Trying her first attempt at suicide when she was just 12 years old, Emily was diagnosed with severe depression since being rushed to the hospital that fateful night 15 years ago. Frantic parents, uncertain doctors and world that had no meaning surrounded a girl who had earlier been detected with stage 3 Anxiety at only 9 years of age. A condition Emily is “not really sure what caused it”.
Being bullied at school may have been an answer. “Or maybe I was just born with it, I don’t really know. But I did stop going to school when I was just in Grade 2,” she says.
Emily has been on medication for anxiety for as long as she can remember. “The side effects were crazy....There was a time when I put on 60 pounds in just two months!” she laughs about it today. But back then, that very situation made the kids bully Emily even more, making her even clingier with her parents. “I could not move an inch away from them.” Rounds of the psychiatrist sessions started as heavy doses of medication kept her home. Emily recoiled and pulled herself further and further away from living a normal childhood. “And then one day, just like that, I ingested all the sleeping pills hoping to kill myself.”
Weeks of after-care and months of being kept under suicide watch, Emily’s psychiatrist advised her parents to send her away from her home. “It would be safer for me, they thought,” says Emily.
Four years of her adolescent life, Emily conceded to living away from her parents, away from her own home in an institution meant to house people with a troubled past. “My parents wanted the best for me. They did not know how to deal with me or my issues anymore. Sending me away to the group home on the recommendation of my doctor seemed like the best answer for me at the time,” says Emily.
“I did learn a lot though. I toughened up. I used to have severe separation anxiety, resulting in panic attacks. Having to live away from my home and my parents, I was forced to get over my fear of separation. It helped me to become independent and overcome my fear of being left alone.”
After living in the group home for 4 years, Emily moved out with some friends she had made at the home. But they were “bad company”, says Emily. “I was unsafe, they were into drugs, and life was again taking me back to where I had started. But it was time to stop being insecure. It was time to make my own choices. The choice to come out of it all.”
The one thing that Emily learnt in her four years away from her comfort zone was this: “Life always gives you choices. What you choose it up to you.”
Emily finally took up a place of her own and started life all over again with the help of Koby, her black rescue dog, her now trained service dog. Koby and Emily became the best of friends, and in some ways probably took over the role of her parent. “Wherever I go, Koby goes, and wherever Koby goes, I go.” Emily finally found a family in Koby, and she could take on the world as long as Koby was by her side. He became her best friend, her self-confidence and her love.
After years of not being able to look after her own health, Emily landed up with excruciating pain from fibromyalgia. Health had suffered for years, and since she couldn’t get herself to even go out for a walk due to anxiety, her condition deteriorated with every passing year. “There were days when I would wake up and I couldn't even sit up.”
But all of that started to change with Koby entering her life. Emily found in herself, the courage to do something normally one takes for granted. She started to go out for walks. She went out to get her own mail. She would buy her own food. She could now go to the gym.
Emily started to work out religiously at a local gym and lost all of her excess weight she had lived with all her life. Life started to look more hopeful. She was happy. And confident. With the new found freedom, Emily knew there was one more thing left to do. Little did she know that her fight had only just begun.
“It was time for me to complete my education,” says Emily who had studied only up to Grade 10 so far. “But I was refused admission into the school if Koby was going to be with me.”
A huge setback on a girl who had only recently found her independence back with Koby, Emily was sure nothing was going to keep her away from him. “Koby was my only hope. And I really wanted to go back to school to complete my education.”
So started weeks and months of reading and familiarizing herself with the laws of the land and rules of the school board. “I learnt that the law does not state it illegal to bring in service dogs into the school premises. It is the decision of individual schools whether or not to permit dogs and service dogs within the school.” During the time, Emily also learnt that it is not illegal to bring dogs into restaurants, she says with a laugh. “Individual restaurant owners decide that, but it is not illegal!”
What followed was a fight for admission into the school along with Koby. From arranging for doctor’s notes to prove her physical and emotional incapacity to synchronizing the school board’s rules along with the laws of the province with the human rights tribunal, Emily’s fight was a long drawn one. “The school did not think I was going to go through all of that. They just want things easy for themselves. But I had to fight, and the law was on my side,” says Emily who had to study and quote legal cases to strengthen her case. A 12 page report on Koby who had to be passed as a service dog all over again by the school authorities was the winning lead for Emily who finally won her right to admission into the school and finish her high school education.
“Two years later I graduated with a 100% attendance and got scholarship to continue to college,” a joyous, proud and confident Emily proclaims.
Emily’s fight was not a fight for just her own self. It was a fight for all those in her position, suffering from anxiety but are looking for something to help support them to go on with their lives nonetheless. “I know what it feels like to live with anxiety and with physical and mental pain. But life must go on,” she says. Emily’s efforts to “go on” has pushed her school board to rewrite school policies to accommodate service dogs. She now serves as part of the same board’s focus group to raise awareness about mental awareness, implementing ideas to make the school a happier and safer place for children. She is also instrumental in getting kids to start talking about their illnesses to reduce the stigma around mental health. Her talks across various boards, shows and magazines to represent the bullied, the mentally and emotionally disabled children and youth has brought about a concentrated exposure to the problems faced by them. “Even now school boards across the province and the country do not allow service dogs within their premises, so my fight continues,” says a determined Emily. Until then, random parents walk up to Emily to thank her for opening new horizons for their own children also suffering from anxiety, to start life again with a new hope.
While she has won her fight that she had initially started out with, Emily doesn’t stop her efforts to get the support other children face in schools. A service dog typically costs $10,000-15,000 CDN. “An average family does not know how to set aside so much money for one,” she says. So Emily is now working on a new mission, advocating self-trained dogs to become service dogs, becoming the first in all of Canada to have fought and won the case of bringing in her own self-trained service dog into the school. “To be termed a service dog, they have to go through extremely strict tests,” something Emily believes strongly that can be done at home. “But it can be done, and then families in need of a service dog do not need to spend money that they can’t afford.”
Not fully cured of her anxiety till date, Emily still depends on Koby to step out of the house. “He relies on me to take him out on walks. So if it’s not for me, then at least for him I have to leave the house to take him out for walks,” she says.
Emily, you may rely on Koby to take you out of your house, but you have started something that hundreds of children suffering from anxiety rely on you to start their lives again. You have made space for a man’s best friend to be a part of his life when he need him the most.
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