Category Archives: Mental Health

What I Learned from my Dog about PTSD

When the Brindle Dog was young, she was amazingly strong and focused. Her parents were bred for police work in the Netherlands, and that likely would have been her destiny as well if I hadn’t scooped her up as a house pet.

She could swim or train for hours. She would never give up on a task unless called off. She could joyfully chase a ball or Kong in the park for hours with breathtaking stamina and endurance. She took pride in her ability to execute commands perfectly, and she was also an enterprising problem-solver.

As she aged and got sick, her stamina waned. She weakened. She started to get confused. As her cataracts spread, as her hearing diminished, and as her cancer extended its tentacles and tumours further into her body, the Brindle Dog began to stumble and fall. Her back legs would sometimes give out. She would struggle to right herself and keep going, but I stopped taking her on walks, and just threw sticks (her favourite game) in the yard for her.

The day came when I couldn’t even throw sticks for her anymore, because she kept falling down when trying to chase them. I had to just drop the stick a foot or two in front of her, and she’d grab it.

It was heartbreaking. She used to have the strength and drive and form of an Olympic athlete. She was tireless! Her enthusiasm for work and play was incredible. And now she was a tottering little old lady, half-deaf, half-blind, exhausted from severe anemia, barely able hold her bladder for more than a few hours. I was angry and miserable. Fuck cancer! Look at how age and illness had taken this amazing dog and pounded her down!

But at the same time, I was so glad to be able to provide palliative care and to sweeten my dear dog’s last days with extra love and attention. As she drew closer to the end, and as I turned myself away from the “extraneous” things in my life to be as present as possible with her, I noticed one particular thing I had missed:

In her younger days, when she chased a thrown stick or toy, she would pounce on it with pride and enthusiasm. As she got weaker, her desire to chase that stick never waned, even though her body was failing. And near the end, when I would drop the stick pretty much right in front of her nose, she would still pounce on it with all the energy and drive she could muster, then look up at me proudly, panting from that slight effort, her gums white and her eyes cloudy, but still full of anticipation, wanting me to ask for the stick back so we could do it again.

She was always and only and forever living in the present. She was in pain, but she wanted that stick. She was confused, but her love of this particular game never left her. And whether she had raced across a field to retrieve that stick, or had pounced on it right at her feet, she was happy. She was doing a thing she loved, and it made no difference to her that she used to be able to do it better, or that other dogs could do it better, or that she would never race across a field again.

And that was the thing I had missed. It is okay to be happy doing the things I can do, even though my life will never be what it could have been without abuse and trauma. I will never have a life where my past didn’t happen to me. Therapy isn’t going to take it away or make any of it okay. What I do have, if I let myself have it, is the ability to pounce on that stick even if I’m confused or in pain.

The shit that was done to me will never be gone. I guess somehow I thought that recovery or healing meant I would be done with it. PTSD and the accompanying depression and anxiety mean that I am living with some very real limitations that have consequences in my everyday life, and I may or may not be able to change (some of) those. It’s hard not to be angry and bitter about the fact that my life is smaller than it could have been because of abusers.

But now I realise that recovery and healing, for me, are about figuring out how to live my life with joy and anticipation despite the pain. By example, the Brindle Dog showed me how to accept limitations and just keep living as fully as I can. If I can’t race across the field, I can still grab the stick at my feet with pride.

 

The Brindle Dog died peacefully last week. She carried her stick to the car on her way to the vet. She walked in to her appointment on her own wobbly legs. I cuddled her until she was gone. She was the best dog ever.

 

 

 

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Trying to Be (In)Visible

 

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving along with all my windows open and the Fluffy Dog in the back of the car, when an impatient driver raced up behind me. I had seen her coming in my rearview. You know the kind: weaving in and out of traffic, trying to get the advantage of one more carlength. I needed to be in the next lane anyway, so I signaled and and pulled into the gap to my left to let her race by, at which point there was a blaring horn and I realised that the same impatient driver had simultaneously pulled to the left at high acceleration to get around me. She screeched back into the right lane and pulled up beside me at the next light, lowered her window, and began to scream and swear at me. (The Fluffy Dog raised his head at the commotion but didn’t bestir himself to look at all threatening or even concerned, the big old dope.) Continue reading

The Shit People Say at Work (or, Flashbacks at my Desk)

Content warning for discussion of flashbacks, child abuse, domestic abuse, and trauma.

 

Workplace cubicles don’t allow for privacy.

On the small floor where I work, a small second floor perched like a hat on a larger building, the windowed offices ring a large area which has been packed with cubicles. At one end of this rectangle is the access stairwell. At the very far end from that stairwell is my workspace. The cubicles end, and my desk and filing cabinets are in the stub of space just past the fire exit stairwell.

It’s an old building. The heating and cooling are iffy, approximate, and likely controlled by someone in a different time zone. As a result, people tend keep their office doors open to improve air circulation.

This means everyone hears everything. We all know about each other’s kidney stones,  grandchildren, car troubles, and how well we all slept last night.

 

(Content warning for below the cut)

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Don’t Ask Questions

One thing about growing up with secrecy, silence, and paranoia in an authoritarian family is that it gets really hard to untangle the effects of emotional abuse from one’s actual personality.

Until recently, for example, I rarely asked questions. Part of that is because because so many of my childhood and adolescent questions were answered with :

  • contempt: “You stupid kid”
  • ridicule: “I can’t believe you don’t know that”
  • silent treatment: absolute silence as if I had not spoken
  • dismissal: “You don’t need to know that”
  • anger: “Don’t ask things like that!”
  • annoyance “Don’t bother me with that”
  • mockery: “Why do you care about that?”
  • impatience: “I don’t have time for this.”

I learned that questions are irritating, intrusive, inappropriate, and unwelcome. I learned that I would be mocked, ridiculed, and subject to anger or silent treatments if I asked questions or showed curiosity. Continue reading

Stuff I Did in March, Part Three: Asking for Help

Every year, I dread February. But March usually brings some relief. Even though it’s still winter, the days are obviously getting longer, and spring is coming. March is a often sunny month here in Winnipeg, and most years, I start planning my garden, spending a bit more time outside, and generally perking up after the February slump.

This year, though, I just kept sliding downward despite the longer days, the mild weather, and the promise of spring. Continue reading

February is the Worst Month

Every year, February hits me like a tonne of bricks. I don’t know why February is so hard. Part of it, I’m sure, is that the winter has gone on so long by now, and the end is not quite in sight yet. But on the other hand, the days are visibly longer, and this is usually a sunny month (goes with the cold, dammit).

Part of it is maybe that the pattern of difficult Februarys means that I start dreading it in advance, before anything bad even happens. As soon as I stop stressing about Christmas, I start dreading February. Maybe there’s no way I approach February with an open heart anymore. Continue reading

Death Visits my Workplace

Someone at work died last night of a heart attack. I barely knew him, even though I’ve worked here for a decade and he’s been here longer (it’s a large institution). But the whole place is walking around in shock. People are talking about him, about his death, and about their past interactions with him.

But I can’t be the listener. I just can’t. I know I have trouble understanding and dealing with attachment. I know I have bad reactions to loss. I know that I have spent so much of my life both ruthlessly suppressing my feelings while simultaneously trying to learn how to understand and express them. All of this is part of it. Also, I’ve been carefully and cruelly trained to always make other people’s feelings more important than my own, as well as to meet other people’s needs at the expense of my own, and I have worked so very hard to try to unlearn this. So to suddenly find myself in the middle of this sea of shock and grief, with people wanting to talk, or even when they don’t, when every instance of eye contact is accompanied by sad faces and head tilts and resigned shrugs and meaningful sighs… I just can’t. Continue reading