My name is Ellen Jennie. I am a senior at the University of Notre Dame. I play ultimate. I’m a John Green fanatic.
And I have a mental illness.
Those words were hard for me for a while. I first suspected something wasn’t right in high school, when I would be depressed for months with little outbursts of feeling “wired” and staying awake for three days straight. But I was pressured from some family not to go back, and I quit seeking help until college. I finally broke down in my sophomore year, and after some miscommunications went awry, the secret I had so carefully kept became known to the administration. I was told (incorrectly) that if I didn’t go see a counselor and do everything they said, I could be kicked out of school. I was angry at first, but it was through my wonderful counselor and psychiatrist that I learned I have cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder with more up and down episodes, but shorter and less intense.
With this knowledge, I tried to make a plan. With medication, counseling, and the all-important support from my team, I began to deal; unfortunately, something was still wrong. I depended far too much on other people, particularly boyfriends, for support. Anytime those relationships would shift slightly it affected my whole game plan. Thus, I began thinking about a service dog. I have always been comforted by my family’s dog, and so began my research immediately. When a friend of a friend heard about my search, she told me she had the perfect dog for me: a pair of rescued dachshund mixes had been taken from a hoarder home, and were promising candidates.
Getting school approval was no cake walk, with Fred being the first mental illness service dog to come to campus. Thankfully, the lawyers, the administration, and disability services helped me immensely, and Fred and I finally came together on the Halloween of my junior year. At first the transition was rocky: we had to finish his training together while I still went to classes, and he was still weak and afraid from his previous owners. We struggled for about three weeks, and then something clicked.
Fred knows his job well. He keeps his eyes on me at all time, just in case something were to happen. He follows me everywhere, and gets stressed if I have to leave him at home for some reason. He can tell when I’m about to have a panic attack, and sits in my lap until it’s over. He wakes up with me at night, and helps me fall back asleep. When my episodes stop me from eating, Fred will refuse to eat without me, guilting me into eating also. My 15lb. dachshund mix even puts on a guard dog act if we’re out late at night.
We’ve endured some adversity. I’ve been accused of faking a mental illness or faking his service credentials, I’ve been regularly told to leave stores and restaurants by those ignorant of the law. Through all of this, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to do what’s right for me.
There is no way to please everyone, no matter how hard you try, and I deal with enough without listening to those hateful voices. I needed to learn to be happy with myself, and then I could try to help the rest of the world. But no matter what, I’ve got the support of Fred, my parents, and my larger than life teammates. And yes, I still have my bad days, but I’m living how I want. I’m independent. And I’m happy.
- Ellen Jennie, There's a Dog on Campus