This piece was guest written by Brooke Kohn ’18.
I’ll preface this by saying that I do not speak for everyone who has, or will have, an ESA on campus. I only know my own experience, preferences, and a few objective facts.
What is an ESA?
An emotional support animal, or an ESA, is a companion animal that a medical professional has deemed to be beneficial in improving the quality of life for a person with a disability. In order to be prescribed an emotional support animal, the person must have a verifiable disability that meets the federal definition of disability. Because of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, Kenyon, cannot discriminate against disabled persons in housing and must agree to a reasonable accommodation that will enable a disabled person to equally enjoy the use of their dorm. For more information on what an ESA is, check out this link. There are currently less than ten of us with ESAs on campus. We all had to go through an application process and get a recommendation from a medical professional. ESAs have no special training, they’re not service animals, and they’re not a cure all. However, they are part of a treatment plan.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression in April of my freshman year at Kenyon but I didn’t seriously consider applying for an ESA until a serious depressive episode last semester had me wondering how long it would take someone to notice if I just didn’t get out of my bed for a week— or a lifetime, for that matter.
Everyone’s experience with depression is a little bit different, but for me, depressed episodes often feel a lot like drowning in the middle of an ocean. I cannot eat, I cannot sleep, I cannot focus on homework without having a panic attack, I cannot leave my room, I can barely move far enough to go the bathroom because I feel as if I’m expending all of my energy on treading water.
Everything and everyone around me seems to suffer when I’m in a bad place. My friendships become strained because I feel like a burden for relying so heavily on my friends for support. My schoolwork suffers because I either cannot get out of bed to go to class or I can’t do the assignments because I can’t concentrate on anything other than being sad. My physical health suffers because I don’t have the appetite or the will to go to Peirce. And my work as a CA suffers because I want nothing more than to isolate myself. It is its own special type of hell where everyone around you seems to be fine and going 80mph on the highway and you can’t get yourself above 10mph.
When things aren’t going well for me, I’ve found things that help, such as the counseling center, medicine, and sitting with my closest friends; however, it is impossible for me to bring my counselor home with me, SSRIs often aren’t a cure-all, and it is unfair for me to ask my friends, who are so great to me, to give up their normal lives to sit on my floor with me when I’m in a dark place. So, enter my ESA, O’Malley, a five-month old, hypoallergenic, Siberian kitten.
His favorite activities include, chasing sticks, watching leaves fall outside my window, pressing the delete key on my laptop while I’m writing a paper, playing tag with my legs while I’m getting dressed in the morning, and being as close as physically possible to me at all times.
O’Malley has helped me in so many ways— more than I could probably write about here. On the most basic level, he’s here to keep me company when I’m not doing well. When my limbs feel like they have lead in them and it’s really hard to get out of bed, I do because he’s licking my nose, asking for breakfast. Unlike my friends or my counselor, he has no other plans so I never feel like a burden to him when I need company to get me through a bad night. He’s just around to hang out and love me unconditionally. He makes feel more human when I’m depressed and he helps me to function like a normal Kenyon student. He is by no means the magic cure for my depression, but he’s part of my management plan for my disorder and he’s helped me immensely.
I know that ESAs are a hard thing for some people to wrap their head around, and that’s okay, but know that he’s improving the quality of my life on campus immensely and I do what I can to make sure that he’s not having a negative impact on anyone else’s.
Dos and Don’ts of ESAs
Do: respect the privacy of the individual who owns the ESA. Not everyone who has an ESA wants to talk about it all of the time. Chances are that a very personal experience precipitated their getting an ESA and it’s not cool to ask someone to talk about it who doesn’t want to.
Don’t: knock on the door of someone who has an ESA and ask to pet their animal— it puts that person in a really weird position. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been napping or doing homework in my room and a stranger has knocked on my door asking if “my cat was busy” and if they could pet him. The individual with the ESA isn’t around to provide a service to you when you want to pet an animal. You wouldn’t ask me if you could take one of my SSRIs. In some ways, it’s a similar thing.
Do: if you want to play with their animal, wait for them to invite you to. I know how much people miss their pets and how great it is to snuggle an animal, but give the power to determine when you get to do that to the person who owns the animal. Let them initiate the conversation.
Don’t: use the ESA washing machine and dryer when other machines aren’t being used. If you have an ESA, you’re only allowed to use the washers labeled “ESA” in order to protect people with allergies. So if I go to do laundry and every machine is open but the ESA one, I have to wait until that laundry is done to start mine, when that person could’ve used any other machine. It makes laundry even more of a pain than it already is.
Do: ask questions to the right people if you still don’t understand the purpose of ESAs. The office of Student Accessibility and Support Services or Housing and Reslife are a good place to start.
Don’t: only talk to me about my cat. I get it, he’s a lot cuter and fluffier than I am, but I’m more than my depression and, as much as I love talking about him, I can think of much more interesting things to talk about than his love of sticks.
Do: talk to a counselor or Erin Salva if you think you’d benefit from having an ESA of your own. Furthermore, talk to the counseling center, a peer counselor, or your CA if you’re going through a similar experience to what I’ve described and are not already getting help. You’re not alone and your happiness is worth it.