No Dogs Allowed...Except When Prescribed
It's difficult to publicly admit that I have a major depressive disorder. This condition was first diagnosed in 2001 as a biologically-based mental health condition called Dysthymic Disorder. Unfortunately, this is a disability not visual to those not trained to recognize it but, none the less very real and painful. I'm ashamed and embarrassed to acknowledge my limitations, mental disorder, disability .... It's hard to speak the words. I had learned from an early age, to put on my makeup, get dressed, smile and pretend to the outside world that everything is OK. I was also taught, as the saying goes; don't display your dirty laundry in public. So, I pushed my feelings deep inside and often cried when alone or sometimes while driving; not the safest thing to do, I might add. For a long time, I couldn't tell you what would bring me happiness or things I could do to create some fun and joy in my life.
I tell this story to hopefully inspire others to stand up for themselves, reach out, get professional help and know what resources are available. I want to thank my neighbor Edith Baskind, Psychiatrist Dr. Ronni Seltzer, Attorney Joan Pransky, Fair Housing supervisor David Whritenour and their attorney Jane O'Leary along with The Division on Civil Rights, Michael Ayles. Without your support, guidance, wisdom and kindness, I couldn't have gotten through this. There are others to thank including family, friends and co workers, the list is lengthy. So, I apologize if you're not being named. Hopefully, you know who you are and how you touch my life.
My elderly parents, living in Florida, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and I was watching their rapid decline. As a caregiver, the added responsibility to over see their care from a distance was difficult. Having loving parents, I felt it was up to me to make sure they were safe and well taken care of. Not because I had to but, because I wanted to. The stress of my work in sales, the effects of my hormones, going through menopause, not sleeping or eating right, added responsibilities, my life seemed to be spiraling out of control.
September 11, 2009, suicidal thoughts were scary and occurring more frequently than ever before. My insomnia had been going on for months. I gained 20 lbs. feeling so alone and worthless. I knew I could only pretend for so long before things would get out of control, which is exactly what happened. Upon the suggested advice from professionals, in desperation and coping with my feelings of loneliness which included the need for companionship, I brought home a 2 lb. lhatese (Lhasa Apsa and Maltese mix) puppy named Benny, along with a canine behavior counselor to help me train my new friend.
I lived in a "no dogs allowed" condominium high rise in New Jersey. Never wanting to hide my dog, within a few days, I asked for a reasonable accommodation which was accompanied by medical documentation. Dr. Ronni Seltzer stated, "It is my professional opinion that a service dog will minimize Ms Potash's suicidal risk, improve her functional capability and modify the intensity of her depressive symptoms, both at the present time and in the future ... " I was denied. The no dog signs appeared in the elevator, lobby hallways and mentioned in newsletters distributed throughout the community. I was called "a terrible person" for "violating the by-laws". Every time I got into the elevator and viewed the sign this sickening feeling would overcome me. My level of anxiety increased as I took the dreaded ride from the 9th floor to the lobby or garage with Benny sitting quietly in his carrier. Would it stop, would someone get on, would I be harassed or just get an uncomfortable stare? I felt like I was wearing a big neon sign or a tee shirt with an arrow pointing up at me. See, I'm the one, I'm the trouble maker, I'm the one who's breaking the rules!!!! I wish I could have ignored these signs; pretending they were not there, believe me I tried but, I couldn't. Did people think I was crazy? I endured this for months, requested, well rather begged that the signs be removed immediately. I wrote to the Board and Management addressing them as compassionate, decent, human beings. "The note posted in the elevator and newsletter, in my opinion is hurtful, cruel and insensitive, knowing they are directed at me. It brought more attention to an extremely sensitive and private matter." I felt as if I was being bullied. After being confronted in the elevator with insulting comments about my having a dog, as Benny sat quietly in a wheeled carrier; I visited Fair Housing. They reviewed all of my documents along with the bylaws of the building and concluded; I was within their guidelines and had the right to keep my dog. Fair Housing suggested I file a discrimination claim against the building. Since I lived in my condominium community in excess of 25 years, served on the board at one time and had friends within the building, I really preferred not to do that.
With the help of Fair Housing and their attorney, letters were written on my behalf. The board continued to decline my request responding with, I lived an "active life style" and therefore couldn't possibly have a disability. This infuriated me. I continued my research regarding service animals and emotional support animals. I became obsessive, printing pages and pages of information.
At this point, I had to make a huge decision. Do I simply give in, sell my unit and move out or, do I stand up for myself, find my inner strength, hire an attorney to represent me and fight for justice through Fair Housing and The Division on Civil Rights. It was a gut wrenching decision. Knowing it would be tough emotionally to go through this, not knowing how long it would take or the outcome. I decided to fight. I put trust in my team of experts all fighting for my rights. I cried, took one day at a time and lots of deep breaths. At the end of this process, taking in excess of two years, an amicable resolution was reached through conciliation.
I believe no one should ever be treated the way I was. Just because you can't see a mental health related disorder, invisible because there is no walker, cane or wheel chair, it doesn't mean the condition is not real. I was bullied by the ignorance of people who felt challenged to uphold the rules of the building. Whether it was right or wrong, I understood the building's point of view. If I had a dog, would everyone in the building want one? Then what, would they be over run with dogs barking, disturbing neighbors, pooping, and urinating in the hallways and on the property outside? They had to stop me and continue to deny my request.
Benny saved my life at a time when things became unbearable. After interacting with my puppy, I noticed my heightened ability to stay focused, motivated and productive. I was able to concentrate for longer periods of time. My dog helped to decrease my levels of stress and increase my level of energy through better opportunities for social interaction; especially when taking Benny for walks throughout my neighborhood and nearby parks. I met a new group of dog owners; said hello to passerby's and learned the meaning of unconditional love. I noticed I was laughing and smiling more.
Many things changed for me during this long process, I started a new job December of 2010 and decided to move from my condo December of 2011, into a pet friendly building nearby. Change is hard for most people and I am no exception, it was difficult. Today, Benny and I are happy in our new environment. I work hard, play tennis, golf and take dance lessons just to name a few activities I participate in. Currently, life is good, most days. I continue my therapy, willing and open to learn, discover and grow. I participate in many activities with more courage and self confidence, doing my best to enjoy the journey, uncertain of its destination. I remain a work in progress.
Barbara Lynn Potash, 2/22/12
Dear Ms. G. Mota,
For the past two years, I lived in a room and had to share the kitchen and bathroom. It will feel great that I will not have to clean up after others. I never thought. I would have an apartment, where I could hang up my hat and call home. With your help, I found a place within ten business days. I want to thank you for all help, in finding a new place to live. You generosity and professionalism is appreciated.
Michael Reilly, 3/25/12
Dear Mr. B Nagly,
With your help, and help from the Bergen County Housing and Health Services Center, at 120 South River Street in Hackensack, NJ 07601 and the Fair Housing Council, at 131 Main Street Suite 140 in Hackensack, NJ 07601, I found a place to where I can finally call home. I want to thank you for all help, in finding these organizations, to assistance my needs, in finding and subsidize my new place. You generosity and professionalism is appreciated.
Michael Reilly, 4/2/12
To Whom It May Concern,
I would like to express my sincere gratitude and thanks to the Fair Housing Council located at 131 Main St. Hackensack, NJ for the excellent program and work they are doing for Bergen County. I, Loida Lora, am an example of the great service they provide. Both David Whritenour, Assistant Director and Julia Dominco, Director Housing Counselor fought for me.
They both stayed with me for more than 5 years, they fought and never gave up. David and Julia were able to reduce the mortgage on my home more than $250,000.00, and of course, my house was rescued from foreclosure.
The whole office is admirable, they are so friendly and give excellent service. They deserve all kinds of support.
I also would like to thank all the diverse organizations who are responsible for providing the money that is necessary to dispense such great work. i encourage them to please continue providing what's necessary for this wonderful program to continue serving all of the people in need in Bergen County.
Loida Lora, 3/2013