It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part I (Setting the Scene)

We walked home, my cellphone clamped between my cheek and my shoulder, my dog upside down like a baby in my arms, unable to walk from the bite wound. Cars whooshed past during the more modest but no less loud flow of quarantine rush hour as I waited for the vet to pick up while admonishing myself not to panic. “It helps no one if you lose it. Do not cry.”

When the vet answered, I explained what had happened. “You need to go directly to an emergency vet if he needs stiches. Did the other dogs have their rabies vaccinations?”

“Uh, I don’t know. I didn’t think to ask.”

“You need to find out. You both need rabies shots if you have open wounds.”

The enormity of the situation pawed its way through the fog and settled in. With moderate success, I instructed myself to take a deep breath to try to quell the out-of-control-coupled-with-a-strong-desire-to-crawl-into-a-hole sensation that was rising in my chest.

When I got home, I tiptoed up the stairs to find my husband, hoping to avoid drawing any attention from our kids before we had a plan. In whispers I described the surprise attack, showed him our wounds. “I think I need to take him to the ER?”

I said this as a question, almost imploring him to disagree with me. As someone who works with anxiety all the time I was open to the possibility that I could be overreacting, that maybe a gaping hole on the underside of our dog’s belly was not in fact something to worry about. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “the only easy day was yesterday” is the type of Navy ethos I was raised with. Which is a wild mindset to run smack into an anxious being, where the gray area between a real crisis and an anxiety-provoked one can be difficult to decipher. I know from experience that my gut instinct is actually pretty accurate, but I always do this little dance of second-guessing myself wondering if I should tough it out just a little longer.

It was late afternoon by this point. Having pulled multiple all nighters in the pediatric ER with a sick kid, I’ve learned to just go before it gets dark and all remaining rational thought goes out the window as fatigue sweeps in. The sooner you go, the sooner you get to go to bed.

Sure enough, once our dog was in the vet’s arms, I felt my shoulders drop from their alert perch near my ears as relief washed over me. That’s when the uncontrollable shaking started. Through chattering teeth I confessed to a friend over the phone that I couldn’t stop shaking. “That’s just the adrenaline leaving your body. It’s normal.”

Oh.

I had always thought when I got the shivers and shakes that it was a weakness, that I wasn’t tough enough, that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t just keep it together. I should know by now that what I perceive to be my unique oddities are very rarely only mine. A nearly decade-old memory of a dimly-lit, brick-walled classroom at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine surfaced. All of us patients were sitting in a circle with our eyes closed as the teacher led a guided meditation. I was rolling my eyes behind my shut eyelids, bracing myself against the “woo-woo” territory we were entering.

“You are walking down a path through a forest. There is a tree in the distance. Walk over to it. The tree is you.”

Silence (apart from my internal groaning).

“Ask the tree for guidance on a character trait you need help fixing.”

I could barely contain my snark. BUT, I had chosen to take this class to explore every avenue I could to alleviate my RA symptoms. AND I was in this room with all these other people so I felt committed to do what was asked (or at least to not be rude). I kept my eyes closed, looked at the oak tree standing tall and sideways (oddly), and asked it the question as instructed. Out of nowhere – I swear – a voice said “self-doubt.” Woah. That is spot on, but I had never really thought of it.

The room remained silent, everyone was still, but the rush of blood in my ears picked up in intensity along with the pace of my breathing. The teacher instructed, “Now ask the tree how best you can heal.” Again, this voice, intoned, “Love yourself more.”

The root cause of every damn thing that gets in my way is doubting myself. What a novel idea to treat myself with the same latitude and compassion that I give others, to stop assuming that I am in some way to blame when something – anything – goes wrong.

As I sat there at the vet I realized two things: one, clearly I still have work to do. But, two, I noticed in real time the negative messaging and suffering I levy upon myself. I noticed the flood of could have, should have, if only you had narratives that began to consume me as the adrenaline ebbed away, as if I could have controlled what happened, as if any of us can control anything more than our response to what happens to us. And those were awesome catches – historic, life-changing catches. I may be my own harshest critic. And I may be pre-programmed toward self-judgment, writing nasty headlines and elaborate stories in my head about my imperfections and inadequacies. But if I can insert awareness to those moments then, well, then we are getting somewhere. I know I am not the only person who faces these challenges. This was a major oxygen mask moment. Breathe.

To be continued….

How Social Distancing Is Like Quitting Sugar

The truth is, I’ve been trying to write for weeks. I have literally 10 drafts going, some with a couple notes jotted, some full-fledged-almost-there-posts. I had high hopes and great intentions of writing some reflections on 2020 well before the new year, but here we are.

I have been stuck. I guess it’s a form of writer’s block, though I have plenty ideas. It’s been a rough patch, for sure. Maybe this is normal for a writer. It certainly is for life, right!?!

This holiday season brought along with it some big, sometimes crippling, feelings. The holidays will do that in a good year, like last year when the day before Thanksgiving I opened a cardboard box my brother had delivered from our mom’s apartment. Within the thick layers of tacky tape and the fortress of dusty bubble wrap I discovered our mom’s China plates and was promptly steamrollered by memories and emotion. I set the Thanksgiving table with them, a heaping of nostalgia to go with my mashed potatoes.

This year, there was all of that type of longing and loss coupled with the fatigue brought on by merely existing in this quarantine/social distance world. Somewhere along the way this year something broke inside me, like I left too many documents open on my desktop and it caused a short circuit. But it happened more slowly than a computer crashing, more like the chiseling away of stone into a statue. The result, in this case, isn’t beautiful, though, so maybe it’s more like when weather eroded the Old Man of the Mountain for so long that the face finally fell off one day. Yep, that’s about right. Every morning I peel my eyes open, claw my way out of fitful sleep, and flop myself off the side of the bed to standing. It is no joyful greeting to the day, I can assure you. Slowly, I coax myself out of my pajamas into “real clothes,” a ridiculously laborious effort executed primarily to prevent myself from getting salt and snow all over my favorite pajamas while walking the dog.

That is generally the state of things here. I army crawled my way through the molasses swamp of holiday decorating and gift-buying. I banged out an apple pie for Thanksgiving the day after the actual meal was supposed to occur. I ordered my holiday cards in October because I had no clue what month it was and they were 75% off – and, honestly, I could have written them in April and said approximately the same thing.

When 2020 rolled around, I didn’t have any big expectations or thoughts for what it might hold. I never do resolutions or goals for New Year’s Eve. It feels so arbitrary. If you need to push the reset button, New Years is as good a time as any to do so. But resets are possible all year long. Never let the date on your calendar stop you from shifting your mindset, reframing and seeing the world in new ways, being flexible, pivoting, and starting fresh. I did like the look of 2020, though. It was so nice and symmetrical. Much less clunky than 2019. Not that, as we all clearly now know if we ever wondered before, the beauty of the date has anything at all to do with anything.

And somehow we find ourselves at January 1, 2021. 1/1/21. Now that it’s taken me so long to finish this post, even better we arrive at 1/2/21. Every year has its challenges, but no one could have predicted the global scale of 2020’s plight. It’s been a difficult year and there have been some truly wonderous moments, many that I would have missed if I was not forced to live slow and small. Among other things, I learned that I cannot focus or develop any substantive thoughts while staring at a computer screen of rotating faces staring back at me, and also that Zoom is a miraculous way to get back in touch with friends and family scattered across the country and the world. I learned that I would love to have a personal chef if I could afford one, and also that I will do whatever it takes to feed my family tasty, healthy meals because I love them (and even to recreate favorites like Auntie Anne’s pretzels, dumplings, pizza, and sesame chicken when takeout was not an option). I learned that I love exploring and learning about the world and that claustrophobia sets in when my wings are clipped and also that there is amazing stuff happening in my own backyard like Great Horned Owls hooting and the timeless joy of good old-fashioned sparklers and small, quiet holiday gatherings serving up an introvert’s dream. It’s been a year of being depressed and broken brained and inspired and awe-struck.

You know when you stop eating sugar and all of a sudden all the other food you eat tastes so much better, like your taste buds have been reactivated? This year was kind of like that, but instead of quitting sugar (which I most assuredly did NOT!) I quit rushing around and commitments and shoulds and going places. Once I adjusted to the sensory deprivation, the little moments closer to home suddenly became sweeter. Do I crave traveling and other people and Olaf-esque warm hugs? Hell, yes! Do I wish that this period was over and that it hadn’t dragged on for so long in the first place with the completely unnecessary and on-going loss of life and health? Of course.

But this year I learned that I can do hard things for as long as necessary to benefit the greater good. I might not like it, but I can do it. I always hoped that would be the case, but this year was the proving ground. And just like when I have quit sugar in the past, and became more aware of what parts of eating sugar do me no favors and what parts of quitting sugar completely suck the very joy out of life, I will take from this fraught period the same kind of awareness about life. There are lessons from this period that I will abide forever. That’s the hope, anyway.

It’s great to have hope at the dawn of a new year. It’s necessary to source it from within whenever one is challenged. Onward.