By Shannon Kopp
During every SoulPaws session, each participant spends about twenty minutes of one-on-one time with a service animal. This past weekend, we were fortunate enough to work with the Pet-Assisted Therapy Animals from the San Diego Humane Society—small animals who lead very busy lives visiting hospitals, schools, treatment centers, and more, offering comfort to people in need. After six months of this service, they then become available for adoption at the Humane Society.
Since we had thirteen participants on Sunday, we gathered thirteen pet-assisted therapy animals: a handful of sweet rabbits, a bunch of guinea pigs, and two rats.
The room fell silent as we placed an animal into each individual’s lap, and for the next twenty minutes, the room stayed quiet. People used this time to bond and connect with their animal, to journal, to pet and snuggle.
Afterwards, one woman held a guinea pig close to her chest and shared, “Initially when you gave her to me, I was scared. I thought she would scurry away. Lately, there has been so much sadness in my home, and in me. I thought I gave off bad energy. I was sure this little animal would sense it.
But instead, she nestled close to my chest. She stayed so close to me, content in my arms.
And it made me think that maybe I don’t give off bad energy. Maybe I’m more than this sadness. And maybe if the animals know this, I can know it, too.”
Tears gathered in my throat and behind my eyes. I thought back to when I was working at the Humane Society and had relapsed with bulimia, despite years of treatment and therapy. To say that I felt like a failure then is an understatement. I felt like a monster.
But day after day, the shelter dogs wanted to be around this monster. I’d open the door to a kennel and these beautiful, four-legged companions would come running into my arms like I was the greatest thing they’d seen all day. Sometimes, in their unrelenting excitement, they’d knock me over. Sometimes they’d approach cautiously and softly make their way into my arms. Sometimes they’d lick my face and gaze into my eyes with the fiercest, purest light of love. And I too would begin to feel like maybe I was more than my sadness. My bulimia. My monstrous relapse.
Maybe I was more than this harmful story I’d been telling myself for so long.
Animals aren’t interested in stories of the mind. They aren’t interested in what we look like or the “mistakes” we made last night or ten years ago. They aren’t interested in shrinking our sacred being down to a harsh and rigid label. They are only interested in the now. How do we treat them in this moment? Are we gentle? Are we safe? Are we kind?
Animals don’t demand of us what the world does. We’re not expected to walk through grief in five, neat and timely stages…because our sadness makes them uncomfortable. We’re not expected to be thin or pretty or stylish.
We’re not expected to be strong or brave or put-together. We don’t have to know what we want to be when we grow up. In fact, we never have to grow up.
Around animals, we don’t have to play any roles or live behind this pretend mask of adulthood. It’s okay for us to laugh hysterically, to cover ourselves with dog hair and dirt, to roll around on the floor, to pick our nose, to bawl our eyes out, to express the uninhibited joy or the misery we often try to tame in our human society.
We can just be. And what we often find with animals is that our being is enough. We are enough.
So maybe today you are buying into some story the mind is telling you. Maybe your mind is saying that you too sad or too big or too much or too afraid.
Is there a loving animal nearby?
Look into their eyes.
And through your connection with that animal, give yourself a break from this mental chatter. Press the sacred pause button to your thinking. And hold that button down until you begin to feel that you are not “too” anything.
Perhaps you are just as the animal sees you.
Someone to love.
About the Author: Shannon Kopp is an eating disorder survivor, animal welfare advocate, and the best-selling author of Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life (HarperCollins Publishers). She is also the founder of SoulPaws Recovery Project, offering free animal therapy and healing resources to those suffering from eating disorders. Shannon’s writing has been featured on CNN, Fox News, Huffington Post, Salon, NPR, Good Housekeeping, Dogster, Maria Shriver, and more. She also regularly posts recovery-related poetry on Instagram! www.shannonkopp.com