Cleaning Dog Kennels is Keeping Me Alive

AJ Tanksley
Human Parts
Published in
3 min readOct 27, 2023

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How volunteering at an animal shelter gave me a will to live after a stay in the psych ward

Photo by Madeline Bowen on Unsplash

TW: suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, painfully-cute doggies

The last time I took a crack at the game of “be steadily employed for longer than six months” was May 2023. After day one, I ended up in the ER for trying to hang myself. It was my third — maybe fourth? — attempt on my life since college, and my second time being hospitalized for mental health reasons. Thankfully, the food at the treatment center was much better second time around; we had Taco Tuesdays now!

Post-discharge, I was immediately launched into an impromptu caretaking position for my grandmother, who’d had her own stay in the hospital for yet another organ not working as planned. I had one day to tie things up and formally resign from my newly-started position before beginning my caretaking gig.

Being surrounded by reminders of how the body craps out on us as we age is great when you’re recovering yourself from wanting to die. It really, really improved my will to live. Either way, I wasn’t going to do anything stupid while at Grandma’s lest I stress her frail, aging heart all the more. I lasted about a week before I eventually threw in the towel; it was very difficult to be self-sacrificing and patient when running on fumes and thoughts of death.

No longer taking care of my grandma, and giving up on trying to be a successful adult, I returned a month later to what I knew best: scrubbing dog kennels.

I’d initially started volunteering at my local animal shelter after leaving a different job in 2022. Besides being obsessed with dogs, I realized after several months of unemployment that I still very, very much wanted to die, and that never leaving the house was not improving my will to live. So I got onboarded as a volunteer, and over the course of 2023 became very, very good at spraying hair and shit off of walls.

After my attempt in May, the dog shelter once again became more than just a way to get myself out of the house. It became part of my recovery plan, as keeping myself busy kept thoughts of suicidal ideation at bay.

Volunteering gives me a great deal of freedom and flexibility, and removes a lot of the pressure that holding down a job creates for a mentally-ill autistic person like myself. Not only can I choose which days I work, but the visual, tangible reward of seeing a clean kennel beats sitting at a desk in misery.

Most importantly, I feel safer being bad at things when volunteering than I ever had working a traditional job. When my ability to make a steady, reliable wage is entirely dependent on my ability to be good at something, my performance suffers. The low stakes, flexibility, and tangibly-visible results of volunteering offer a reward not based on performance or being “good at things.” I find it much easier to enjoy my labor and learn from my mistakes when money isn’t on the line. The dogs being incredibly cute doesn’t hurt matters, either.

So, has working at an animal shelter cured me of my depression? Absolutely not. I don’t believe in “cure/overcome” language, and curing/overcoming my depression is not my main goal in recovering from suicidal ideation.

But is it keeping me alive? Some days, it’s the only thing that is. And on good days, it’s a really good excuse to say hi to some dogs. But is there ever a bad reason to do that?

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AJ Tanksley
Human Parts

A lifelong learner and poet, AJ (they/she/he) writes about the intersection of neurodiversity, mental health, spirituality, and identity.