Category Archives: Mental Health

A Stranger in the Night (or, The Fluffy Dog Does a Good Job)

The Fluffy Dog is a happy guy!

 

I woke up to someone touching my foot. I assumed it was my sweetie passing by the foot of the bed, so I pulled my foot away to give him more room, and as I moved, I realised that he was actually still in the bed with me.

Must have been the dog, I thought, still half-asleep. So I stretched my foot out over the end of the bed to poke the Fluffy Dog and see if he was standing up. What I encountered with my foot was something that felt like a very large, tightly-packed duffel bag. That woke me up completely: oh my god, something fell on the dog!

I flung myself out of bed, grabbed my glasses, and reached for the light switch all at the same time. But what I saw when the light went on was confusing. There was something large on the floor wedged between the foot of the bed and the cupboard, and I could see the back end of the Fluffy Dog stretched out beyond it.

It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing: a large person was crouched right down on the ground, with their arms wrapped around my dog. I couldn’t understand what was going on! As a very light sleeper, it was incomprehensible to me that someone could have come right into my house and my bedroom at night without waking me up, especially given the mid-moving state of my house (think Obstacle Course meets Hoarders). (Meanwhile, my sweetie is out of bed: “what the hell…?”) The only thing that made sense to my groggy brain was that it was my brother who was somehow in trouble or drunk or sick and who decided to take comfort with the Fluffy Dog rather than wake me up.

So I said, “Hey. Hey!” and reached down to the scruff of the intruder’s neck, grabbed hold of their hoodie, and started hauling upward. The person offered no resistance, but as I pulled his head up, we could see that this was definitely not my brother. This guy was a stranger. A BIG stranger. “This dog brought me here,” he said. He was young, like late teens? He repeated: “This dog brought me here” and my sweetie said “Dude, you have to leave” as I moved away from the bedroom door so the guy could leave. “This dog brought me here!” By now he was almost standing; it all happened so fast. “Okay man, but this isn’t your home and you have to leave now,” my sweetie told him.

Now the stranger started turning around to face me and the door: “I thought this was my group home. Where’s my group home?”

“I think it’s across the street,” I told him. “I’ll show you.” He bent to pick up his backpack which he had placed neatly by the bedroom door, and looked back at the Fluffy Dog. “This dog. This dog brought me here. Where’s my group home?”

I flipped on the hallway light and let the confused young man precede me to the back door. He let himself out the side gate and I closed it behind him, not waiting to see if he got to the group home across the street.

And then I sat down with the shakes. Of course I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, for many reasons. All of the “what ifs,” of course, the horrible things that could have happened if that person had been someone violent. Or if we had found him in my stepdaughter’s bedroom instead of ours. Or if my Fluffy Dog had made even a single squeak of pain or fear. All the violence that could have erupted from him or from us. But also the shattering of my belief that my sensitive hearing and my being a light sleeper will protect or forewarn me of this kind of thing. For thirteen years, I have slept most summer nights with that back door open for the breeze. No more. It is a huge change in my self-perception.

The young man smelled like he’d had a bit to drink, but he didn’t stink of booze. He seemed more lost, confused, and perhaps scared than drunk or angry. The next morning I texted the manager of the group home across the street but it turns out this wasn’t one of their clients. I sure hope he got home okay.

But the most amazing thing to me was the Fluffy Dog. He has really come into his own since the Brindle Dog died in May. That’s often how it goes: the next dog gets to bloom once the bossy paw of the eldest dog is lifted. It is clear now that he would have been a marvelous therapy dog.

The Brindle Dog would have gone ballistic if a stranger entered the house (which is probably part of the reason I felt so safe at night). Even when known people entered, she was all bark and growl and spit and gleaming fang.

But the Fluffy Dog is a different sort. As that stranger crouched down on the floor and clutched him, the Fluffy Dog was powerfully calm. He worked hard to comfort that confused young man, to create and maintain a safe little space for him, to make him feel seen and held.

And it worked. Not just on the mystery intruder, but also on me and my sweetie. In a situation where any of us could have panicked and escalated things, we were all calm and reasonable. I am actually quite amazed at that. I don’t know that young man, of course; perhaps he is always so low-key. But my partner and I can both lose our shit lightning quick if we or someone we love is being threatened. That night, with a stranger in our bedroom in the middle of the night, and my partner’s daughter in the room across the hall, we barely even raised our voices. Nobody moved quickly. Nobody lost their temper. I don’t know how to explain this other than by the hard work and skills of the Fluffy Dog.

It’s hard to write this and harder to tell people about it. Partly because I get flak for sleeping with my door open. But mostly because I am such an anti-woowoo person. I don’t want people to laugh at me for believing my dog has some kind of mental valium-like superpowers. Or for believing that my dog was a huge factor in getting us all through that situation safely and calmly. I’m the one who looks down my nose at blind faith, who adores the scientific method. I know there’s stuff we can’t explain yet, and I’m willing to reserve judgement on most of that, but the facts about a lot of things are already out there and I’m pretty contemptuous of people who ignore them (I’m looking at you, anti-vaxxers) or who put their faith in movie stars for health advice (jade eggs / glitter in your vagina, really?), for example.

But the Fluffy Dog has done this before, at least once that I know of:

A few weeks after the Brindle Dog died, I had a full-on panic attack for the first time in a long while. I was in the bedroom folding my laundry when the shakiness and nausea started, and then the tightness in my chest, and then the whimpering. I was trying to take calming breaths, to focus on things around me, to use my strategies. But the crying started and both my sweetie and the Fluffy Dog came rushing into the bedroom. I was crying and gasping “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I think I’m dying, I’m so sorry” and my partner was trying to parse out what was going on and what he could do for me.

But the Fluffy Dog shoved himself past my sweetie’s legs and pressed his body against me so I was tucked snugly between him and the wall. That good dog turned his head watched me very seriously, his expression calm but intense, and he didn’t let up the body pressure even when I threw my arms around him and sobbed into his fur.

The Fluffy Dog stayed with me that day until the last shakiness had subsided, and then he climbed onto the bed with me afterward when I was completely exhausted and ready for a nap. He took it all very seriously, and knew just what to do. It was immensely reassuring and calming to be “held” by the pressure of his body like that, and to feel seen and loved.

So as weird or woowoo or unscientific as it sounds, I think my good hardworking dog knew exactly what he was doing when he helped me through my panic attack. And he knew exactly what he was doing when he helped all three of us through that stranger’s visit in the night.

This dog is my dear friend and an absolute goofball. But also—no matter how self-conscious I am about saying this—, he is a creature of immense power. I believe in him and I feel tremendously lucky to be protected by him.

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Being Queer on the Exam Table

During my recent medical checkup , I discovered that my healthcare practitioner is homophobic.

It has been four or five years since she asked about any sexual activity on my part, probably assuming that after my divorce I wasn’t hooking up with anyone. But now that my new partner (cis male) has moved in, she was asking about birth control, a possible STI check, and general questions about my sex life.

When I replied to a question by saying that no, PIV / penetrative sex is not the main kind of sex I have with my partner, she looked confused. So I added: “Well, I’m queer, right?” (I don’t know what I thought this would explain, but I felt sure this had come up at some time in the past, and I thought I was reminding her…?)

She still looked confused so I added “Like, bisexual?” (trying to dumb it down) “Like, I’ve had lots of sex where there wasn’t even a penis in the room?” and then she looked super surprised and said “You mean you have relationships with women outside of your relationship at home?”

No!” I exclaimed, scooching my naked butt down to the edge of the exam table for my pap test. And she looked flustered as she busied herself unwrapping the speculum: “…but if you’re…?”

I put my feet together and dropped my knees outward so she could head into my vagina with her gear. “This relationship is monogamous,” I told her. “I mean, sex is sex. If you adore blondes but you’re with a brunette, that doesn’t mean you have to sleep with blondes on the side, right?”

But then I dropped it, because the cold speculum was going in and I felt really, horribly, uncomfortably exposed and anxious and unsafe in a way that had nothing to do with the pap test in progress.

Her assumption that as a queer (or I guess “bi,” since she didn’t really seem to understand “queer”)  woman, I would of COURSE be screwing women outside of my relationship at home shocked me. Not that I want people to assume that everyone is monogamous, either, but the assumption of promiscuity—relationships with women, not with a woman—I don’t know how to explain it; it was a combination of word choice, tone of voice, and body language that made me feel as if all the negative and conservative connotations of “promiscuity” were running through her head (as opposed to, say, a respectful grasp of the concept of non-monogamy).

Because look. Being queer or bi doesn’t mean I can’t be monogamous. Being a cis woman who was married to a cis man for years doesn’t mean I can’t be queer. Being in a monogamous relationship and screwing someone else would make me a cheating asshole. Whether we’re monogamous or polyamorous or cis or gay or trans or whatever the hell we are, we deserve to have our healthcare providers ask respectfully—or at the very least, professionally—about these things rather than assuming and presuming *the worst (*it’s hard to articulate this because while in my world it’s 100% fine to fuck as many people as you want any way you want as long as everyone is honest and consenting, the attitude I was getting from my practitioner is that these “relationships with other women” were putting me in the “slut” category which personally isn’t a word I stigmatize but obviously carries negative weight for her… does that make any kind of sense?)

The assumption that a queer / bi woman has to be fucking both men and women (never mind the assumption that “men” and “women” are the only ones out there). The assumption that the sex life of a cis woman and a cis man would obviously consist mostly of penis-in-vagina sex. The assumption of heterosexuality in the first place. The confusion and surprise and discomfort she could not even suppress in this interaction.

I am disappointed that some healthcare providers are still so ignorant about LGBTQ* people. I am enraged that the same old, tired, ridiculous assumptions and stereotypes are present even in a professional setting. I am shocked that this particular provider didn’t even know enough to shut her mouth about her biases.

But mostly I am sad and hurt and feeling bleak about our continued working relationship as well as the difficulty of potentially trying to find a new healthcare provider.

She made me feel alien. Other. Misunderstood. Judged. And ultimately unsafe.

Those are terrible feelings to have about the person I have to trust with my iffy 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.

 

 

 

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