he approached me and sat down at my feet, looked directly in my eyes as if he’d found me. Or about how we moved away from Ohio to Seattle, to try again at life on our own, and things were going so well for so many months, before Bunker got his own life-threatening diagnosis, and it was up to me to save him.
As I finished the book, I realised that though I’d lost my boy, he’d sustained me another several years as I wrote, because our story lived on in me, and in every word I put on the page.
Writing our story has sustained me for almost a decade now. I wrote the whole, vulnerable truth of us, and part of me knows that doing this has kept me not only connected to my boy, but well and healthy. Writing, it turns out, has become the next thing to save my life, and I’m forever grateful to that little nut-brown puppy, because he was the beautiful little life that began my road to wellness.
Dog Medicine by Julie Barton is published by Pan Macmillan.