Courtesy of Jenn Bethune

If You Can’t Handle The Reason I Have A Service Dog, Don’t Doubt Me

by Jenn Bethune

TW: This article contains descriptions of child loss.

We lost our son, Ethan, in a car accident on Sept. 16, 2011, on our way to Disney World for his 7th birthday. I watched him die right in front of me. As a result, I have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and will have it for the rest of my life. The image of my son bloody and broken, taking his last breath, is forever ingrained in my brain. It's an image I've seen for the last eight years. Every. Single. Day.

I began seeing a psychiatrist and a mental health coach immediately following the accident. I was prescribed heavy medications, learned how to control my mind via thoughtful exercises, and practiced how to utilize a variety of breathing activities to supposedly calm down. But, after a while, I lost the person I was before the accident. I was a zombie. A shell. Someone I no longer knew. And I lived this way up until a year and a half ago, when I learned I was eligible for a service dog.

Once I learned about this option, my life changed. I went through All American Dog Training Academy and trained my Standard Poodle, Theodore, to help me with my daily, debilitating panic attacks. When I have one — and they can be triggered by anything at any time — he applies pressure to my body to try and relieve the attack. He is also trained to put his nose to my nose and help me escape the never-ending black hole of panic, rooting me in the here and now instead of allowing me to drift back to the past. Back to the accident.

The writer with her service dog, Theodore. Courtesy of Jenn Bethune.

Theodore gave me my life back. When I have a panic attack, no matter where I am, he is there, having my proverbial back and supporting me in a way no one else can. I might not know when an attack will occur, but I do know that no matter what, Theodore is going to help me.

Just by looking at me, you'd never know there was something hiding behind my smile; an invincible disability that haunts me every single day. To most everyone I look "normal," whatever that means. So when people see Theodore with me, wearing his vest to let people know he's working, we're often on the receiving end of some unwanted attention. People stare, people give us dirty looks, and people say nasty things because they can't comprehend why the woman with the full-face of makeup needs a service dog.

"Looks like anyone can buy a dog vest and call it a service dog these days."

"What's wrong with you? You look perfectly fine."

"No son, that's not a real service dog. She's faking it."

These people, who blatantly question my need for Theodore, do not know me. They only see what I have managed to present to them that day. They only see a fluffy poodle and a perfectly put-together handler.

They just don't know, or don't care to know, that some of the people with the biggest smiles are carrying the heaviest pain.

What they don't see are the moments when I'm stuck on the couch, unable to move. They didn't see the nights when I couldn't stop myself from throwing things, smashing plates, or the times when I was sprawled out on the floor, crying uncontrollably. They don't see the night I accidentally dropped a candle holder Ethan made in school, causing it to shatter on the floor. They weren't there when my stomach sank, the reality that my son was gone and I had just broken something that had his handprint on it hitting me with a force too great for me to endure. They were living their own lives when I was running to the bathroom, slamming the door behind me, screaming until all the air was pushed from my lungs and I could do nothing but collapse to the floor.

They weren't there when I put my face against the cold tile and sobbed, clutching those tiny glass fragments that could never, ever be put back together. Just like the pieces of my shattered heart.

They just don't know, or don't care to know, that some of the people with the biggest smiles are carrying the heaviest pain.

The writer's family, visiting Disney World. Courtesy of Jenn Bethune

I now have three kids on this Earth, and we go to Disney World all the time. We live every day to the fullest because we know in the most painful of ways that none of us are promised tomorrow. It has required a lot of therapy and hard work for us to get to where we are today, as a family and as individuals. And, as a parent, you never, ever fully recover from the loss of your own child — you just learn to live with a new normal.

But we had a choice to make as a family: we could either let this break us and stop living, or we could become closer and stronger by taking one day at a time.

So that's what we do: we take one day at a time. And my service dog, Theodore, helps me push forward. So be kind to that woman with the service dog who looks effortless. Be kind to the man who seems "just fine" as his service dog walks by his side. Because not all disabilities are visible. Sometimes, they look like me: a mom with a big, bright smile, enjoying The Happiest Place on Earth™ with her three living children while she silently suffers an incomprehensible loss and waits for the next time her dog has to put his nose to her nose so she doesn't fall deeper into the darkness.

Sometimes, that person you're judging is just trying to hold onto the pieces.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.