I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was in high school. But when I made my way to college, I found that it was getting harder to cope with my anxiety while being away from home and trying to adjust myself to my new setting. During my second year of college, I found myself taking on more: harder classes and becoming a Resident Advisor. My anxiety wasn’t getting better, and I didn’t want to turn to medication at the time, so I asked my doctor about other options for me. She brought up the idea of an emotional support animal (ESA) to support me while at school.
When I learned about ESAs — which support those with health conditions but are not actually trained service animals — I reached out to the Disability Resource Center (DRC) on campus to find out how I could have an ESA with me at school. After finding out that I could have an ESA live with me in my on-campus apartment, I proceeded down the path to get an ESA. After going through all of the complicated steps (because bureaucracy is so fun), I finally had the stamp of approval and was allowed to have an ESA with me at school.
I chose to bring my dog, Sparky, who is a Corgi/Husky mix, to school with me to be my ESA. At first, I was nervous because having an ESA meant having a physical representation of my mental illness, and could possibly be an open door to ask me about what my story was since I needed an ESA. And that scared me since I was a Resident Advisor to 180 residents and worked with a staff of 20 Residents Advisors and two supervisors.
But Sparky quickly became my miracle.
Sparky was the best medicine I could have ever asked for. On days when I felt low or overwhelmed and didn’t want to get up for me or function, I knew I had to get up for him. We started to create our own little routine. Every morning we would get up at the same time, and depending on the weather would possibly put a sweater on him, and take him outside for a quick walk. Then we would go back inside and have breakfast together. (Sometimes I would spoil him and make us both some eggs.) I would take him on walks, and work outside on homework with him sitting on the bench next to me with his nose in the air taking in all the scents. Sometimes I would work in the Community Center in the community where I worked and would let him look out the window as people walked by, or let him sleep under the desk when I worked at the front desk.
If I had to go grocery shopping (on campus), I would walk him down with me and hook his leash up to the bench outside, and he would sit patiently until I was done (with a few people stopping to pet him). The workers at the small market even got to know the routine, and when I would stick my down the aisle to check on him outside the window, the workers would tell me that he was doing alright and still waiting patiently. And every night, before I would turn off the light, I would tuck him into his bed; then I’d turn off the light, and we would both go to bed.
And even though I was worried, my staff accepted him, and my residents loved him. Nobody looked at me differently. In fact, most people were just happy to have Sparky around.
The following year — my last year at the college since I graduated early — I was excited to bring Sparky with me. I knew that he would be my pal again and would support me, and let me hug him whenever I was on the verge of a panic attack.
When I brought him with me, my staff quickly accepted him and called him the “Cerro Vista Mascot” for our community. In fact, one of my coworkers admitted that she, too, battled with anxiety and that it meant the world to her that Sparky was here with her. Some of my friends on staff even cared for Sparky during times when I was in class or needed a break from walking him. My residents came to love him. Everyone wanted to pet Sparky, especially when he came to community events.
Sparky, however, came to support not just me, but other students around me. I remember when my coworker went through a breakup during our first quarter and came over to my apartment to vent. When my coworker started to cry, Sparky went and sat on their lap and licked them. Residents that were having bad days would often stop and ask if they could pet Sparky. Then, one day, a resident of mine so bravely opened up about her mental health struggles to me and asked me to help her in possibly getting an ESA. Sparky helped me so much, but I learned that he was helping others, too. And that meant everything to me.
As I was nearing graduation, I remember telling my parents that it would be nice if Sparky could walk with me on graduation day. He was, after all, pretty much the one thing that got me through college. He really was my savior.
My parents told me that I should ask. So I reached out to the graduation team to ask if I could have Sparky walk with me during graduation, and they said yes.
And on my graduation day, Sparky walked across that stage with me, holding his head high. My family and friends joked that I graduated with a degree in Political Science, but Sparky graduated with a degree in “Barks and Rec.” But I was so proud to have Sparky by my side that day. And I could tell that he was, too. He got me through some of my darkest days, and he deserved all the attention and love and honor on that day.
So when people ask me what it was like to live with an ESA during college, I tell them it was the best thing I could have ever done. Sparky was my miracle, my best medicine, my best friend. Sparky was what saved me.