Written by Standard Issue

Lifestyle

Just walking the dog

Rain or shine (we’re talking head weather here), Lucy Freeman will always give Basil a trot out. Who knew how much a walk in the park could offer?

Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael.

In 2012 I was walloped by depression. I say ‘walloped’ because that is exactly what it felt like. I was trundling along, enjoying my children, loving my partner and my job, when all of a sudden I was sandbagged.

My brain was a seething mass of thoughts that went nowhere, my ability to concentrate vanished, I was permanently exhausted, found people too exhausting to be with and so avoided company assiduously, and was prone to tears at inopportune moments (like in the middle of a press briefing in Sweden, for example).

I began taking antidepressants, which helped. One thing hung over me – the fact that before I’d begun feeling unwell, I’d agreed to get a puppy. A standard poodle, in an effort to make me exercise more.

Even when I began to feel better, the idea of having yet another thing in the house that was reliant on me felt appalling and I was, frankly, dreading it.

Nevertheless I fell in love with Basil, because it’s quite tricky not to with a small, black, curly puppy who treasures you so deeply his idea of bliss is to sleep next to your slipper. But the walks were something else. It was like a trip back in time to pushing babies round the park.

In the same way people say to your baby, “You’re beautiful, aren’t you? And what’s your name?” in exchange for a gummy smile and the information helpfully supplied by doting mama, people did the same to my dog. Only this time I could ask questions back. Lots of them. “When will he stop leaping up?”; “Do you think he needs a coat?”; “When did yours learn to swim?”

basilOnce I’d mined everyone for doggy related information I shrank back into myself again as the depression ebbed and flowed. But Basil had other plans. He would spot someone we’d spoken to across the park and look round at me, surprise and delight written all over his goofy face. Other owners would greet him with delight, and I’d sidle up.

After a while I became accustomed to meandering along with total strangers, while our dogs cavorted with each other.

No one wants heavy conversation (after all it’s 8.30am, no one’s had a shower yet and at least one of you is carrying a plastic bag full of poo) and you drift together, drift apart, in company but all the while having a focus; your dog, roaring along, chasing crows, sharing sticks (or not). Something that’s delighted to be with you, and to be with you while you’re with other people.

I found people told me the most remarkable things on the dog walk. There’s a confessional aspect to it. Eye contact only if you want it, an easy diversion into dog antics if the conversation starts getting heavy, and the knowledge that the person you’re talking to knows nothing about you except the name of your dog.

I heard about marriages on the verge of divorce, prison sentences, a woman trapped by a dominating elderly mother and who was willing her to die, a nurse whistleblowing on her boss… people shared more confidences with me than they shared with their friends. I began to really look forward to the dog walk. I walked miles, heard stories, met up with different people, made friends, laughed and cried.

I was already doing a podcast, (about The ArchersDumTeeDum) but the dog walk made me want to share stories. Anonymously, true to the dog walk code of conduct. That’s what gave me the idea for WalkieTalkie. It’s on iTunes, if you fancy a listen.

I’m much better now. Still have the odd bad day but no more, I suspect, than many people without depression. Basil’s very social and happy. We don’t always walk with people – sometimes if we have a lot to think about, we’ll have a solitary stroll and he’ll stay one pace behind me, occasionally nudging forward to touch my hand with his nose.

We don’t have to talk all the time, me and Bas. When we see someone we know he’ll turn to look at me questioningly. I’ll say, “Go and play” and he’ll roar off delightedly.

Even on the worst days, the days when choosing which socks to wear feels like too much to decide and the fear of getting it wrong seems overwhelming, I do the dog walk. And when I come back I know, whatever else the day holds, I began it by making something happy.

@Lucyvfreeman

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Written by Standard Issue