My Dog: My Light, My Mirror, My Oxytocin Fix, My Quarantine Companion—My Lifeline

Mutts, by Patrick McDonnell

Trigger warning: discussion of a suicide attempt. To skip, Please scroll down to subhead “The Day I Became a Dog Person.”

My dog found me a week after my second suicide attempt. I was only nine years old upon my first attempt.

I was twenty-six when I tried that second time. It was late at night, and I was hurting badly. Gratitude lists had been keeping me alive. Half marathons, too. As soon as I finished one exhilarating race, I’d put another on my calendar for the next month. I only had to stay alive till my next race. I could make gratitude lists till race day, and reconsider after that. And at the end of each race day, physically exhausted, overwhelmed head-to-toe with aching muscles, and loaded up on a runner’s high, I’d find a new race within driving distance. I was literally buying another month of life with my $110 registration. Surely I could make it another month. That amounted to just thirty gratitude lists and an e-shopping cart checkout.

When the half marathons no longer felt significant enough to live for, I began training for full marathons. But I trained improperly, and I trained recklessly, in self-punishing ways and with little regard for my body’s needs and limits. (All that would change later. My identity as an athlete would come to save my life, too, among so many other miracles.)

I divided life into manageable chunks like this to keep myself going—the daily gratitude lists and monthly races on repeat. Veggie omelettes in the mornings. Showers at night. These things worked for a year.

But my crisis escalated. The perfect storm and compounding triggers crashed together into a drunk, sobbing, dissociated, impulsive attempt to take my own life late one night. I was living alone in Los Angeles.

The physical pain from that attempt, although excruciating, did not even begin to approach my mental anguish. Yet, the next morning, a profound wave of relief washed over me like a strong California surf: I was still alive.

I was terrified to learn that I was actually capable of such an act of self-directed violence.

Without medical insurance, and pre- Affordable Healthcare Act, I tended my injuries myself—and thank God (for surely someone was looking out for me) that I’d had the wherewithal to abort the attempt when I regained consciousness; perform first-aid; and then tuck myself into bed. Wasted, I fell asleep amid a copper-like stench, and I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in that I would wake up.

The Day I Became a Dog Person

My secret haven in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, where there are so many hidden gems to discover. And: Meet my scruffy lil dog

“Dog people” like to say that we don’t rescue dogs; they rescue us. It’s not a sentiment I invented, but one I’ve seen realized in my own story.

It was the hottest week of the hottest summer Los Angeles had seen in years, during that first week of my body’s healing, while my mind was still in shock and incomprehension of what I’d just done to myself.

I first saw my new dog as I pulled into my driveway in Los Feliz—a magical neighborhood in L.A. full of ambient restaurants, independent bookstores, vintage theaters, secret staircases, and beautiful young talent with dazzling dreams of making it big it in the film industry. We were full of hope, and many of us were full of privilege.

But the hopes of my past became lost to me somewhere along the way. At twenty-six, I still held an awe for this wonderful world, but I did not see any future for myself in it. I did not relish being young. I wanted to die. With all my being, that’s what I wanted. My life had no value. That’s what I believed.

The dog was hunched by my apartment gate. She looked to be in real bad shape. I said some cruel words in my mind when I first laid eyes on that helpless, suffering, absolutely adorable creature: KC, ignore the strays.

For you see, I’d grown up in a home where we rescued animals, with an endlessly patient mother who taught us how to care for strays and find them homes. She taught me first aid for wildlife, too. But now, as an adult, I was no longer up for the heartbreak of trying to save the whole world. I couldn’t even take care of myself.

I parked my sporty little maroon car, cracked open the sunroof, and climbed the stairs to my second-floor apartment—more pain with each step. I kept my gaze resolutely in front of me. I could feel the dog watching me ignore her.

But once indoors, I looked out my window. Looking back—isn’t that what gets you every time? The little dog—a terrier mix of some sort, and oh so much scruff!—jumped through the gate bars and limped out of sight to the back parking lot, as if to say she belonged here as much as my car did.

In a heartbeat I was out my front door and rushing back down the stairs. This time, I didn’t notice the physical pain. That little dog needed someone to look out for her; and I needed someone to look out for me even more.

The mutt was splayed out on the hot asphalt not too far from my car. I advanced cautiously, testing her for both trust and aggression. When I slowly extended my hand to pet the wiry fur on her back, she, with great effort, turned to expose her belly. Her paws were bleeding.

“Oh, you want a tummy rub?” I obliged. I could tell she was grateful.

She didn’t display any signs of aggression, but it was still a calculated risk I took when I scooped her up, held her against my chest, and carried her upstairs into my air-conditioned apartment. I offered her water, but she, too exhausted, refused. Then she slept for hours beside my bookshelf. I named her after a classic author I greatly admired among the books there. When she awoke, she lapped up all the water with greed, clearly dehydrated. I bathed her four times in a row before the last of the fleas fell into the water. She patiently let me do this, gazing up at me with big, brown, trusting eyes.

My Mirror

Mutts, by Patrick McDonnell

That was nearly eight years ago. Our bond was instant and strong. We worked tirelessly together on her severe case of separation anxiety for a full year before she at last came to trust and fully understand that I would always come back for her.

Today we are both Californians-turned-New-Yorkers.

My dog has met my psychiatrist a few times. She likes him. Whenever I see him, he asks after her. It’s not just because he likes dogs; it’s also a clinical question. Dogs mirror their owners, confirms the research in study after study. When I am happy, she is oh-so eager to please. Tricks? YES! Schmackos? OH BOY!! When I am anxious, she doesn’t know what to do with herself. When I am depressed, she is lethargic. We have been all of these ways and more, together.

When she seems down, I notice that I am, too. I try to do something to make her happy, and this cheers me up, too.

She is a master at living in the present, and she is my daily teacher.

People love to hate on emotional assistance animals, or ESAs—our little cats and dogs that the law lets us fly with and keep in our otherwise-no-pets apartments. But those people don’t appreciate that mental illness is a real health condition. I don’t know what I’d do without my dog. I’ve been plagued by years of insomnia and night terrors, and I cannot sleep without my dog. I don’t have a fear of flying, but I’m single, and wherever I go, I need my well-mannered dog at my side.

I don’t abuse my privileges. I don’t bring her with me into restaurants, and so forth. But I need her to sleep with me. I need her when I’m home, and when I’m traveling, because I’ll have to sleep wherever it is that I’m going, and I never know when something will trigger me into panic in a bad way.

(I should add that a she’s the best-mannered pooch in airports, and after we board the plane she just quietly sleeps, unnoticed, in her bag under the seat in front of me.)

One remarkable thing she does to help me is not something I trained her for, but something completely spontaneous from within herself, something she innately knows I need.

When I collapse into tears my dog will just. not. have it. She immediately climbs into my lap and attacks my face with dog kisses until I calm. Under normal circumstances she is strictly not allowed to lick my face. But she ignores this rule whenever I cry.

Even more remarkable is her behavior when I dissociate. She is overall a quiet dog, except for when she’s feeling especially enthusiastic. But she’s not a nuisance. The neighbors have never complained. Occasionally she’s got a little ruff! in her, but infrequently.

But, sometimes I freeze. I can’t quite describe it. I’m not here. I’m not sure what I’m doing. I feel paralyzed. My mind doesn’t work. The memories feel real, happening, in this moment.

That’s when she starts barking at me.

Bark!

Bark!

Bark!

I sit or stand there blankly, trying to figure out what is happening.

Ruff! Mom! Mom, come back! Look at me! I’m here! You’re here, too!

With great effort, I come back to her. I scoop her up and stare into space. She ruffs! again until my attention is fully on her. Until I fully come back. First I calm; and then she calms.

It’s incredible. She only does this when I’m dissociated, which is not a safe state for me. And she always brings me back.

I call my pup many things. “My Welcoming Committee,” for example, as she always greets me with such enthusiasm whenever I enter the front door, whether after a long day at work or only after a quick run to the bodega. She wants me to know she’s happy to see me. I call her the President of the KC Fan Club, too.

I talk nonsense to her every day, and we never run out of novel conversations to have.

I also have a little poem I sing-song to her on the regular. It goes,

You are a happy dog,

You are small not tall,

You are very loved,

Both here and up aboved!

Wuv in the Time of Coronavirus

I’ve been working from home for nine weeks now. I’m fortunate to have job security, shelter, technology, and my health during this time when so many are going without so much.

I’m in a good routine. I talk to my friends and colleagues and treatment team daily. But the isolation is starting to wear on me. I find my spirits falling. I find the nighttime flashbacks intensifying, sometimes even spilling over into my days. When people ask me how I’m doing, I say, “I just want a hug.” The emojis aren’t cutting it.

And so I turn to my dog for my oxytocin fix, that incredible love hormone. I’ve read that “owners” and dogs (but really, who owns whom?) gain increased oxytocin levels the longer they gaze into each other’s eyes. This goes for physical contact, too. We cuddle, we cuddle, and we cuddle. I’m lucky to have her, especially now.

I’ve read in some sophisticated studies, too, that dogs truly prefer their “owner,” that is, the person with whom they have the strongest bond, over food. Yes—over food! If you don’t believe me, read Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, by Clive D. L. Wynne, Ph.D. It will blow your mind and confirm what we dog lovers knew all along: that our dogs experience emotions toward humans that we can best approximate with the word “love.”

I tell my dog every day that I “woof” (wuv) her. Like I said, I have no shortage of nonsense I say to her.

On that day my dog found me and I carried her close to my heart upstairs, I held her tight and made her a promise: That I would stay alive always to care for her, that I would never leave her.

My wounds healed. And I have kept that promise. Even when I was unsure of how I could keep going, I remembered my promise to my dog: that I would live for as long as she needed me.

And she, too, has always cared for me. That’s just what we do for each other.

My mirror

For more on pooches, kitties, and mental health, here is a good article.

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