It’s Not What it Looks Like

I had always been what my parents described as “a nervous kid.” I would bite the skin off my fingers, pick at my face, scratch my legs incessantly and worry about every thing… an 8 year old child. I was always a high achiever: top of my class, the “straight A” student, Ivy League bound and driven to always keep climbing higher.

I had such a bright future ahead of me and everything was perfect, right?

In hindsight, I had been dealing with something more serious for much longer than I realized. In middle school, I would find myself starting to sweat profusely for no reason. I would see the world start spinning and my heart would race out of my chest until I would make my way to the bathroom and lay down on the cold floor. I always attributed these episodes to not drinking enough water or being tired.

My mom would tell me to go for a run, or to take a walk for fresh air.

So I did, and sometimes it helped.

In high school, I had my first terrifying panic attack, but once more I just attributed it to being tired. I was standing in a crowded New York City Subway car when my heart started pounding and a feeling of doom washed over me. My vision started blotching out like when you press your fingers against your eyeballs as hard as you can and then release them after 20 seconds. I turned to the the person sitting in front of me and blurted *I need to sit, I’m going to faint.* I must have seemed pitiful because I’ve never seen a New Yorker give up a coveted seat during rush hour. I blacked out momentarily but was still conscious. I could hear everything, but see nothing. Like in movies when the camera pans into the protagonist and the sounds around her get louder and louder until she snaps out of her daydream. At the next stop, I got onto my hands and knees and crawled out of the car onto a bench at the station. I was certain this was how someone feels right before they die – helpless, dark, terrified, and alone. Little did I know that this feeling would happen over and over.

And probably will for the rest of my life.

It wasn’t until I was older that I began to put together the pieces of what was going on inside my mind. At the time, I had trouble finding access to the help I needed so I tried to cope by listening to calming music, reading self help books, and taking deep breaths. For some people this helps, but it didn’t work for me.

When I got to college, life began to unravel. It always started the same way: with sweat, nausea, and a pounding heart.

I would be sitting in class and suddenly my face would start to drip. My heart would drop into my stomach and start beating so hard that I could hear it in my ears. Every single time, I thought to myself that this is what a heart attack must feel like.

I must be dying…..But I wasn’t. What the heck.

I would run out of class and into a bathroom stall where I would subsequently get physically ill. I would call my mom; I would call my boyfriend. And they would come pick me up. Sometimes, I would get stranded all the way across town because I was scared of walking outside and having an episode. Some days I would have trouble getting out of bed – other times I would stay up for days at a time. I was constantly angry at my body for deceiving me in such an awful way.

The episodes would happen suddenly, and randomly until I began dreading leaving my room all together. I would have someone escort me wherever I went. I was scared that one day my episode would be so bad that I would collapse and die. My heart would think it was actually exploding and that would be it. I would wake up in the middle of the night in sweat and vomit out of panic – one night, the campus EMTs had to be called at 3am. I was really dying this time! Nope. I wasn’t.

When I was 19, I was diagnosed with severe panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Turns out, all these were being fueled by an underlying and more stigmatized disorder categorized by cycles of intense highs and lows.

Back then, I felt so relieved that I finally understood what was going on inside my body. This is great! If we know what’s wrong, we can treat it? Right!? Once again, I was wrong. The brain is a complex system and it takes trial and error to target the right neurotransmitters with treatment. It took years to stabilize my life but since identifying the issue, I have been able to better manage my episodes and deal with the highs and lows in more strategic ways. At first, I felt ashamed that the only thing that could keep me afloat was a cocktail of medication that would mitigate but not eliminate symptoms.

Over time, I slowly began to regain my independence, but I knew the journey was far from over.

I recently had an episode which has prompted to put this all in writing. For the longest time, I had avoided getting my driver’s license for fear that I would have a panic attack while on the road. When I finally got that license, my fear became a reality. As I was driving the dog to training I felt the episode coming on while I was cruising down the freeway. This had never happened in a car before – there was nowhere for me to stop and deal with my symptoms. I was boxed in during rush hour and the panic started to swirl in my stomach. My breathing became labored and Samson got up from his napping spot to look at me with his soft eyes. He rested his head on my lap and I placed a hand on his silky ears. I pulled over and Samson placed himself on my chest just as he has been trained to do and we laid there until I recovered. Then, we went on with our day as if nothing had happened. This never happened again, but life is unpredictable.

The concept of an invisible illness became even clearer to me when I had two hip surgeries…

Suddenly, everyone was coming to my aid. Everyone felt bad for me when I couldn’t partake in activities during recovery. There was something physically wrong with my body that led to two major surgeries and crutches…must be super serious, right? The truth is, I would take hip surgery 50 times over to be cured from the imbalance of chemicals in my brain. To this day, even though my hips lock in place or click when I walk, it is the invisible illness that consumes me so much more. Not a day goes by that my mental health isn’t top of mind – It must always be a priority and I need to be very aware of my limitations. With the help of a wonderful support system, I’ve learned to successfully manage my life.

Unfortunately, society still recognizes the “visible” ailments as so much more serious than the “invisible” ones in our most critical organ: The Brain. The neurotransmitters in our brain control every aspect of how we perceive the world and just like any other part of our body, they don’t always work how they should. The pathways in our brain are complex and just as prone to illness as other parts of our body.

I no longer let my panic attacks consume my days. I get out of bed. I can walk outside by myself. My lows aren’t as low and the highs aren’t as high. I feel so grateful to have been able to obtain the phenomenal medical care I receive every single day. I try not to let my diagnoses take over who I am – I do not mention them much on social media or talk about them often. I do not try to focus on the cocktail of medications that keep me functioning. I do not often share that my dogs are highly trained in behavior interruption, panic response, and have given me my life back in more ways than one. I rarely open up about this journey because I do not want society to make assumptions about me. My illness is a part of me, but it does not define me. Yet, I am often reminded that clinical samples estimate ~50% of individuals with my disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their lives. I am constantly reminded by the media what people believe bipolar disorders should “look” like. But bipolar disorder does not “look” a certain way at all – 1 in 100 people in the United States are affected by bipolar disorder and even within that 1%, the illness can present itself in a multitude of ways.

Historically, the media has played such a large role in perpetuating myths surrounding mental health and disability. These myths just reinforce the way society views mental illness.

All too often, mental health diagnoses are used as adjectives for a temporary state – but really these descriptions do nothing but propel stereotypes.  Bipolar isn’t “moodiness,” OCD isn’t just “attention to detail,” Schizophrenia isn’t an adjective for “crazy.” Stereotypes of violence fail to consider that people with mental illness are two and a half times more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, not the other way around. People living with mental illness are just as capable of holding down stable jobs, having families, and living a normal life.

Mental illness does not “look” a certain way and it does not discriminate. It recently occurred to me….that perhaps opening up to how “normal” my life appears is just one (of many) ways to shed light on how misunderstood mental illness really is.

I get out of bed, go to work, come home and live my life just like most people. I have a house, I have a wonderful husband and my life is pretty normal – most people don’t ever see that there is anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes I speak a little too fast, seem a little over caffeinated, or lay low for a while but overall there is little indication that anything could be wrong. It is important to remember that visibility is not what defines illness. Over time, I have met so many people who have shared similar experiences and I no longer feel as alone as I used to. I have learned to live a successful and well managed life but this wasn’t always the case. For those struggling, I want you to know that things can get better but first you need to ask for help.

Illness may be a part of you, but it does not have to define you.

Meet Calvin

Meet Calvin…

Our crazy Yellow Labrador who wants nothing more than to make us happy. In typical lab fashion, Calvin is full of energy and loves to please. Calvin is the life of the party, he gets his energy from those around him and can get really out of control if he isn’t reminded to settle down. If you want to party, Calvin is your guy. If he were a human, this social butterfly would be the most epic wingman. He loves mommy but is also able to go out and flourish independently at the park or beach. He’s the kind of dog who gets along with everyone and every dog – no fighting, no breaking points, no impatience. We have yet to see Calvin snap at anything. He takes every new situation in stride with a smile and a thumping tail wag.

Birthday: January 17, 2017

Nicknames: Calvie, Calvyman, Calvertron, Crazy Cal, Calverino, Cal, Bad Man, Good Man, Cal Pal

Favorite Food: Everything but greens.

Least Favorite Food: See above.

Strangest fear: Lemons & Oranges. Coffee Mugs. Does not like vacuums but tolerates them.

Favorite Trick: Retrieves a tissue when someone sneezes.

Strengths: Swimming, tugging, off leash walking, traveling, snuggling.

Quirks: Runs away from his own poop, sleeps under the covers as the little spoon, loves human beards…a lot

Play Style: chase, wrestle, tug, repeat.

Favorite Place: Grandma’s house (both grandmas). He starts wailing as soon as he realizes we are almost there.

Biggest challenges: Calvin is a high energy boy.  He does everything with 150% effort and the mania of a lab. The biggest challenge was teaching him how to harness his energy to purposeful commands and focus.

Biggest surprises: Calvin goes from Crazy Boy to Good Boy with the drop of a hat given his situation. Calvin also requires direction and commands.  He looks to me to get his next command and will get into trouble if he is not told what he should be doing.

Occupation: CGC, CGCU, CGCA, TKA, PAT, AAT. Calvin is no longer a working service dog but in his free time, he volunteers at hospitals and nursing homes to provide comfort to patients as part of an Animal Assisted Therapy Program.

Meet the Humans

Lea “Karen”: Native New Yorker turned California Lifer.

Eric: Harvard nerd turned dog dad.

Welcome to a glimpse into our lives as a young married couple just trying to navigate this crazy thing called life. I grew up in New York City and lived within a 5 block radius of my childhood home for 23 years of my life. Grew up next to Columbia University, went there for college and vowed to never leave the Big Apple. Jokes on me, because *love* makes us do crazy things. Enter Eric: nerdy finance guy from Fresno, California. When Eric got a great gig in San Francisco which would offer both of us a better lifestyle (not spending 16 hours of everyday in the office), we packed our bags and left. Life in California was SO much better – we finally had free time, unlimited outdoors adventures, and no more freezing winters.

The dog conversation began.

Eric was not a dog lover, but as mentioned earlier….*love* makes us do crazy things. A very wise human once said “happy wife, happy life” and thus Calvin joined our family. Eric became a dog loving convert and our life got a lot more exciting.

The dog pushed us to go outside.
The dog made us travel more.
The dog helped us through trying medical times.
The dog helped make me happier.
The dog made us laugh.

So, logically? We got a second dog

We still spend our weekends traveling, we still go outside a lot, and the dogs still come to work with me. We bought a house in San Francisco, and things are going very well so its safe to say we will be here for a while. For now, we are enjoying our family of four and continuing to live life to the fullest. Who knows where life will go from here but we are excited to see where it takes us.

Photos: The Look by Devon & Brooke





Meet Samson

Meet Samson…

Our mellow & gentle cream Golden Retriever who is just looking for a place to rest his sleepy head. Samson and Calvin couldn’t be more different but we have loved the diversity they bring to our house Samson is the kind of dog who just wants to calmly sit by your side through all of life’s ups and downs.  He is the kind of dog who will follow you around everywhere and will even rest his head on your knees while you use the bathroom. He leans in for hugs and presses his head into your chest while waiting for ear scratches. Samson is a momma’s boy through and through: at the park, at the beach, on the street, at home….there is no where he wants to be but right at my feet. Don’t let his gentleness fool you, this dog is confident and SASSY.  He won’t take no shyt from anyone and will quickly remove himself from a situation that he no longer wants to be a part of. Don’t mess with Sammy because he will *gently* tell you when he’s had enough.

Birthday: January 7, 2019.

Nicknames: Sam, Sammy Boy, Sammy Man, Sambino, Sambie, Shambles, Sambly, Shammy, Lazy Man, THE Good Man.

Favorite Food: Everything. Including tennis ball fluff & kale.

Least Favorite Food: See above.

Fears: Nothing. He fearless….actually his biggest fear is Mommy going away and not coming back.

Favorite Trick: Falling asleep. Stay…he’s not moving anywhere.

Quirks: Sock hoarder. Samson likes to find a sock, and proudly present it. After he approaches and is sure that you have seen his treasure, he walks away and brings it to his bed.

Favorite Place: Mom’s lap. Anywhere Mom is.

Biggest surprises: Samson was the easiest puppy. He didn’t chew, nibble, bark, mouth, teeth, or do anything wrong. He was quickly potty trained. We never thought puppy raising could be so easy. Samson makes us want to do it 10 times over.

Occupation: Photo model. Star puppy. Poster child for good boys. Task Trained Service Dog. In his free time, Samson volunteers at healthcare facilities as a therapy dog.






Paris Photoshoot With Our Dog

Three years ago, Eric proposed in Paris on a beautiful bridge overlooking the Eiffel Tower. This year, we went back to Paris with Calvin and had a wonderful photoshoot with Céline Chan. The photos turned out amazing! Here’s a little backstory….

We met Céline at the Trocadero overlooking the Eiffel Tower around 7am to get photos before the crowds. We barely got any sleep the night before, and didn’t have any coffee in our system…It was rough. On top of all that, Calvin was NOT having it that morning. He did not want to listen, he did not want his photo taken, and he was being very difficult. Luckily Calvin eventually woke up and became a good sport. We posed for some photos on the Trocadero and began having fun. Somehow, Céline was able to make it seem like everything was fine and dandy.

The Parisian monuments have an additional sense of magic in the early morning. The air is fresh before millions of tourists start swarming the streets and there is a peaceful feeling of quiet. We made it a priority to head out early each day to experience the feeling of tranquility.

After our shots near the Eiffel Tower, we made our way to Pont Bir Hakeim where Eric proposed. When we arrived, we saw a sweet proposal which brought back memories from our special day. Just like the day we got engaged, the girl was dressed up and looking as if something amazing was about to happen at 8am on a Saturday morning. I chuckled, remembering that I did the exact same thing on our engagement morning. I had worn a white dress and actually did my hair for once – the decision to get married is a big one, so hopefully it’s never truly a surprise when he pops the question.

I remember that Eric had told me we were going out to a fancy dinner so he wanted me to dress nicely (I immediately knew what that was code for but I played along). In case you are wondering, the dinner was overpriced and way too fancy for us. One of the courses was jello infused with vinegar (what?) and I was definitely hungry when we left. We agreed to never do that again but it was still a magical day.

Anyways, it was so nice to go back to the place where we made such a big commitment to each other 3 years ago. We will cherish this album as a wonderful memory of the trip we took to Paris with Calvin.  Hopefully there will be many more to come.

All Photos by Céline Chan Photographie

New Puppy Photoshoot

When we found out we were getting a new puppy, we immediately booked a photoshoot with Devon & Brooke to capture our family in puppy bliss. Samson was 10 weeks old when we took these family photos – He was the star of the show, but truthfully just wanted to sleep.  Calvin was his typical energetic self and decided halfway through the shoot that he would rather run through the park. Since we are generally behind the camera, we make sure to get professional family photos taken of all four of us a few times per year. Our photographers were so great to work with – they were patient and made us feel at ease the entire time. Check them out! Here were some of our favorite shots from our family photoshoot.

Samson was so cute and fluffy that we couldn’t stop ourselves from hugging him so tightly. Those puppy days only last a few weeks and we wanted to cherish every single moment. Samson has always loved being held so he happily obliged, although his face seems to show otherwise.

Enter Calvin; he was ready to party and definitely did not want to sit still for a photoshoot.  The best way to describe our shoot is the photo of Calvin sprinting towards the photographers – he loved them and didn’t want to leave them alone.

Even though Samson had only been part of our family for a week, we were already so in love with him.  He fit into our family immediately, and he and Calvin were best friends from day one (despite what the videos on social media show).  Over time, their relationship has continued to grow and I am sure Calvin doesn’t even remember a life without his little brother. What I find so wonderful about their companionship is that they manage to be best friends even despite their differences.  Anyone who has met these dogs know they couldn’t be more different – yet somehow, the miracle of friendship works its magic.

We will hold onto these photos for a long time as a memory of our first few weeks as a family of four. Even though we wish that Samson could have stayed so small and fluffy forever, we are grateful that he has grown and learned to become a confident….and potty trained….dog.

Engagement Photoshoot

Although Calvin did not get to be part of our wedding day, he got to be the star of the show for our engagement photos with Scott & Dana. They were our wedding photographers and also happen to share a wedding anniversary with us.

As with many things in life, this shoot did not go as planned.  The first time we attempted to shoot, we accidentally drove to the wrong location.  We ended up lost in the woods with no service and little gas in the tank. When we finally made it, the sun was already setting but Scott & Dana were gracious enough to let us try it again a few weeks later.

Turns out, Calvin was terrified of the balloons so he spent the car ride horrified that one was going to pop.  We must have been quite a sight to behold walking out of our little car full of balloons. The balloons were worth the trouble because they ended up looking so magical in our photos.

The tree shot below has become one of our favorites photos.  We have it hanging as a canvas above our fireplace. I love shots taken during the golden hour and so this photoshoot was full of gems. These shots were taken in Napa, California.

Throughout the shoot, our Scott & Dana would ask us to whisper things into each other’s ears or say something that would make the other laugh.  I don’t even remember what we said to each other but we thought we were soooo funny. To this day, we never cease to make each other laugh.

Calvin looks so young in these photos – he was only 6 months old and still very much a puppy. Calvin grew until he was about 1.5 years old so he was not even close to full grown in these shots. We always wish we had more professional family photos of Calvin with us during his first year, so we will cherish these for a long time.

All photos by Scott & Dana