Julie Barton will tell you there’s much truth in the adage, “A dog is a man’s best friend.” After all, it was a Golden Retriever puppy, Bunker, who came to her aid in more ways than one, when Barton was severely depressed at the age of 22 and physically unable to function.
With the help of Bunker and therapy, Barton was able to get back on her feet and learn how to live with the debilitating condition, a process she catalogs in her memoir, Dog Medicine. In 1996, when Barton’s diagnosis was confirmed, comfort dogs were not a known entity. “I was almost ashamed of it because I thought, ‘I’m so weird that I’m dependent on my dog,’ ” Barton says. “It’s only in the last few years that people are really saying, ‘No, this is a real thing.’ ” Barton had not heard of depression, either, or thought it was “a scary and shameful thing” but is comforted by the fact that there’s much more talk about it in the public sphere.
Barton’s road to recovery was also peppered with doses of luck—a move to Seattle where she found friends was particularly helpful—and she doesn’t discount the importance of medication and therapy, either. Most important, she says, was Buster’s constant loving presence. “He played a huge role his whole life in helping me feel calm and safe and I had a sanctuary in him,” Barton says.
Bunker’s unconditional love was especially necessary for Barton, who grew up with an abusive sibling and a stoic mother who didn’t quite know how to help Barton weather an emotionally turbulent childhood. “My brother set the stage for me to internalize a lot of self-loathing and it took me a good decade to really understand that the way that I understood myself on a visceral level was a misunderstanding,” Barton points out, adding that just having a dog who was happy to see her made her feel a definite measure of self-worth (she has since made peace with her brother).
Dog Medicine was first published with a small mental health imprint called Think Piece and picked up by Penguin after an author friend read the memoir and passed it on to her agent and a series of fortunate events fell into place.
Reactions to Barton’s memoir have been heartening. “I’m really happy to go out and say to people, ‘I suffer from this. I figured out a way to be in the world and this was the way I did it,’ ” Barton says. “It’s one of the bigger tenets of depression. You think you’re the only one who’s this crazy, or this self-critical, or this down or this dependent on your dog. People are very relieved to hear that they’re not the only one and there’s a lot of us out there. I didn’t know when I published the book if I would find anybody like me and they're coming from left and right. It's just been beautiful. I get a few emails every day from people who say thank you.” Bunker has since passed on but leaves his legacy of coping skills behind with Barton. Her current dog, nine-year-old Jackson, is an entirely different beast from Bunker—he runs away if Barton cries—but she loves him just the same.
Bunker taught Barton many life lessons, she says, including the art of listening and paying attention. “He taught me that I was likable and that I could have a relationship where there was no deeper meaning or no ulterior motive. That was one of the beautiful things he brought to me, I didn't have to explain to him what was wrong or how I was and he met me where I was. He didn't care how I looked, how I smelled, how I acted. He wanted me there with him and that was incredibly healing for me.
“Bunker taught me that the way to love, including self-love, is all in—unconditional, with no exceptions.”
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor with a passion for books.