I first tried to write my memoir Dog Medicine as a novel. As I was writing, I slowly began to realize that I had chosen to fictionalise the story because I was scared to write the truth, writes Julie Barton.
The truth was that when I was twenty-two, I had a breakdown, was diagnosed with major clinical depression, and the only thing that saved me was my dog. But I couldn’t write that. Could I?
Photo Credit: Heather Knape
Years went by, and the more I studied writing, the more I realised that the best books come out of the deepest truths, and mine was that a dark red Golden Retriever with the disposition of a goofy Buddha was the one thing that kept me from taking my own life.
Bunker lived eleven wonderful years before he was diagnosed with cancer. He died ten days after his diagnosis. When he left me, I wasn’t sure I could go on.
But the day after he died, I learned that I was a finalist in a prestigious writing contest. I hadn’t been writing much lately and had entered the contest months earlier on a whim. I was happy, of course, but more than that, I knew that it was a message from him, a directive: Write our story. Tell our truth.
So I did. I began, in earnest, to write the most painful memories of my life: childhood memories like the time my brother knocked me unconscious, the bleakest days when the depression almost killed me, or the time I realized I’d almost ruined the best relationship I would ever have. Soon I was arranging and rearranging these scenes around the most important day: the day I adopted my puppy, Bunker.
When I first started telling people about the book’s premise, some people laughed, but I kept writing anyway. Because with each day of writing, I was getting closer to explaining why the love of my life had four paws. I wrote that Bunker was the one thing that kept me getting up in the morning. He got me outside. He made me go for long, meandering walks, which became incredibly healing. He made me laugh with his uncoordinated but determined chasing of geese and squirrels.
He wanted to be with me; he liked me. I’d always questioned my own likeability. I assumed everyone who met me noticed my flaws and would decide I wasn’t good enough. But when I was with my dog, all of that pain and worry seemed to dissipate. I knew my dog would never decide he didn’t like me. I knew he trusted me, loved me most of all, would never hurt or betray me - and in that safe place bloomed the possibility of healing and recovery from the darkness that had plagued my mind for years.
I worked on the book for seven years. I had young children, was overwhelmed by life and work, but the memoir would not let me give up on it. The fear that I was a crazy woman obsessed with writing about her dead dog did not dissipate: I just wrote past it. Because this was the story I had to tell. I had to get it right.
After Dog Medicine’s initial publication, I began receiving hundreds of e-mails from readers thanking me, saying that this was their story too. I get e-mails every day with words that sound a lot like mine, 'My dog saved my life too.' This response has felt like a miracle.
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Not only am I not alone, I am actually helping validate others’ experience of being saved by their beloved pets. These messages are proof, of course, that sharing our most vulnerable truths, as scary as they may be, can help us all heal.
K9 Magazine says: Sometimes it's hard to write or type the truth because we're afraid of seeing the truth, something we ultimately know but don't always accept, staring back at us. Being a dog owner is like being part of a unit that others understand you and like Julia says, the truth is our dogs save us in many ways every day. That's why they're man (or woman's) best friend and it's what makes our relationship with them so special.