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Dogs for Mental Wellbeing

Raffi is a three year old poodle dachshund cross – a doxiepoo- but is also the family’s Head of Welfare. He’s earned this honourable title because he has a knack of lifting people up when they feel down and intuiting what they need at that moment.

This usually comes in the form of selecting one of his much loved toys and handing it over in the same way a parent will snuggle a sick child into bed with a favourite teddy.

When he does this to me he watches for my reaction and if I don’t seem to thrilled with the well-mouthed fluffy toy with most of its stuffing ripped out, he quietly pads back to his stash and selects another.

When we bond with our dogs during the many hours we spend playing with them, fussing them and walking them, our brains release the feel good chemical, oxytocin. All pets, but especially dogs, are a great source of comfort and companionship, especially for anyone living alone. Stroking a pet alleviates stress and has an immediate calming effect and if we have something to get up for in a morning, it gives us meaning to our lives.

Dogs are great at encouraging us to get exercise whatever the weather. Fresh air, being out in nature is good for mental health especially low mood and anxiety. Raffi senses the moment it’s time for “walkies” and will dash into the hall where his lead and hi-viz jacket are waiting.

Being out and about with a dog offers an easy opportunity to be sociable. Raffi is a friendly dog and wants to play with others. I find myself stroking whippets, huskies and dachshunds before I’ve said a word to their owner. We do the dog talk, move onto the weather and I often find myself engaged in longer conversations and on occasions being invited for coffee.

Not all dog owners as approachable though. I tend to read their facial expression letting Raffi launch in. There are times when I prefer to wander in solitude, dog at heel and not have to do the small talk.

When I’m writing, Raffi is happy to sit on the sofa and snooze. I chat to him about a character or an idea and if he opens one eye it’s a sign of approval. People say dogs don’t understand or talk, but I beg to differ. Raffi has a vocabulary of about ten words, most of them involve food but the one he protests is “bed.”

Pets give us so much love and it’s a great feeling to come home and see his tail wagging away like a windscreen wiper. Having responsibility for a pet means being less focused on your own problems, just for a while.

Not everyone is in a position to have a pet, especially a dog, but Borrow My Doggy is a website which connects owners to responsible dog sitters. Animal shelters are often looking for volunteers and it’s always worth putting a card in the window of your local newsagent or post office to offer dog walking services.

Dogs are our everyday heroes. They offer us unconditional love and can have an enormous impact on our mental wellbeing. If they’re anything like Raffi, they’ll always be there for you.


The Silent Treatment - emotional abuse and its impact

Most of us have heard the idiom, “Sent to Coventry,”  meaning to ostracise someone or act as if they don’t exist. Knowing that city well, I’ve heard a number of explanations as to the origin of this phrase, all linking back to an historical event involving war. For those who might be interested, click on this link.  http://www.coventry.org.uk/sent-to-coventry/

   In my counselling and training practice over the years, I have come across a number of people who have suffered from the effects being on the receiving end of The Silent Treatment. This is a form of passive-aggressive abuse equivalent to a toddler holding its breath until it gets what it wants.

I’ve seen this behaviour in two year olds in supermarkets who collapse on the floor, to act out an almighty temper tantrum as a way of getting the parent/guardian to buy the forbidden item on the shelves. Too embarrassed to address the issue properly, the parent gives in, reinforcing the idea that bad behaviour brings rewards.

  If this behaviour isn’t corrected, it becomes destructive, long lasting, blame driven and eventually abusive towards anyone who doesn’t “dance to their tune.” Think temper tantrum throwing managers.

   The silent treatment is a way of controlling and showing contempt for another whilst acting blameless through what is known as the sin of omission. I didn’t do anything!

  This extreme form of manipulation instils fear, guilt and obligation in the intended target. I’m not talking about healthy periods of quiet time when two people are getting on with their work or who become so engrossed in their hobbies they lose awareness of those around them.

  There might be somebody in your workplace who includes everyone in their coffee chats except you. You get the “cold shoulder” and have no idea what you’ve done to deserve it. Nothing. Think of a family member who talks to everyone at the birthday party except you. Their plan is to make you feel uncomfortable and want to leave. If you do, they’ve won. Ok, so one excuse or reason might be you’ve upset them but if this behaviour goes on for more than a few days and your efforts to communicate to resolve the issue are ignored, then you are getting the silent treatment. These are powerful mind games and your mental wellbeing can be seriously affected.

   The abuser delights in turning the tables on you, saying, ‘She’s not been well, or ‘You know I’m going to get round to finishing the bathroom.’  I came across a horrendous situation of covert abuse when a husband and wife agreed on the refurbishment of a bathroom. Half way through, he went on a go slow. Only the toilet was installed with the bath and shower still in its packaging in the garage for weeks.

   The silent treatment includes refusal to finish tasks, thus causing distress, not addressing issues of serious financial matters resulting in serious consequences and doing what my ex-husband used to do, wait for guests to arrive for a dinner party then go to bed.

  Out of all the forms of abuse I endured for twenty years, this was the worst. I used to beg him to talk to me, try to sort things out but all I would get back was a knowing smirk. He knew that I was suffering and got a kick out it. His family thought I was the one being abusive. He was their golden boy and believed all the tales of woe he told them.

  As time passed, things got much worse.  For two years he lived in the house, in one room, without speaking to me or his children. His plan was to drive me out or under.      He achieved neither. Having his day in court so he could denounce me as unfit, unstable, un… everything else was all he lived for in the end. This is how far some people will go to achieve their desire to control and inflict psychological injury.

   When he was finally ordered to leave the house by the court because of his abuse, he ignored the order and at the point of being removed by the bailiffs, he walked down the drive one minute before the order expired. He’d made plans to return to his own country and told nobody, not even his own family. It played out exactly as he wanted as in nobody and nothing, not even the law, would tell him what to do.

   So what did it do to me?  It caused irreparable damage to my psyche in the form of post- traumatic stress disorder or as I prefer to call it, combat stress. My optimistic, lively personality morphed into somebody who cowered at the slightest noise – weird considering the house was silent like a churchyard for two long years – and who feared my own reflection which I saw as a reinforcement of the person he said I was. Truth was convoluted, upside down, inside out yet I had to keep it together for the sake of my children who had suffered in a way that didn’t become clear until many years later.

  Every day I live with some horrific memories, the worst being conned into visiting his family in the Middle East then being told we couldn’t go back to the UK.  Our passports were confiscated. During the two months I battled to get us home with the help of his mother and sisters, (for ever grateful to them), he disappeared to his cousins or his friends, ignoring our existence, showing no empathy for our anxiety. No, he relished it. It was my own, “Not without my daughter” moment. Fortunately I spoke the language well and knew how to work within the cultural and religious restrictions.

   Other days I am dogged by insecurity,flashbacks and a crazy  sense of guilt that I couldn’t fix things between us. No matter how much professional help I’ve had, it made little difference but the good news is when I become a novelist, I found a certain catharsis, writing about characters with  dark emotions and behaviours. It is through writing that I am finally on the road to recovery, seventeen years later.

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