In January 2018 - too early on for us to foresee how mad the year was still going to get - one of the oddest pieces of news I came across in the papers was that a woman was banned by United Airlines from taking her emotional support peacock on the plane with her. Yup. An emotional support peacock. The actual weird thing though is that the peacock was not rejected on the grounds of it being, well a peacock. It was rejected because it wasn’t the right size and weight to travel in the cabin.
Like most people, I laughed my way through this article that basically seemed to be evidence of how out of control the concept of Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are in the USA. Then I saw this petition campaigning to get ESAs recognised over here in the UK and, honestly, I can get behind it.
I’ve always wanted a dog but previously I’ve tended to agree that really you can’t utilise an animal for emotional support in this way. I suffer from OCD and, despite being an independent, articulate, normal human in most ways, my condition means that I struggle being alone. It’s not that I don’t enjoy my own company, I’m excellent for sure, but that if I’m in a strange location or can’t contact people, I have violent panic attacks.
This has been going on since I was 16 and I’m now 31. It’s affected my life in every way, from relationships to my career. I don’t like to burden other people so I’ll often miss out on opportunities rather than inconvenience others. But this year my boyfriend and I got a puppy - Mabel. At first I was disappointed. I’d heard so much about how people fell in love with their dogs, about companionship and I’d had hopes it would change my life. Instead, I realised I was now stuck at home with a baby who cried, pooped in the house and slept. It changed nothing for me. Then she started to grow up, her personality developed and suddenly I got it. Almost instantly I started changing: my boyfriend went on a seven-week tour and Mabel and I hunkered down at home. My parents sat by the phone waiting for my panicky calls but didn’t hear a peep out of me. Instead of staying awake all night I bid Mabel goodnight and fell asleep to the sound of her snuffly breathing. It might seem ridiculous to some people but Mabel’s presence has already been life-changing for me.
At the moment the information regarding ESAs in the UK is little and confusing. While the emotional support animal registry offers the opportunity to register your pet, the truth is that there’s no actual link to the UK Government and therefore no formal legislation. In the USA a huge rise in the number of animals registered has been decried as an “abuse of the system” and, much like most aspects of mental health, there are always people keen to suggest that therapy or just avoiding situations one can’t cope with is better than dragging a pet everywhere.
It’s not that she’s solved everything or cured me, but Mabel has helped me. It’s all the clichés come true. She’s a delight but she’s also a distraction. Medication, therapy, exposure: nothing ultimately worked well enough to help me escape my intrusive thought spirals. But Mabel can do that. And I understand that lots of people have pets for that reason: they cheer you up, they give great cuddles, they’re always happy to see you. But if you haven’t experienced a sudden opening up of your world in a way that you’d stopped believing was possible and it being all because of your pet, then I think you’ll struggle to understand quite how important an ESA can be to some people.