From Loopey to Beau, the dogs who've wagged their tails through James W. Bennett's life have been there for him when he needed them most.
And, rest assured, as the noted Bloomington author has chronicled in his painfully forthright new book, he's needed them most ... a lot.
The book's title is, in fact, "Loopey to Beau: A Troubled Author's Journey with Dogs."
The parade of beloved pets run parallel (both literally and figuratively) to Bennett's 44-year struggle with mental illness ... from his peaks of temporarily recovered joy to the depths of his oft-suicidal despair.
Like the multiple, many-forked afflictions that have tormented his psyche, they come in every shape, size, breed and disposition: Border Collie (Loopey), Labrador/Malamute mix (Nanook), sheep dog (Shep), half-Lab/half-German Shorthaired Pointer (Toes), Cocker Spaniel (Squeak), Bichon Frise (Beau).
"I've always let my dogs come to me, bringing what their natures and temperaments inclined them to be," he writes. "And then found a way to thoroughly enjoy what they brought to our relationship."
Moreover: "They were all pets that enriched my life by their love and companionship ... I will remember with joy (and some sorrow) each one of them until the day I die."
Acclaimed as one of contemporary fiction's leading novelists for young adults (see accompanying list for the essentials), Bennett has never shied away from discussing the mental breakdown that occurred in 1974 at the age of 32.
The darkness fell at the height of his young-adult powers: happily married (to ever-supportive wife Judie, to whom the new book is dedicated), with a young son (Jason) to raise and a teaching job at a junior college in Orange County, N.Y., to inspire.
"I just got up one morning a different man," he recalled in a Pantagraph interview 15 years ago, noting then his being diagnosed with everything from manic depression to free-floating anxiety to acute depression to attention deficit disorder.
Over the decades since, the vague psychiatric verdicts have ranged in description from "a cluster of systems" to "a flavor of a lot of things."
Bennett would eventually give the nebulous mass the umbrella name of "The Curse," and it has trailed him through his life ever since ... even to this day, when medication has helped stave it off, but never fully erase its looming specter.
The Curse is, as he writes, "ever active."
He first broached his own torment in writing via the first of his acclaimed run of novels for teens and young adults 28 years ago: "I Can Hear the Mourning Dove," named (among other honors) "one of the 10 best young adult novels of 1990" by Publisher's Weekly.
Its heroine, a 16-year-old named Grace dealing with mental illness, allowed Bennett to channel some of his firsthand experience into the psyche of a gifted teen who bonds with an antisocial delinquent.
That was then, this is now.
On a recent day, just before turning 76, Bennett is hopeful for the value to readers of his first work of autobiography, calling it a "departure for me," but a necessary one.
"Even if you've never had any encounter with mental illness in your own life, everybody knows someone who has, be it a friend or relative," he begins.
"I've been been dealing with this for 44 years and wanted to tell that story."
He thought: "I could write it as a book about dog love, or I could write it as a mental illness book."
Bennett decided to embrace both the strains, tying it to the dog (Beau) he credits with saving him from the brink of suicide during a disastrous relocation from Bloomington-Normal to Naples, Fla., circa 2004-7.
"If not for him, I probably would have taken my own life," Bennett admits.
He then expanded that defining experience of a pet's comfort in a time of human need to embrace all such relationships.
"Let's go back to the beginning and integrate all the dogs who have had a positive impact along the way ... I have a story to tell that's unique, and it will help reveal how murky this whole area of mental illness is."
The procession of pets is chronicled from his childhood in Monticello to his teen and college years in B-N (BHS grad, followed by majoring in English Lit at IWU and teaching as a graduate assistant at ISU) through his harrowing Curse-plagued adulthood.
In keeping with his refusal to pull punches, Bennett's parallel human/canine narrative documents the fates that must befall all owners and pets, with each dog's exit explicitly chronicled ... from first symptoms of illness/injury to the inevitable euthanasia.
As might be expected, the decisive departure comes with life-saving Beau, who's leave-taking is as much as James and his wife, Judie, are willing to take.
"After 38 years of dogs," he writes, "we accepted the fact that we can't, in good conscience adopt another dog."
Three years later, that acceptance has not wavered.
And The Curse?
"The pot is just simmering ... not boiling over."
His mating of "dog book" to "mental illness book" has met with favor in its early going from multiple quarters: health professionals, dog lovers, Bennett's own fan base, general readers.
"So many people have said so many kind things," says Beau's best friend.
"It's been rewarding because it was hard for me to write ... it took over a year for me to do it. And this kind of makes what was a lot of effort worth it."
At the end of the day, he hopes the book mainly enlightens.
"I want people to understand, in a way maybe they never did before, just how disabling dealing with a mental illness can be," he says.
("Loopey to Beau" is currently available in both print and e-reader editions via Amazon and other online resources; locally, it can be found at Barnes & Noble and campus bookstores.)