For the past 13 years of my life, I’ve had an emotional support animal even though she wasn’t ever registered. Her name was Lemon, she was a cockatiel, and she saved me from killing myself when I was a teenager.
So when I saw headlines like these, I was a little upset:
Emotional support animals aren’t fake, just as mental illness is not fake and that telling someone to “cheer up” isn’t going to immediately make those suicidal thoughts go away. People shrug off mental illness every day and when mentally healthy people take advantage of emotional support animals, it ruins it for everyone. Specifically, I feel invalidated and worse, but only because people are saying things like this, claiming the whole thing is a “fake” way to get your pet to live with you wherever.
Lemon and I were pals since I was in middle school. My dog, Mellie, found this bright yellow bird sitting on our pool deck one day and after searching for months, we could not find her owner. Lemon and I got along pretty well and we decided to keep her. During that time, I was in the worst mental state of my life. My thoughts took over my every day life and my depression felt like a weight constantly pushing me down. I was 12, I was 13, I was 14, and there seemed to be no escape. I asked for help and none came to me. I wasn’t “of age” yet to help myself.
So here comes Lemon, the help that literally flew down from the sky. I took her into my house, fed her, and spent time with her until we became best friends.
I used to come home from high school, a place where I never felt like I belonged or where I could truly be myself, and open the door to my room to find a bright yellow pair of wings headed towards me. She sang songs for my arrival and perched on my shoulder, nuzzled my neck until I gave her neck scritches. After the whole drive home thinking about how I could put a gun to my head, I came home to unconditional love I still to this day have never found elsewhere.
Eventually, I went to college, and I found that I could not take my bird with me unless
she was a certified emotional support animal. I looked online and every website told me that I had to pay a lot of money to get her registered along with a multiple-step process to get her approved. I had to talk about my depression and my suicidal thoughts to a complete stranger, and I didn’t want to do any of that. Plus, multiple websites claimed multiple things and none of them seemed legitimate. I also had been depressed, but not really suicidal since I met Lemon.
If I had known that it was as simple as finding a therapist (even one provided by my university) to write a letter asking for my bird to live with me, my first few years of college wouldn’t have been so dreadful.
I became so depressed without Lemon, I thought about her all the time, and although I was in a pretty good place mentally, surrounded by interesting people in a place of learning, something was missing. Any roommate I’ve ever had knows Lemon. They know how hard it was for me to live with her. During my junior year, my boyfriend at the time told me a story about how his mom kept a pet dog in her Yale dorm room when she was in college. He convinced me to sneak in Lemon and her sister, Jasmine.
We kept it up for half a semester until my RA (who is still a friend of mine) found Lemon
perched on my laptop while I was doing homework. Whoops. She and Jasmine had to leave, of course, and I kinda freaked out. I couldn’t bear to be away from Lemon because seeing her after work or school or whatever every day was sometimes the only thing that kept me going. That’s pretty embarrassing to admit that my mental health was that bad, but most people had no idea that I was so ill.
Funny that this RA ended up becoming a therapist who can now write letters for emotional support animals and avoid situations like this.
After I graduated, I was set to move to LA and my birds were my first priority…aka my mental health was my first priority. Finding a place was hellish. It was already hard to find an affordable place to live in Los Angeles, but finding one that allowed birds was a whole different thing. Some said they only allowed cats and some said they only allowed dogs, so when searching, I would check boxes for both and then ask the landlord. It sucked. I finally found a miracle house filled with rad artists who would love to have the birds (and my roommates there were all super considerate of my situation: career-wise, bird-wise, and mental health-wise).
Just a few months after I moved into this house, on October 20th, Lemon got very sick and died after I spent nearly a couple thousand dollars for medical care, driving back and forth to the veterinary hospital, etc. I couldn’t eat for three days. Jasmine would fly around the house and cry, searching for Lemon. A few times, she flew into a window and cried. She didn’t eat either and we watched Gilmore Girls while I used up multiple boxes of tissues, feeling like I was breathing in tears. I was a watery, prune-y mess, and after getting off a two week stint as an unpaid production coordinator who just spent all her savings trying to save her now dead best friend, I was ready to drive my car off a fucking cliff.
With the support of my amazing roommates and neighbors, I made an appointment with a therapist in Downtown Los Angeles. I knew I needed help or my life was at risk. I told him what my birds did for me and how I had to go back to visit my family over winter, that the only reason I was staying afloat was through the kindness of the people around me and Jasmine, who was also depressed.
He told me that I needed an emotional support letter and that he could easily get it for me within a few days, that he was surprised I didn’t get one, say, 11 years before, or even when I went to college. I told him about the money thing and the sketchy websites and he explained that all of that is a scam, that literally all one needs is a letter from a therapist.
I flew with Jasmine for the first time as an emotional support animal that Christmas only to be even more stressed out than usual. The protocol for emotional support animals is different for every airline and every airport. At LAX, I needed to go through the “special” travel desk, I also needed a ticket for my bird, and that ticket needed to be attached to her carrier. At Boston Logan, they took her out of her crate and I had to hold her while they screened the crate for possible explosives or other illegal shit. One time, they wouldn’t let me on the plane at a connection as I was about to board the plane at the gate because of the type of crate she was in. They forced me to buy one of their pre-approved ones for $60 or else I would have been stuck in North Carolina or wherever I was.
It’s not fun to fly with an emotional support animal, especially since the staff roll their eyes when I tell them I have an emotional support animal. Although, Jasmine has always been on perfect behavior, barely making a sound. I don’t even have one of those fake ESA tags like some people do. I just literally can’t live without my bird.
I’ve also never lived in a place with my bird where pet birds are not allowed, but apparently with this letter I can live anywhere with Jasmine. My mental health suffers at every eye roll, at every passive-aggressive comment about my bird. Jasmine is fairly quiet, she keeps to herself unless she wants to stretch her wings and fly around for a few minutes every other day. I know that if I try to bring her to a place that doesn’t allow animals, I will get some passive aggressive bullshit for having her at all which is not even worth it.
So, enough with the “fake service animal” bullshit. Yeah, maybe some mentally healthy people abuse the privilege, but all of it makes people who actually need an ESA hurt even more. It makes me wish that I could be normal and not require an ESA wherever I go. Damn, I even got a fish when I couldn’t have my birds in college because I needed to care for something or else I would lose sight of the point to live. I had to be responsible for keeping someone else alive, and a plant just didn’t do it for me.
Today marks 2 years since Lemon’s death. Remember my best friend by thinking differently about emotional support animals and not sharing these horrible articles. Rest in peace, sweet girl.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.