How My Dog Helped Me Get Through the Pandemic Alone
“She was my lockdown companion, but I had to learn to slowly navigate my fears and anxiety without her as my constant companion.”
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When the pandemic became official in March 2020, I had just arrived in the Netherlands on a work trip. I got a taxi to the airport to find a way back to America as borders were closing. While my family wondered if I should fly to California, where I grew up, and acquaintances fled to country houses, my mind was only on getting back to Brooklyn. That’s where Joan, my dog, was.
I had adopted Joan in late 2014 from BARC, an animal shelter in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She was a one-year-old Bulldog who had been neglected and abused. The day I came to visit her, she had just gotten spayed and I was warned she would be drowsy from anesthesia and might not be up for getting off her bed, but as soon as I showed up she carefully crawled off her cot and started rubbing her fur against me. I started the adoption process that day. We were immediately a team. I took to whispering to her, “You’re the best thing that happened to me all year.”
So, five and a half years later, when I got back to New York, the first thing I did was to pick her up from her favorite kennel and return to the loft in Red Hook where we lived. I had no groceries. My parents were on the other side of the country. A book I had poured my heart and several years of my life into was coming out in four weeks and, one by one, each of my book tours and events were getting canceled. I was shell-shocked, scared, disappointed, and I was completely alone. Friends and family stayed in touch with texts or phone calls or Zoom cocktail hours — may we never have those again — but the only living and breathing companion I had was Joan.
My mental health has never been stellar. Since I was a teenager, I have suffered from depressive episodes, dark fogs that descend on me that leave me feeling glum. I started having insomnia and panic attacks as a child. I have been on a fairly successful regimen of therapy appointments every week and a cocktail of Lexapro and Lamictal, but the real fear and anxiety the pandemic brought up was no match for any of it. Not binge watching television, or reading romance novels, or doing vintage aerobics videos on YouTube, or making flourless chocolate cake. These things kept me busy but didn’t necessarily make me feel any better about myself, or the world.
I walked Joan everyday, as always. At first it was hesitant because I wondered if I could catch coronavirus in the air outside — we had so little information those days — but I soon realized that the only thing I could do was go on walks with my dog. Everything else was closed and everyone else was gone. So we walked. A typical Saturday would be walking from Red Hook to the Manhattan Bridge to pick up provisions from Cervo’s, one of my favorite restaurants that was now functioning as a general store. Some days we’d walk miles into Bed-Stuy to visit friends for masked outdoor hangs on their stoops.
Because there was no life indoors besides my apartment, I could bring Joan with me everywhere, and I did. She needed exercise and her presence was a balm. At one point in May I realized I hadn’t gone a single place without Joan by my side for eight weeks.
I told that to the vet when I dropped her off at the vet for some booster vaccines and my vet in turn suggested I might start going places without Joan so she wouldn’t have overwhelming separation anxiety by the time I could go places without her. I think, though, she wasn’t just recommending that for Joan but for me. She was my lockdown companion, but I had to learn to slowly navigate my fears and anxiety without her as my constant companion.
So I would leave her for 15 minutes while I got a coffee, and when restaurants opened up again outdoors, I’d leave her for a couple hours to meet a friend for skewers of chicken and glasses of wine. I made my way into the world again, but when I came back she was always there, ready to curl up next to me on the coach and snore.
Marisa Meltzer has contributed to The New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and is the author of This Is Big: How the Women Who Founded Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me). She lives in New York City with her dog Joan.