How one woman’s dog helped her confront her depression

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Julie Barton and Bunker
Image: Courtesy of julie barton

There is something inherently comforting about the unconditional love of a pet. Writer Julie Barton understands that love to a heartwarming and gut-wrenching extreme.

In 1996, at the age of 22, Barton was losing her battle with severe depression. After a devastating breakdown, her family and therapists intervened. Then she made an important new friend.


Image: Politenes OF JULIE BARTON

“Nothing helped until I adopted a golden retriever puppy that I named Bunker, ” Barton explained to MashReads. “The first morning I woke up with him by my side, I knew I had something to live for.”

In her memoir Dog Medicine , Barton tells their story “to honor the unbelievable healing he bought to my life.

Read on for an exclusive excerpt of Barton’s story.

Barton and Bunker

Image: Politenes OF JULIE BARTON

Boiling Point, New York City

April 16, 1996

The walk from the subway to my apartment was six blocks, but I wasnt sure I would make it. I focused on the ground: the scuffed floor of the 4 train, the gum-strewn steps to 86 th street, the swirling black puddle at the corner of Lexington and 85 th. Id lived in Manhattan for almost a year, since one week after graduating from college in Ohio. Id spent that year as an assistant editor at a book publisher in SoHo. My name appeared in the credits of two volumes. My boss called me his best assistant ever. I had rubbed together enough money to pay my rent and bills, on time. I had caring friends and supportive parents who wanted me to succeed. and I was about to have a breakdown. Merely a few blocks out of the subway station, bloody supposes descended: Stroll into the path of that taxi speeding up Lexington Avenue. Step in front of that oncoming bus. These were not voices in my head; the latter are rogue thinks, terrible supposes that I did not know how to control. If you passed me on the street, you would have assured a tired, twenty-something woman. Youd probably suppose I was hung over or hadnt eat a vegetable in months, the latter being mostly accurate. I was tall, usually wearing a baggy shirt over a long black skirt and my worn-out steel-toed Doc Martens. My hair, formerly long and blonde and flowing halfway down my back, was chopped at my ears and had faded to a brown that appeared mostly gray in store-window reflectionsthe result of an ill-advised trip-up to the drugstore and a three-dollar bottle of hair dye.

I rounded the corner on 82 nd street, past the brownstones with their bay windows and heavy doorways, past P.S. 290, where I rarely saw any children. I climbed the measures taken to my first-floor apartment, unlocked two security doorways, turned three more locks, then shuffled in, eventually alone. I bolted the door behind me. My apartment smelled like sour milk and dust. For a first apartment out of college, the place was fine: two small, stacked rooms connected by a steep wooden staircase. Upstairs, uncovered brick stood opposite a small corner kitchen. Downstairs, theyd carved out just enough space for a small bathroom and bedroom, forever darknes and damp, the windows five feet off the floor, letting only a view of feet and legs ambling by. The living room had no furniture, simply my stereo, the one Id had since high school. Next to it was a collapsed heap of CDs and cassettes: Van Morrison, Ani Difranco, Tori Amos, Big Star, Ella Fitzgerald, Metallica. These were my companions in my darkest hours, this music in my ears, because in silence, I could only hear the believes in my head. They were believes that I did not notice or topic, thinks that told I was worthless, dumb, ugly, and weak. Incorrect in every style. Wrong for being alive. I began to boil water for pasta. I turned on the electric burner, filled the pot with water, and set it on the stove. Such an act might seem trivial, but I felt as if Id simply lifted a boulder. Small undertakings had recently become extraordinarily difficult. Putting on shoes. Buttoning a shirt. Waking in the morning. I stood in front of the stove with my eyes shut.

Then I sat down on the floor, wooden spoonful in hand. I cant say whether I was conscious of what I was doing. I remember it, if that entails anything. The water began to boil. erupting water droplets popped and sizzled on the electric burner. I blinked, flattened one palm on the dusty hardwood floor and slid down so that I was lying on the kitchens scuffed timbers. My left eyelid twitched. I imagined myself a robot losing power, or a marionette with two snapped strings. I needed to reach the phone. I needed help. Something was really wrong. I recognized, vaguely, that the kitchen floor was an odd place to fall asleep. Then I noticed that the refrigerator doorway had an old brown sauce stain, a dried, stopped drip. I analyse it because it didnt belong there. I didnt belong there. My head on my limb, a twitching in my spine, and I was run. All sounds became one enormous echo: the cars honking outside, the pigeons flapping wings, the people walking and talking outside, the hum of the refrigerator. I lay numb, thinking, nervous breakdown, nervous breakdown. The words echoed in my head, a sorrowful chant, a skipping anthem. Youre so dramatic, the guess continued. Youre not having a nervous breakdown. Youre merely a fuck-up. Just kill yourself. Just tie a rope around something, cinch it around your neck, and leap.

Prior to New York City, Id spent my entire life in Ohio, and Id grow tired of the Midwest with its remote horizons and dark, quiet nights. Something always felt incorrect. For much of high school and college, I figured that i had simply been born in the wrong place. I watched a lot of television and decided that I was a big-city girlnot an Ohio girl. It was all a simple mistake of geography. I couldnt pin my malaise on my blithely married mothers. My friend and I fought, badly, but that, I believed, was normal. It would take this breakdown and several years of therapy to realize that it wasnt.

My life in the city first hiccupped when an acquaintance told him that the boy Id been dating since my junior year in college, Will, had been sleeping around while I was still at school. He was supposed to be waiting for me to join him in New York, to begin our life together. I confronted him; we fought for weeks, then broke up. He was in a band, said he needed to focus on his music. I knew it was clich, but i suffered acutely at the demise of our romance. Will was my comfort, and now he was gone. I was a woman who couldnt feel good unless a man loved her, and it had to be this man. Will. No other. Other humen scared me. I strayed alone around the city feeling as if there was no safe haven for me in the world. Then, after weeks of stillnes, Will would call at 3 a.m. wanting to know whether he could come over and talk. I always said yes, and I always fell back into bed with him, the longing for him so intense, I could feel it like a pull in my scalp. When our relationship soured, turned emotionally unsafe, I nearly imploded.

Big-city culture shock and this difficult breakup made it clear that there was something else very wrong with me. It wasnt just that I was young, insecure, nave, and heartbroken. It wasnt simply that my boyfriend had chosen other women and his band over me. There was something darknes and immovable churning inside my intellect.

My roommate, Leah, had left Manhattan a few weeks prior to the day this story starts, and at the time, I was sure her swift departure was my fault. Wed met in college and roomed together in New Yorknot because we were great friends, but because the timing was right. She was graceful, beautiful, small, and blonde with deep-set azure eyes. She also had a boyfriend whod graduated a year before her and lived in the city. After a few months in Manhattan, they broke up too, but she seemed fine. She went on with her life as if the breakup was his loss. When Will and I broke up, I turned lovelorn. I preoccupied about his life, what he did, who he was with, which rendered me confused and inconsistent, terrible qualities for a friend. I woke up blinded, unable to see anything except dull gray. I set my hands in front of my face to see if my vision genuinely was gone. My fingers barely appeared through a thick fog. I coughed hard. My lungs seemed filled with hot cotton. There was a bleak aroma, like illuminated charcoal. I waved my limb, and the back of my knuckles hit the refrigerator. There was the drip that didnt belong. I smelled smoke. I fumbled from the refrigerator to the stove, wheezing now. If my apartment had an operative smoke alarm, it would have been blaring. I turned off the burner and listened to the pot crackling before I lay down and fell back into the darkness.

When I awoke, the sunshine was glistening. Cars were honking. Morning.

Home. I need to call home.

From “Dog Medicine” by Julie Barton, published on July 19 th by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2016 by Julie Barton .

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