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Spotting hope

Senior Chris O'Leary battles depression with the help of a Dalmatian named Bree

May 15, 2018

Of the many qualifications required for dog show-level Dalmatians, none are more important than their spots.

Spots must be either a dense black or liver brown. Spots must be round and distinct. Spots must be evenly distributed. Spots must be in the size of a dime to a half dollar. Ears must also be spotted.

Bree was bred to be a show dog. She came from a long line of such canines, and yet she was cursed with a black ear, no spots.

Bree would not be a show dog, but she would find a home with senior Chris O’Leary at a significantly reduced cost due to her “flaw.” As Bree settled into her new home, she seldom left Chris’s side. Always at the door when he got home from school and always nearby wherever he went in the house.

Courtesy of the O’Learys
Chris and Erin before they leave for their first day of school after their move to Plano. Chris had many friends at his old school but would have to start anew.

And so when Chris would sit on his bed, bottle of pills in hand, Bree would be there.

Convincing Chris that maybe tomorrow would be better.

Discovery

Chris first realized he suffered from depression in sixth grade. He attended elementary school in Plano ISD, but when his mother remarried, Chris moved to Frisco ISD and left his friends behind. There, he found himself on the receiving end of bullying and even a number of death threats.

School continued like this for Chris into seventh grade, until a conversation overheard by a teacher sent him to a mental hospital for the first time.

“I made a comment about being suicidal,” Chris said. “The way I said it, it was meant to be light-hearted, but looking back now, there was probably more weight to it than I thought at the time. But me not putting a lot of weight on the comment, I didn’t really take the first time I was in the hospital seriously.”

His parents decided Chris wouldn’t return to Frisco ISD after seventh grade in an effort to remove him from the toxic environment that had a hand in his depression. Chris would live with his father and attend Willow Springs Middle School for eighth grade.

Another benefit of living with his dad was Bree, who was a year old at the time and soon became very attached to Chris. Bree was always there for Chris–not in a clingy manner but rather as a constant presence.

“Whenever I was going through bad days, which, granted, happened often back then, she always being there became a reminder of sorts,” Chris said. “I couldn’t always see my mother or my sister often at a new school, and I could distance myself from my dad in my room, but I could never get away from Bree.

Courtesy of Chris O’Leary
No matter how hard the day was, Chris always had Bree to look forward to when he came home.

“And so on the days where I could convince myself that everyone would be better off without me, I would see Bree nearby, and I would never be able to convince myself that she would be remotely the same if I was gone.”

Fresh Start

Life at a new school wasn’t “necessarily bad” for Chris, but he remained rather closed off and guarded. A foot injury kept him out of football in eighth grade, further eliminating his chance to connect with anyone.

Despite the move away from the bullying at Frisco, the depression remained. Moving delayed the inevitable, if anything, and Chris soon found himself in a downward spiral as freshman year began.

“I came to the point that I realized that I had made two friends in the four years since I had moved from Plano where I had tons of friends, and so everytime I moved I slowly became more guarded,” Chris said. “And so come freshman year, I [wondered] whether I could even make friends anymore or whether I had just become a face in the crowd.”

Chris’ depression reached a boiling point when he had his first concussion from football that caused him to miss a week of school. He found himself severely behind on schoolwork, which only compounded with everything that had been building up inside him for the past five years.

“I asked myself, ‘Am I really benefiting the people around me, or am I just a burden?’” Chris recalled. “‘Am I just in the way?’”

And so he came to a conclusion. He had to speak up on being suicidal to anyone who could help so he wouldn’t have to keep feeling the way he did.

Not only do you have to admit how screwed up you might be–and that’s the blunt way of putting it–you have to accept help. While it may be a hard thing for me and others, it’s necessary.”

— Chris O'Leary

“I was dealing with this on basically a daily basis,” Chris said. “I didn’t know how long I could convince myself that my dog needs me to keep myself going. I needed some sort of professional help because Bree is a good dog, but she can’t prescribe medication.”

Like many who suffer from depression, Chris admits he tried to hide his weaknesses which made seeking help “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

“Not only do you have to admit how screwed up you might be–and that’s the blunt way of putting it–you have to accept help,” Chris said. “While it may be a hard thing for me and others, it’s necessary.”

Getting Help

After finally admitting his depression to his parents, Chris was admitted to a hospital for the second time, staying there without leaving for four days. There, he underwent various types of treatment and therapies, all focused on making him better. Chris said his time in the hospital was eye-opening, as he realized he wasn’t nearly as “OK” as he’d thought he was for the past five years.

Chris was able to call his family on his first day in the hospital. According to his dad, Bree had been looking for Chris all day, and when he was put on speaker, Bree raced through the house in search of him before realizing the voice was coming from the phone, which Bree proceeded to lick profusely.

It does sound weird saying my dog is the big reason why I didn’t kill myself. But I think it speaks to the fact that finding that one little thing is everything. No matter how ‘meaningless’ it may seem to other people, context is everything, and it may be the most important thing to you.”

— Chris O’Leary

“It does sound weird saying my dog is the big reason why I didn’t kill myself,” Chris said. “But I think it speaks to the fact that finding that one little thing is everything. No matter how ‘meaningless’ it may seem to other people, context is everything, and it may be the most important thing to you.”

Erin

Junior Erin O’Leary first found out about her brother’s depression in fifth grade, it wasn’t until he returned from the hospital for the second time when Chris first opened up to her about it. Ever since, Erin said she’s become an expert on picking up on her brother’s signals

“I can pick up on things really well,” Erin said. “I can tell when he goes off his meds, I can tell if he didn’t sleep that night before or only got a few hours, I can tell when he has a nightmare,” Erin said. “He isn’t good at hiding it as much as he thinks he is.”

Erin has also struggled with depression and self- harm, but having a brother who is going through the same challenges every day has been invaluable in keeping them both from falling into a spiral.

Courtesy of Chris O’Leary
Erin with the O’Leary’s newest addition to the family, a Dalmatian named Bear.

“There was a time last year, when I got out of a crappy relationship that shouldn’t have been a relationship to start with, and I went [on a] downward spiral of hating myself and blaming myself for it,” Erin said. “I told Chris I didn’t want to do this anymore, that there were too many things to deal with AP tests and failing three classes. Chris was the one to tell me, ‘Nope, your health is more important than your grades.’”

Erin describes herself and her brother as each other’s “rocks.” They even have a system with each other if life gets too hard for either of them, where they will simply ask the other to go on a drive with them together.

“We go on drives for however long it takes to listen to music really loud or scream and cry and talk about everything going on,” Erin said. “Sometimes gas is expensive, and we’ll just sit in the car and talk about it even.

“I have friends. I have a therapist. I have a psychologist and other head doctors. But I think my brother knows me better than any of them, and so he gives me the best advice.”

Courtesy of Chris O’Leary
Chris posing with seniors Preston Maxwell and Blake Motl (from left to right). Chris originally thought he was a nobody on the team until he realized how many other players cared about him.

Back to school

After a week in the hospital, Chris transitioned to outpatient therapy, where he could stay at home while also attending group therapy and counseling sessions. This continued for three weeks before Chris felt it was time to return to school.

“I kind of went into that first-day thinking, ‘I don’t really have any friends. I doubt anyone noticed I was gone,’” Chris said. “But the very first class I went back to was Ms. Todd’s, and instantly Blake Motl was the first one to ask how I was doing and tell me that everyone had been wondering what happened to me.”

The biggest concern for Chris upon returning to school was not letting the truth about where he had been discovered, but things changed when he found that so many people cared about him. He soon found himself opening up about his depression to others.

“He gathered all of us together at lunch one day and told us the truth,” senior Blake Motl said. “He said he was having suicidal thoughts and told us he was at the hospital, which was shocking for all of us and made us see him from a different viewpoint. Chris has grown into accepting that his past wasn’t great, but he’s grown so much as a person and gotten closer to everyone through it.”

Looking Forward

Things aren’t perfect for Chris now. He occasionally relapses with depression and suicidal thoughts, but life is better. Chris’ support system, comprised of family, friends, therapists, and of course Bree, helps him to cope with the illness he may never truly be cured of.

“For the most part, things are good, and the fact that I can say that is a surprise in [and] of itself,” Chris said. “It definitely shows that while it was a grind, there is an end to it. Or at least that’s the hope.”

Through his now eight-year fight with depression, Chris said he learned that he doesn’t have to battle his struggles by himself, nor does anyone else who struggles with mental illness.

“You realize that everyone’s problems are relative and not necessarily better or worse than other people’s,” Chris said. “You realize that there are people who are struggling as well and people that can help pull you out of the deep end.

“You realize that you are not alone.”

Editor’s Note: Those who suffer from depression and/or thoughts of suicide can reach out to a friend, trusted adult, counselor, or can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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