I cried all the way to work on the subway today. Ugh.
Fuck you MTA guy. There are exactly two questions you are allowed to ask: is this dog a service animal and is it task-trained? Any questions beyond that are an infringement of privacy and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The irony of it all is that on the walk to the subway this morning I was feeling fantastic – I’ve just dropped 10lbs, am wearing an outfit I haven’t fit into in two years (which is basically like scoring new clothes except FREE!), and have recently weaned myself off anti-anxiety meds and one-of-two antidepressants.
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I attribute these successes in large part to my dog Sammie, whom I recently had certified as a psychiatric service animal (which affords the same legal protections as a medical service animal, versus a therapy dog) and was mentally ticking off all this rad progress as Sammie and I walked to the subway on our way to work, feeling pretty great about my life and the direction it’s now headed in.
This was just before you confronted me on a train full of people about Sammie’s service status, berated me, and demanded to know personal medical information beyond which you are legally entitled in front of a subway car full of strangers. All the while Sammie laid at my feet disengaged, focused only on me. As service animals are trained to do.
I stood up for myself. I offered to show you paperwork, which I carry with me in my wallet (she was wearing her vest already). I explained the law. I called you sir. You told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. You told me she was not a service animal. You were condescending and authoritarian. You were 100 percent wrong. A few nice people on the train stood up for me and eventually you “let” us continue on our way. I should have gotten your name and information but I was too embarrassed and upset and just wanted to get to work. I was already in tears.
So fuck it. If a few strangers on the train got to hear all about my personal business this morning, then sharing it with a few more here is worth it if it leads to opening some minds about service animals and mental health.
Here’s the deal: NOT ALL DISABILITIES ARE VISIBLE. NOT ALL DISABILITIES ARE PHYSICAL.
In 2008, I was struck by a yellow cab while walking across the street. I’ll spare you the extended details but the short version involves three burst discs, excruciating pain that led to the inability to walk, having to take leave from a job I loved, going on disability, experimental spinal surgery (that was successful!), only to catch an antibiotic-resistant staph infection somewhere along the line during treatment that lasted another full TWO YEARS and subsequent medicine interactions that landed me back in the emergency room multiple times. Next came a lengthy court case which involved extreme scrutiny and harassment by the cabbie’s insurance company until they finally settled. It was years of absolute torture and I fought like hell to get my life back.
I will always live with chronic pain. I will never wear heels or do heavy lifting without throwing my back out. This is a small price to pay for living my life while walking upright.
The other lasting impact of all this is that I developed PTSD as a result of both the initial accident and subsequent years of trauma. While it’s very much under control these days I’m subject to feeling unsafe, hyper-vigilance and panic attacks.
One of the reasons I’m back on track is Sammie – who is a registered and certified service animal, task-trained to recognize an impending panic attack and cut it off before it takes hold. I bring Sammie to work, I bring her on the subway, I bring her to restaurants. I don’t bring her on dates and there are plenty of times I leave her home. But having the option of bringing her with me is better medicine than any pill or therapy session. And it’s working. I am able to move about the world without fear for the first time in a very long time.
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Most of the people we come across in our daily activities are great. Reactions run the gamut from overwhelmingly accommodating to straight up NYC-mind-your-own-business-and-I’ll-mind-mine. Sometimes folks ask intrusive questions without realizing it. (I’ve learned the best response to “What kind of service animal is she?” is “She’s mine” instead of offering up my PTSD diagnosis.)
People like that don’t offend me. People like you, MTA officer with a bad attitude and authority complex, do. You do not know of what you speak.
Here’s hoping for greater awareness around service animals and the myriad benefits they bring to the folks they serve.
Here’s to standing up for your rights.
Here’s to dogs in general because they are the greatest.
(I’m gonna go hug mine right now.)
Original by Leslie Hermelin