I recently read a piece in the Washington Post regarding some guy whose “therapy animal” is…. an alligator.
As an expert in therapy, I know there are a lot of different types. Still, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that cohabiting with a mini-dinosaur is therapeutic. Dogs, cats, even rodents make a bit more sense. A cute warm furry companion, while it won’t provide any insights into why a person is anxious to begin with, can at least serve as a living tranquilizer. But a reptile? If people resemble their dogs and tend to choose one with a similar temperament to themselves, what does that say about the owner of a pet alligator?
It seems to me that whatever may be the short term benefits of this “therapy,” the ultimate beneficiary of the relationship, once it grows big enough to swallow its owner, will likely be the alligator.
Before those readers who may have some kind of disability and those who advocate for them get their knickers in a twist, let me make it clear I understand animals do a lot of good for some people with emotional problems. That not withstanding, there is a time and a place for everything.
In a rare instance of commonsense the government recently decreed airlines are no longer required to allow emotional support animals other than dogs in the cabin. Given the menagerie of beasts people had been permitted to take on airplanes, it would only have been a matter of time until somebody demanded a seat for their alligator therapist. How many of you would enjoy having a five foot long alligator (or any other animal for that matter) occupying the seat next to you? You don’t mind dogs you say? Well, then you are obviously not allergic to them. It’s fascinating that airplanes banned peanuts, but if you are allergic to dogs, tough nuggies.
Having known some entirely healthy people who had their pets designated therapy animals and fitted them out with a smart red vest just to get them into the airplane’s cabin, I’ve been skeptical of this whole business from the beginning. Because HIPPA laws forbid the airline to request the nature of the disability or to obtain proof, anyone could claim to be mentally disabled no questions asked. It’s a scammer’s dream.
Organizations that promote the rights of the disabled are, of course, up in arms. They warn that restricting the variety of flora and fauna will hurt airline business. Given the fact that, despite having done all in their power to render flying sheer misery airlines are busier than ever, this argument clearly does not hold water.
In a more rational age, animals other than seeing eye dogs were forbidden in airplane cabins and in other venues that should be animal-free. The flying zoos airplanes became for a time is a sure sign of the evolution, or more appropriately, devolution, of the state of our nation’s mental health. Not to mention our abandonment of common consideration. Those who originally promulgated the therapy animal scam are still arguing that they “need” the animals in order to tolerate the anxiety they get from flying. I don’t dispute the fact these people clearly need help, especially those who embrace alligators, but I’d strongly recommend they seek it from a qualified human.
When you see people suddenly “needing” something that up until recently just about everyone agreed was unnecessary, you have to wonder why this has become the case. Back in the old days if a person got freaked out by flying, you gave them a prescription for Xanax and they popped one prior to takeoff. Xanax does not bark, bite, defecate, urinate, slobber, slither or stink and does not make you sneeze. It works fine for most fearful flyers. Call me hard-hearted, but I contend that if people are so attached to their pets they can’t bear to leave them in someone else’s care for a few days, maybe they’re better off staying home.
A good percentage of my patients were the kind of people who likely make up the growing number of those who feel unable to function without the reassuring presence of some animal or another. That was because I treated people who were on the more serious end of the spectrum of mental disorders. Many of them suffered from borderline personality disorder. Borderlines were dreaded by most of my peers, but I found working with them an interesting challenge.
Psychotherapeutic treatment of borderlines is difficult. The keys to success in the treatment of borderlines, as in all endeavors, are self-discipline, perseverance, adaptability, the capacity for delay of gratification and the ability to establish clear boundaries, to tolerate discomfort and to weather inevitable setbacks. As these are the very qualities I try to live by and the ones that borderlines lack, they and I were a therapy match made in heaven (though all too often it felt as though the match had been made elsewhere.) I’ll spare you a detailed lesson on borderline personality disorder, but you may want to go to this site for a succinct clinical description: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/borderline-personality- disorder/symptoms-causescauses/syc-20370237
In a nutshell, borderlines are essentially toddlers occupying adult bodies. They want what they want when they want it, damn the consequences to anyone else. Commonly these people have extreme fear of abandonment and are terrified of being alone. Like toddlers, they live entirely in the present. Whatever is going on at any given moment feels to them like it has always been and will always be so. This underlies their rapid shifts in mood and angry outbursts. Every one of their constantly changing emotions toward and assessments of others feels like it is the only one they ever had or will ever have. When working with such a person, one moment you are the greatest therapist and human being in the world and the next, you are Satan incarnate.
If all this brings to mind a certain former president, your diagnosis is only partially correct. The narcissistic and borderline aspects of that gentleman are actually sub-components of an overarching sociopathic (criminal) personality disorder. In his case given no psychiatrist in their right mind (which narrows down the field considerably) would ever take him on as a patient, and his personality is clearly alligator-like, a therapy alligator might well fill the bill. (A bill he would not pay, of course.) I don’t know how effective the alligator therapy would be for him, but if it were a very big, very hungry alligator, it would certainly be a source of comfort to many of us.
At the toddler stage, in which borderlines are fixated, children have not yet developed the capacity to sustain a mental image of a missing parent (technically termed “object constancy”) and to realize they have not disappeared forever but will be coming back. They experience panic and rage when the parent goes out. To survive the trauma of abandonment in the absence of object constancy the poor little tyke makes use of what is called a “transitional object.” That’s a fancy name for a teddy bear or a “binkie” blanket, a comforting emotional bridge between the child and the missing parent. In a sense a therapy animal is simply a living teddy bear for grown up toddlers.
Since borderlines are famous for anxiety and rage and the psyche of society as a whole is moving closer and closer to the border, it’s no coincidence that these emotions are ubiquitous on airplanes and everywhere else. Borderline and narcissistic personality features have become so common they are well on the way to becoming a new normal. It’s part and parcel of our “age of narcissism,” fueled by the societal validation of selfish, self-centered behavior that we see so much of in the course of our daily lives.
As the technological revolution normalizes narcissism while the kind of therapy that really helps borderlines grow up is now out of fashion and unsupported by health insurance, it’s unrealistic to hope that we may soon collectively revert to a nation of relatively emotionally mature adults. I’m pretty much resigned to this. Still no matter how nuts society becomes, those who attach themselves to a slithering, non-cuddly thing that will grow to be a huge man-eating creature, zookeepers excluded, must surely be beyond the pale.
Instead of allowing animals on board, wouldn’t it be more practical for flight attendants to hand out complimentary teddy bears along with the (sometimes) complimentary ginger ale?
No matter. It’s all moot to me. I have grown to despise flying to the point I may never get on a plane again. It’s not because flying itself makes me anxious. It’s the having to put up with all those out of control human animals in addition to the plethora of discomforts flyers are routinely subjected to. For me, the travails of flying increasingly render even the most dreamy of dream vacations not worth the agony of getting there.
Readers know I don’t mind dogs. That is, as long as they keep their distance. (Refer to my blog, “Happiness is Doglessness.”) That’s impossible on a plane. I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom having to share a confined space with one or more canines would make an already unpleasant experience that much more unpleasant.
Still, compared to what I endured on my last international flight, I might prefer a dog as a seat mate. For the duration of the four hour flight delay and the entire trip from Paris to DC, two screaming babies at either end of my row created a tag team, relieving each other in turn whenever one of them ran out of steam.
One thing’s for sure. Should I ever fly again I’ll skip the complimentary teddy bear in exchange for a good stiff drink. Or two. Or three.