I once told an ex-boyfriend after passing a Corgi on the street that my womb didn’t feel empty for a child but for a dog. He thought it was a weird thing to say (because it was) but what I think I really meant was that I felt empty. My childhood pets had always been a tremendous source of comfort for me and seeing dogs always lifts my spirits. Unfortunately, with roommates in a shoebox Brooklyn apartment (one of whom who happened to be allergic to animals), pet ownership wasn’t possible for me at the time.
A few months later, in the winter of 2017, my roommate who was allergic moved out and I finally had an opportunity to get my own dog. The problem was, this was also the time when my drinking was at its absolute worst and everything around me was collapsing faster than I could rebuild.
Nonetheless, I started going to adoption events in NYC as often as I could. I was COMMITTED to getting my dog — so committed I once went to an adoption event after going to breakfast at a nearby diner and filled my pockets with bacon so the dogs would like me the best. Pretty much every pet adoption event I went to was bookended with drinks (along with everything else I did) so, unsurprisingly, I never got a call back that I was selected for any of the dogs I applied for. Also, stuffing the pockets of your new winter coat with bacon is a pretty eccentric — and greasy — idea. In retrospect, I do not recommend it!
Pretty much every pet adoption event I went to was bookended with drinks (along with everything else I did) so, unsurprisingly, I never got a call back that I was selected for any of the dogs I applied for.
It ended up being for the best that I wasn’t chosen for one because, in January of 2018, after one too many phone calls home crying after one too many bottles of wine, I realized with the help of my family that New York City and the way I was living was quickly sucking the life out of me. That’s when I decided to move home to North Carolina and get sober.
The heavens intervened shortly after I made my peace with sobriety and I got a text out of the blue from a family friend who fosters dogs. She heard I was looking to adopt and told me she had a toy poodle she was fostering that needed a permanent home. Somehow, even though I was just a couple of days sober, my mom knew I was committed to getting my life together and agreed that I could adopt the pup. At the time, I was living at home so yes, at 27 years old, I needed parental consent!
That was how I found my dog Ziggy — who has become a light in my life.
I truly believe that having this dog has helped me stay sober and, it turns out, I’m not alone. Research shows that having pets is good for our health and, in my experience, also helps us to recover and soothe us emotionally in a number of ways. Here are four ways that having a pet can help you in your sober journey, just as Ziggy has helped me:
1. Pet ownership requires us to be responsible and accountable.
When I was living in NYC and drinking, I never had any reason to go home early or anyone to answer to. Now that I am a pet owner, I am responsible for another life so I am obligated to make sure that he is fed, taken out regularly, and receiving love roughly 1000 times a day. In order to be there for him in this way, I simply wouldn’t be able to maintain the work-all-day, stay-out-all-night loop I lived in when I was drinking. I also don’t think I could look him in the eye if I was drunk. I couldn’t handle the confused look on his precious pup face.
2. Pets promote positive changes in routine.
Having a pet gives us structure, which is hard to maintain when we’re mentally struggling. “My pets (two Frenchies and two Sphynx cats) have been such an integral part of my recovery, and who knows where I would be without them,” said Jess Valentine co-host of the sobriety podcast, Seltzer Squad. “For someone struggling to find a new routine and considering getting a pet, I say ‘go for it!’ Having a pet (especially dogs) makes you disciplined. You create a routine — which is very useful when you feel like you’re in limbo just floating around with no direction.”
3. Seeing our pet causes the immediate release of positive chemicals in our brains.
According to Meg Olmert, author of “Made For Each Other: the biology of the human-animal bond,” its scientifically proven that when you see your pet, your heart rate, blood pressure, and response to stress improves. You also release reward chemicals including oxytocin and serotonin and so does your pet.
4. They provide emotional support and a sense of purpose.
Emotional support pets are not just a thing because they’re cute (though they are cute). According to Gail Saltz, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of “The Power of Different,” “Their presence, their unconditional love, their warmth and softness to pet and hold are all thought to be calming and mood-boosting,” she said. “The need to care for them provides structure, purpose, and being needed.”
While dogs, and pets in general, can greatly help you stay sober, I do want to address that they cannot make you get sober. That is something only you can do. When I was in NYC, I was not capable of taking care of a pet, so the universe hard passed on my request and I wasn’t given one before I was ready to care for it. It’s a huge responsibility to have a pet and I recommend having some sobriety under your belt if you are in recovery before taking it on.
If you’re interested in getting a pet, adopting is the way to go. For more information on adopting pets, I suggest checking out the ASPCA or local Humane Society in your area.
As I write this, sitting on my couch after an exhausting week of traveling away from my perfect pooch, Ziggy is sleeping next to me and my heart is so full. He gave me so much more than he’ll ever know (because he doesn’t fully understand English) and I truly can’t imagine life without him today.