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National Suicide Prevention Week: The Burden of Being Irreplaceable (Yes, Even to Your Pet)

image_galleryI’ve been in a dark place lately. For the past week and a half, I’ve been avoiding both my blogs. On Freud’s Butcher, where I discuss my mother’s family history in Vienna, all roads seem to lead to the Holocaust. Here, I usually end up at Canine Cognitive Dysfunction junction.

So it was a bit of luck that a title on I Still Want More Puppies, Your Dog Agrees: You Cannot Be Replaced, grabbed my attention.  I discovered it was an allusion to the You Cannot Be Replaced campaign, created for National Suicide Prevention week.

It got me thinking — and writing.

Just to clarify. I’ve suffered from mild to moderate depression for as long as I can remember, and in recent years have taken medication for it. But I’ve never been suicidal in any kind of active way; my thoughts tend to be more of the “It would be nice if I could just disappear off the face of the earth” variety, rather than “How could I make that happen?”

Although I can’t write him off my taxes, I have a dependent

But it’s not just laziness that keeps me from trying to do myself in. I know that my dog’s life and well-being depend on my existence.

Frankie needs his insulin shots and his food at a regular 12-hour intervals; 5:30 am and 5:30 pm are the ones that work best for me.  It’s not a burden for me to get up early; I’m often awake before Frankie is. And I can adjust my happy hour get togethers with friends to the schedule of Frankie’s insulin shots.

More than good scheduling is involved, though. It’s essential that Frankie eat before I give him his shot and he can be pretty finicky. His preferences also change. So I do a lot of tinkering to find something His Frankiness will deign to eat and that will give him all the nutrients he needs. I also adjust his insulin dosage according to the urine tests I do at mealtimes, and am aware of physical changes that could signal hypoglycemia.

I’m attuned to other nuances of Frankie’s behavior; it changes frequently since he’s been diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. These days, running around quickly means he has to go out and poop;  the more leisurely lope towards the door signals a need to pee. I also know there’s  fine line between Frankie’s desire to be independent and his frustration with being confused. I allow him to find his own way out to the back yard and to run around on his own after I open the door; when it’s clear he’s stuck and getting frightened, I intervene and guide him back inside. I’m sure my neighbors on the other side of the fence are sick of hearing me say, over and over in my best high-pitched Barbara Woodhouse voice, “This way, Frankie, this way.”

I also know when he wants to play with his squeaky carrot, if only for half a minute, and I’ve gotten used to trying to body block him in order to prevent him from running full tilt into the furniture (it’s really quite terrifying, and it’s a relief that he forgets that he wanted to play very quickly).

Frankie has always been a one person dog and, even though he has taken to sleeping in a separate room, he is still devoted to me. Some dogs’ dementia robs them of the ability to recognize their people. I am extremely grateful that this hasn’t happened with us.

The Burden of Being Irreplaceable

But the bond also makes leaving Frankie with anyone else really difficult, even for short periods.

One pet sitter I tried — and trusted because she is a tech in my vet’s office — left Frankie alone for such long periods that he had begun to lose his housetraining by the time I returned from my trip, a week later.

My usual petsitter is very responsible but she is too freaked out by Frankie’s confusion to allow him to meander around the back yard on his own; she always takes him on a leash. And though she takes good care of him and tries hard to engage with him, he acts depressed around her until I return. She tries not to show it but I know she feels bad at how he gets the zoomies and licks my face fervently when I return. (Of course, this is not new or CCD-related, just Frankie-related.)

I was a full time travel writer before I got He Who Hates Car Rides and New Situations of All Sorts. I adjusted to a more limited travel schedule, especially after Frankie got diabetes, and focused more on writing about dogs. But more recently, when I started researching my family’s history, I tried to figure out a way to get to Vienna and do first-hand research without causing Frankie too much distress.

I have a nice, self contained guest room, so I searched around the pet community for someone who might be willing to live here at a low rent — or even no rent–  in exchange for Frankie care when I was away. I figured if Frankie had two mommies, he would eventually get used to the second one and not get upset when I left. But there were no takers and, after a while, I realized I was relieved. I didn’t want another mommy in my personal space on a permanent basis.

And so I often feel like my life is on hold. I want this phase to be over — but I also  want Frankie to be with me forever. This disconnect often results in depression, as it did this past week and a half.

It’s a good thing I have the pet blogging community for support. Otherwise my depression might be compounded by the conviction that I am insane for allowing a small dog to play such a large role in life.

Caretaker Burnout Alert

Which brings me back to You Cannot Be Replaced campaign. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that being single-handedly responsible for taking care of a human or a pet isn’t burdensome at times. Everyone needs a break.

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance:

A conservative estimate reports that 20% of family caregivers suffer from depression, twice the rate of the general population. Of clients of California’s Caregiver Resource Centers, nearly 60% show clinical signs of depression. And former caregivers may not escape the tentacles of this condition after caregiving ends. A recent study found that 41% of former caregivers of a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia experienced mild to severe depression up to three years after their spouse had died. In general, women caregivers experience depression at a higher rate than men.

I’m not downplaying my stress and sense of feeling trapped, but I know that things are relatively good for me. Although I can’t go back to being a full time travel writer or spend a month doing research in Vienna right now, I have lots of great writing assignments that don’t require me to leave Tucson or southern Arizona. I also know I can go away for a few days or a week without dire consequences. I managed to get Frankie house-trained again after the awful vet tech screwed up his routine. He’s also gotten over the indignity of being taken into his backyard on a leash and over the depression that my departures engender.

Some people with full time jobs and few financial or social resources who are taking care of spouses, children or siblings have it far worse than I do.

So I have a modest amendment to the You Cannot Be Replaced campaign, a nod to the many caretakers who are in despair over their burden of responsibility: Although you cannot be replaced permanently, it’s okay — make that essential — to take a break from being irreplaceable.

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