Andrea Scott walks Downtown – or any place – with an aura of confidence and self-assurance. By her side trots a slim Australian shepherd, whose eyes take in everything: people and places, to be sure, but also the invisible undercurrents of emotion, particularly of the woman who holds her leash.
Andrea says: “I named her Sage not only as a reflection on the sagebrush we have in Idaho, which I think is really beautiful, but also sage as ‘wisdom.’”
Everywhere they go, they go as a pair. To the movies, to market, to restaurants; shopping and elevators and airplanes. Sage wears a royal blue vest, letting other people – who are naturally drawn to her – know that she’s busy working.
Sage is a service dog. She has specific tasks that she does for Andrea when situations become overwhelming – ways of bringing Andrea to the present, of warding off panic, of guiding Andrea away from crowded, tense, anxiety-producing situations.
“Oftentimes people who need a service dog, they don’t have a visible, physical disability. A lot of people don’t, and I think that’s where people look at me (oddly): I’m not in a wheelchair; I’m not blind. People kind of wonder, ‘Why does she have a service dog?’”
The answer is: So Andrea can leave the house.
“(And) to interact more socially. That’s going to be odd for some people who read this article, because I was always at the very forefront of sociability. But they also didn’t see the dark days when I wouldn’t leave my house. ... (when) you find little interest in things you used to enjoy. ...
“(Sage) makes me feel ... comfortable and safe.”
• • •
Six years ago, Andrea was bursting with energy, tackling a project near and dear to her heart. Night and day, she photographed, interviewed and wrote about Idaho buckaroos. Think horsehair lariats and tooled saddles, braided leather whips and ornate bridles – cowboy artists whose way of life was disappearing along with their livelihoods.
“I was so wanting the world to know about the disappearance of the buckaroos. And that’s not a bad thing – I did a lot of good work.”
Working at a feverish pitch, Andrea wrote articles, showed her photos in galleries – and won awards for her work. The exuberance, however, came at a cost: She seldom slept, she lost weight, she lost friends; she was so focused on the project that she couldn’t keep a job; her finances suffered. Nothing mattered but her work.
“The thing that’s kind of interesting is that if you look at my body of work, almost every award I won, I was totally manic. ... ”
Idaho Statesman columnist Tim Woodward wrote about Andrea’s buckaroo project just before he retired.
“Here’s a good example. ... I was talking to Tim; we’d been quiet for a few minutes. I said, ‘Well, I guess back to reality. I better get a job.’ And he looked at me and he said, this is your job.
“For a normal person, they would eat, sleep and maintain a job. But when you’re manic, it’s like you’re almost on a mission from God and you’re going to go out and do all this stuff. You see the difference?”
Andrea has bipolar disorder. It’s a mental health condition that affects people in different ways, but it’s marked by extremes of highs and lows – a neurochemical imbalance in the brain.
“It can be a gift.”
And can be equally as devastating.
“Severe depression is crippling. It can last a lifetime, or it can last months or years. So yeah, I kind of went to the dark abyss.”
The energy fizzled. The time between jobs became longer and she couldn’t maintain them when she had them. She became financially unstable and couldn’t make her mortgage payments.
The deepest darkness came when she had to sell her farm, 10 acres in Greenleaf that she bought in 1997, where she raised sheep and herding dogs for competition.
“I loved that farm more than anything in the world. ...
“One of my brothers came over to help me move; I was just sitting on the couch. I wasn’t moving, they were kind of looking around like, you didn't get packed? And I’m just sitting there.”
While she never acted on it, the thought of suicide had begun to sound like a good option.
“It was a horrible thing. ... It just devastated me and wiped me out. And I realized something: I needed help.”
• • •
In her 20s, Andrea was misdiagnosed with depression.
“That’s very common with bipolar. You only go to a doctor when you’re depressed. You never go when you’re manic, because you’re having too much fun.”
Medication for depression commonly backfires in people with bipolar, so it wasn’t until she was in her 40s that Andrea was correctly diagnosed. And even at that, she wasn’t convinced. Much of Andrea’s hesitation had to do with drugs that could squelch the intense creativity that came with her mania.
Finally, about three years ago, she began taking her mental health very seriously.
“This is pretty hard to reveal – but if this helps anybody in any way, it would be great. Having problems multitasking, being dependable at work – it was just getting worse. With bipolar disorder, it’s progressive. So that’s maybe why I was able to maintain when I was younger. And as I got older, it was more difficult. And I had that farm that I loved forever and ever. ... ”
She found a good psychiatrist and a good therapist – both are critical – and got on medications that worked for her. It’s a process.
“I always say (treatment) is a full-time job.”
“I have the best psychiatrist. They try to keep you in the middle; they try to keep you balanced. A lot of the doctors I’ve gone to (in the past) haven’t done a good job, and she promised me. She said, ‘I will get you to a place where you still have your creativity – but it will be under control.’
Andrea is learning, and now she’s determined.
“Staying the course. There is no other option. I’m not going to think I can go off medication. Bipolar disorder is fairly progressive and I don’t ever want to be where I was before, so depressed or so manic that my life is out of control.”
• • •
Two things help keep her on course. The first is Sage. Andrea got her in November; she’s 3 years old.
“I think people gravitate toward animals. ... They love you unconditionally. If you have a bad day, the dog doesn’t say, oh, get away from me. Plus, you have the responsibility of walking the dog. If you’re in a depressive state, it helps you get off the couch.”
For some, that’s too much responsibility, but for Andrea, it was exactly what she needed. She always trained her own herding dogs, so she works with a professional trainer to fine-tune Sage’s responsibilities.
“She actually works on the farm – she herds sheep. But her main job is me.”
The second part of Andrea’s mental health healing is working with the Boise chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). She’s on the board and, in a program called In Our Own Voice, Andrea goes out in a team of two to speak to schools, law enforcement groups, health care providers.
“Education is really, really huge and that’s the cool thing that NAMI has allowed me to do.
“The presentations are (under the auspices of) NAMI – but Sage goes with me and she’s a great icebreaker. A lot of times, when I go places, people don’t want to ask you the big questions about your mental condition. But they’ll see her and say, ‘Wow, what kind of dog is that? Where did you get her? What’s her name?’ Things like that.
“Then they feel more comfortable and it opens up the conversation to talk about mental health. So she is what I would call the ambassador.”
• • •
And so, these days, Andrea is content.
“I live near Eagle; I raise sheep and have horses (again). Life’s good. I never thought, when I hit those dark days, that my life would ever be the same again. ... It was not pretty. I really did not think I could get through it. ...
“Doing the NAMI work gives me a sense of purpose. ... I feel like what I do improves other people’s lives and it creates understanding. I actually feel like I have a reason to be around.”
She likes dispelling myths and language.
“You’re in a conversation and somebody’s trying to describe somebody who is difficult, they’ll go, ‘Oh, she’s bipolar.’ Or say, ‘They must be off their meds.’ You know what I mean? … (Or) ‘She lost a boyfriend – she’s depressed.’ ‘They didn’t get an A (in school) – they’re depressed.’ Severe depression is crippling. ...”
She likes challenging stigma and stereotypes.
“Mental conditions are invisible, usually. I’ll go somewhere and hang out; the kids will talk to me, or law enforcement personnel; and then (I) go into the room (to speak) – and you stand up and you are ‘that person.’
“A lot of times there’s this quiet. They realize that they couldn’t identify you – you don’t look different than anybody else. It’s like, gee, I thought I could pick people out (who had mental health issues).”
And also – Andrea loves talking about service dogs.
“I have to make it clear, there are some people with service dogs who don’t want to be approached. But I see as it an opportunity to educate. So then I talk about the importance of mental health and what (Sage) does for me. ...
“I’ll say she’s working. Then I’ll explain. I’ll say, actually she’s for PTSD and bipolar disorder. And then they’ll say, ‘Oh, what does she do?’ I’ll tell them some of the different things she does and they’ll go, ‘Oh, wow, that’s interesting.’”
Andrea’s familiar artistic bent is also stirring up an idea – portraits of people and their service dogs. More education. More outreach. But this time, under control.
“(The contrast between then and now) — wow. It’s kind of unbelievable.”
UNDERSTANDING MENTAL HEALTH
By way of explanation, Andrea Scott compares bipolar disorder with diabetes.
“(In a person with diabetes), their body is having a chemical issue producing the right kind of things, so they need insulin. Well, it’s no different for people with mental health conditions: The brain is not firing like it should be, so you have to balance it out with medication.”
And by telling her story, Andrea hopes that perhaps someone will be able to reach out for support. Here are some insights she offers:
— You can’t tell by looking if someone has a mental health condition.
— Mental health disorders come in varying degrees. It’s very complicated, and treatment is like a full-time job.
— There will be ups and downs; it’s a long-term process.
— Compassion is huge.
— Find a good psychiatrist and therapist — both. A general practitioner knows how to treat depression but might not recognize bipolar. Be persistent and find the right doctors.
— Take your medication.
— Work out.
— Organize your life to keep stress to a minimum
— Do things you love.
Andrea Scott: “A vest does not make a service dog. Unfortunately, a lot of people buy them online and slap them on their dog because they want to take them places. … But you can fairly easily spot a dog that’s not a service dog. Service dogs have to be under extreme control. When I go to a restaurant, (Sage) crawls under the table; you don’t even know I have a service dog.
“I’ve seen people with a dog with a vest, and they’ve obviously convinced the restaurant owner it’s a service dog. I see them with the dog in a chair. That’s not a service dog.
“We have a real strict set of obedience behaviors that we abide by, and we work through programs like Canine Good Citizen and the Public Access test. ...
“(Recently), we did this practice where you put your dog at one end of the building. First, you take them to a chair that sits in the middle. You make a big deal of unwrapping the string cheese (a reward) and putting it there with the dog (watching you). You put the dog on the far side of the building; you go to the other side, and you call the dog to you.
“(Sage) went right straight down the building, right to me. There are other dogs who would go ‘Hey, cheese,’ and kind of take a detour. So there’s a lot to training service dogs. It’s not something you (take lightly).”
HELPING SOMEONE WITH DEPRESSION
Andrea Scott: “I have lost some friends. You know, I don’t blame them because probably when I lost them was when I was at my most difficult. ... Which is still devastating to me, but the flip side of that is I found out how deep some of my friendships ran. And also I made new friendships with people that are a lot richer, if that makes sense. ...
“I (read about) a woman who just lost her husband. Everybody on Facebook is going, ‘Oh, just call me, I’ll be there for you.’ When you’re depressed, you can't pick up the phone and call people. If people really care, they’re more likely to say, ‘We’re going to the Flicks tonight and I’ll pick you up at 7.’
“It takes a bit more work.”