You are here: Home » Case studies

How A Rescue Dog Helped Me Overcome TBI, Depression and Suicidal Ideation

“I sat on the summer-hot pavement, and no one stopped or asked me if I was okay. No one called the police. People walked around me as quickly as possible. When I was all cried out, I walked home to my empty house. I bought a set of knives, ostensibly for cooking, but that was not the reason. I had thought about pills, and every day I researched how many of each prescription drug I was on would I need to take to die. Using a sharp knife seemed so much easier.”

Hello! Who are you?

My name is Carmen Leal and I have lived in Oshkosh, Wisconsin for seven years. I am a storyteller, Coconut’s mom, and a reluctant gardener. I am an active member of the Oshkosh Southwest Rotary Club, part of my neighborhood association’s leadership team, and an adjunct professor for Fox Valley Technical College’s award-winning E-Seed Entrepreneurship workshop.

Gary and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary next year. I have two adult sons, one lives nearby with his wife and two children, and the other son lives with his girlfriend and son in Chicago.

When I’m not writing and speaking I read, cook, and am a major bargain hunter at consignment and antique shops. And I pull weeds whether I like it or not.

Am I happy? Lots of people confuse joy with happiness, and although they are closely related and often occur simultaneously, these feel-good emotions aren’t synonymous. Happiness is an emotion that brings bursts of intense pleasure, excitement, and satisfaction, while joyfulness is a stronger, longer-term state that results in feelings of inner peace and contentment.

Based on the above I’d say I am happy about 80% of the time which is probably pretty high. But I am joyful 100% of the time.

💡 By the way: Do you find it hard to be happy and in control of your life? It may not be your fault. To help you feel better, we’ve condensed the information of 100’s of articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet to help you be more in control. 👇

Cheat Sheet Download Thumbnail

Don’t Miss Out On Happiness

Find happiness with this 10-step mental health cheat sheet.

What is your struggle and when did it start?

In 2015 an inattentive driver slammed into us as we sat at a red light. I don’t know if my head hit the phone I was holding or if it was the other way around. Either way, those few seconds resulted in blunt force trauma from the impact, leaving a hole in my brain. I suffered a concussion from the whiplash, moderate frontal and temporal brain damage, and a level-ten migraine. I’ve had a headache every day since.

I had a wonderful doctor who was an osteopath and we tried all different types of modalities that didn’t include any prescription drugs. What a mistake! He explained that I would have to learn to manage the resulting depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts while my brain healed.

I had a level-ten migraine every day. I had no filter and it was a minute-by-minute struggle to not say the wrong thing to people. My personality changed to the point I could no longer recognize myself.

I was a concierge with Expedia at a Waikiki Beach hotel and earned significantly more than my husband so quitting was not an option. I saw my doctor, a therapist, a massage therapist, and an acupuncturist for a total of six appointments a week. My life was consumed with somehow keeping my position as the top salesperson and driving across the island to see doctors.

I struggled to keep up the happy façade. My injury left me with visual hallucinations and for four months I never slept. I finally agreed to try sleep aids and eventually Ambien allowed me to sleep six hours a night.

My therapist diagnosed me with depression and I refused to believe it. I was not a depressed person! No, I would not take any drugs. Eventually, I did go on Ambien and a series of migraine medications and muscle relaxers.

After eighteen months the struggle became too much, and I put in my two-week notice. Without my income, we could no longer afford to live in paradise. In March of 2017, we moved from sunny Hawaii to cold, gloomy Oshkosh. Leaving a life I loved and starting over at age sixty-two was much harder than I expected.

Besides my son, his wife, and their son, we didn’t know anyone and knew nothing about our new community. The move absolutely left me even more depressed as I grieved the loss of a life I loved and moved into the unknown.

My depression was situational and while I still have migraines, now a level five on most days, and I will always require a sleep aid, I no longer suffer from depression.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

At my worst moment, I felt like death was the only answer. I remember asking myself if people who commit suicide have regrets in heaven. I knew at that point I would have no regrets at all.

👉 Share your story: Help thousands of people around the world by sharing your own story. We would love to publish your interview and have a positive impact on the world together. Learn more here.

Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

One day in July of 2017, while my husband was working thirty miles away in Appleton, I decided to walk downtown and explore my new town. The deafening noise of a flyover from EAA Air Adventure, something I had known nothing about before that day, resulted in instantaneous pain from the noise-induced migraine.

The pain was like a red-hot poker relentlessly being stabbed into my forehead. Unable to stand when the shaking made my legs wobbly, I sat in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the post office and sobbed. My brain was so broken that I thought there were Nazi planes overhead, and I was in blitz-ravaged London.

I sat on the summer-hot pavement, and no one stopped or asked me if I was okay. No one called the police. People walked around me as quickly as possible.

When I was all cried out, I walked home to my empty house.

After the wreck, I bought a set of knives, ostensibly for cooking, but that was not the reason. I had thought about pills, and every day I researched how many of each prescription drug I was on would I need to take to die. Using a sharp knife seemed so much easier.

The movers lost, broke, or stole most of what we had carefully decided to ship to Wisconsin to start our new lives. One of the missing boxes held the nearly new knives. My mind raced as I tried to come up with a plan because life truly was not worth living. I remember thinking that people in Oshkosh cared more about their dogs than they did about each other.

That was the moment I knew I did not trust myself to be alone.

My doctor from Hawaii thought an emotional support dog would make a big difference. I told him no. A few months passed, and he brought it up a second time during an appointment. Again I refused.

For over two years, nothing else I had tried had taken away the pain, the anxiety, or the deep, overwhelming sadness; That was the day I decided to adopt a dog. If it didn’t help, at least my canine-loving husband would have a friend when I killed myself.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

It took a few months of convincing myself that a dog would make a difference, but in October of that first year, we went to a rescue shelter to start the process.

After a discussion with us about the kind of dog that might be a good fit, Jim, the owner of the rescue we’d found online, left the room and came back with an underweight fourteen-month-old brown pooch with a long black tail.

He was of indeterminate breed and, for some reason, came directly to me and sat staring as if to say he had made his choice. He had been there for three weeks and not one person had ever asked to see him. I’m not sure why, but there was obviously a connection, and we went home with the dog that saved my life.

I know the dog was a huge part of my healing, but the bigger part was having a purpose. The owner of the rescue where we adopted Coconut knew a lot about dogs and nothing about marketing. I started volunteering as a way to help the shelter rescue more dogs. Volunteering gave me a purpose and a way to use a lifetime of experiences and my passion to help small businesses with my marketing expertise.

During the four years I volunteered at the rescue shelter, I wrote bios, grants, created events, and other tasks that led to the adoption of 6,500 rescue dogs before, during, and after COVID-19.

The other thing that helped with my depression was finding community. I didn’t work at the shelter so I was still spending way too many hours alone which was not healthy. I joined our neighborhood association, the top choral group, a book club, and the Rotary. The Rotary in particular was helpful because I was able to do service projects that allowed me to learn more about my new community.

We bought a house built in 1875. I jokingly say we bought a yard of weeds with the house included for free. Helping to breathe new life into this house has been expensive but so helpful. Everything we do to make this house beautiful and functional mirrors my own personal transformation. We’ve been able to turn our yard into a rain and butterfly garden and other native areas which has forced me to get outside and let nature be a part of my healing.

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

In the beginning, no one knew I was suicidal. Even my husband didn’t know. He knew I had a headache and spent a ton of time going to the doctor, but he never pinned a label on me as depressed.

About a year into my treatment my doctor asked me why I thought he was seeing me so often. I told him it was because I was all jacked up. He agreed, but he also said that it was because I was suicidal and didn’t know it. He said I was also the kind of person who would always show up and so if he booked something for me six days a week he could keep tabs on me.

He saw me for an hour three times weekly. The insurance paid for one thirty-minute appointment. I asked him who paid for the other time and he said he never billed. If I showed up he knew I was alive and that was worth more than any insurance reimbursement. I will always be grateful that my doctor cared so much about me and kept me alive even when I felt life was not worth living.

I didn’t share my struggles with anyone except about my migraines and the sleep deprivation. But never the suicidal thoughts and depression. It wasn’t that it was hard to share, but for a long time, I didn’t know I was anything besides in physical pain.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

Be honest with yourself and others because there will always be someone to help, but it starts with you.

I wish I had read the paperwork I was given after my doctor diagnosed me with the concussion. Maybe I would have followed concussion protocol and suffered less than I did.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

I didn’t use any resources beyond my doctor. It didn’t dawn on me that any of the above would be helpful because I honestly didn’t think there was anything wrong.

What helped me was continuing to sing with the choral ensemble, doing things that made me feel normal in my new abnormal mind. Music and my dog are what helped me to heal.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

I am an author and speaker and I own Wag Away Publishing, an indie press devoted to making a difference by writing inspiring rescue dog stories of love, loyalty, and laughter.

Our message is simple. Rescue Love, Share the Tales. I am the author of 12 books including I Chose You, Imperfectly Perfect Rescue Dogs and Their Humans and When Love Wags a Tail, Inspiring Stories of Love, Loyalty, and Laughter.

You can find me on my personal website and Facebook.

My YouTube channel is not up and running yet, but you can find me soon at Rescue More Dogs @carmenlealwrites

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

Cheat Sheet Download Thumbnail Clean

This Cheat Sheet Will Help You Be Happier and More Productive

Thrive under stress and crush your goals with these 10 unique tips for your mental health.

Want more interviews?

Continue reading our inspiring case studies and learn how to overcome mental health struggles in a positive way!

Want to help others with your story? We would love to publish your interview and have a positive impact on the world together. Learn more here.

Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

Leave a Comment