the printed thoughts of a woman on a journey towards awareness, truth, acceptance, clarity, and forgiveness...with some fun and fearlessness thrown in

Thursday, May 21, 2015

raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Regina George

"Calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George's life definitely didn't make me any happier. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you." ~Cady Heron, "Mean Girls"

I knew that going back to college as a 40-something wouldn't be easy, but I didn't expect it to hurt. For the past year, I have been experiencing the practical aspect of my training. I completed a part-time practicum in the fall and a full-time internship in the spring. I learned so much about counseling and about myself. And, I also learned that Mean Girls isn't just a movie. I ran head-on into my own Regina George this year. She was sometimes subtle and nuanced and sometimes blatant and direct, but one thing seemed constant: she didn't like me. 

It started during a lunch out with all of the interns in our first week of orientation. Regina (we'll just call her that for ease & anonymity) had not been at a previous event where the interns had come together to complete a ropes course, so it didn't seem unusual that she was asking a lot of questions of the other interns, at least not at first. Then, I noticed that she didn't ask me any questions. And she seemed to ignore me when I answered questions about the city, nearby attractions, and Louisiana cuisine. It was as if I were invisible. I ate my lunch in silence (mine) and chalked it up to a case of ageism by a younger woman, something that I had recently begun to experience since working with more and more millennials.

A week or so later, I experienced her wrath for the first time. I said something that she didn't like in a process group, and she stewed on it for a week before confronting me in the group in an aggressive manner. She never spoke to me directly that week, but clearly had spoken to others. I instantly felt that the lines had been drawn and that I was now on the outs--not just with her, but with her posse of followers. The year was off to a pretty shitty start.

During the fall semester, I mostly had contact with Regina on Wednesday mornings when we had meetings and group. I left nearly every Wednesday at noon near tears. My co-worker in the counselor education department office became somewhat of a therapist to me, as did my fellow counseling intern. I even found myself on "the couch" of one of our professors once crying and drinking tea. It was a horrible semester in a lot of ways, and I felt misunderstood, attacked, and ostracized.

Then, at the beginning of the spring semester, something suddenly changed. We found out that a new intern would be joining us. Apparently, this threw Regina for a loop, because she actually came to me and attempted to join together against the new intern. She argued that our group had "bonded" and that a new intern would upset all of the work that we had done as a group. She said that it wasn't fair and that she already didn't like the new girl.

So, it was no surprise to me when she confronted the new intern in her first process group. And, it was no surprise that no one in the group came to the new intern's defense, except for the new intern herself. She spoke honestly and eloquently about how this transition was hard on her. She talked about having to leave behind co-workers and clients at her previous site. And she explained that the site had a lot of upset in its management and that it wasn't an easy place to be an intern. She cried, but she spoke up. And, I felt both empathy and respect for her immediately. Regina wasn't going to claim this one.

As the spring semester went on, I cared less and less about Regina and how she felt about me. I soon got busy with a caseload of clients and my own concern was them. My skills increased, and my confidence grew. I was connecting with my clients, who kept coming back, who were making changes in their lives, and who were telling me that meeting with me was helpful. I was doing good work, and I felt it on a deeply personal level. I was finding my identity as a counselor. I was proud, and I was happy.

And, so that was how I ended the semester and the internship. I was even able to speak honestly in our final process group. I apologized to one of Regina's friends to whom I had been unnecessarily mean and ugly (in my opinion) during a previous group. I answered Regina directly when she said that I had pulled back and put up a guard. I told her that I had, that she was right, and that it had been a conscious choice made in response to her attack of me in the second group of the year. She did not respond to that statement. At least not then.

A week later, the interns came back together for a final goodbye lunch with the staff. Except for my normal social awkwardness, the gathering went just fine until I met with my supervisor afterward. He hesitated when he told me that someone had gone to one of the staff with a concern about something I posted on Facebook. I was in shock. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I felt the blood drain from my face. I was sick to my stomach. I couldn't catch my breath. He went on to describe a post that I made on my final day at internship--a picture of a small piece of art that a client had made for me along with a statement about how much the experience had meant to me and about the gratitude I felt for each person who had been part of that experience. The post was visible only to my friends, and I didn't think of it as a breach of confidentiality. My supervisor couldn't even say that it was inappropriate. He said that he just wanted me to know that something had been said.

My immediate reaction was one of concern for my reputation. I had worked hard all year to prove that I was a dedicated counselor and that I had the skills necessary to do a good job. It was important to me that the professionals with whom I had worked all year would be willing to provide me with referrals for job openings and positive references. I suddenly felt like all of that had been compromised. I was now irresponsible and didn't respect confidentiality. I posted inappropriate things on Facebook. I was guilty of behavior fitting a 20-year old, not a mature and seasoned professional in her 40's. I was devastated.

And I was angry! Though my supervisor refused to tell me who the source was, my thoughts went right to Regina. She had sent me a friend request only about a month prior. I accepted it, knowing that it would be less awkward than not accepting it and telling myself that when the internship was over I could always unfriend her. I wanted to confront her! I wanted to get even! But, all I could manage to do was to go to a friend in the office and cry. I had plans to visit another internship site and to meet friends for drinks later. I couldn't bring myself to do either. I cried and drove home. I called a friend. I climbed into bed with my pets and cried some more. My mother-in-law called. I cried to her. I cried a lot.

And I unfriended and blocked Regina. I hoped that it had not been someone else. I worried about being vulnerable, about being betrayed by someone I trusted. I posted "pissed off memes" to my page. My true friends called and texted out of concern. The passive-aggressive vagary was completely out of character for me. They reassured me and supported me. They reminded me that this was "about her" and had nothing to do with me. They said that she was jealous and insecure and threatened by me. And, I mostly believed them. But, my worries, sadness, and hurt remained.

Until now. Now I know that she is just a mean girl. Now I know that she is threatened by my confidence and my abilities. Now I know that she is immature and doesn't know how to communicate directly or honestly. Now I know that she taught me a valuable lesson.

She taught me that there will be obstacles in my path from time to time. They may be people or events. They may come as a surprise, or they may be seen from a distance. I may be able to avoid them, or I may be forced to face them. I may get past some with little effort or effect, and some may knock me to my knees. But, like her, they really didn't matter. They were inconsequential. What really mattered was how I dealt with them, how quickly I recovered, how I let them affect me, and who was there to support me when I needed them. She taught me that, while there were mean people in this world, I was surrounded by lots of people who loved me for all of the attributes she saw as threatening. They like my honesty. They appreciate my directness. And they admire my emotionality. I have friends and family who know me on a level that Regina could never experience, and they accept me completely.

So, now I want to thank Regina for bringing my awareness to the support that I have been blind to for a while now. I want to thank her for showing me that I am strong enough to survive direct attacks with grace and dignity. I want to thank her for affirming through her jealousy that I made true connections with my clients and I made a difference in the lives of those with whom I worked this year. I want to thank her for reminding me that I am happy, confident, skilled, and capable, that I have a wonderful life with a supremely supportive partner, that I don't really care if I'm not a part of the "in crowd," and that I get to made a choice EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. to spread empathy, care, and support to others and to myself.

Thank you, Regina. I sincerely hope that someday you will be happy enough to stop being a mean girl. In fact, "I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy."

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Resolutions

"The new year stands before us, like a chapter in a book, waiting to be written. We can help write that story by setting goals. Dig within, and discover what you would like to have happen in your life this year. This helps you do your part. It is an affirmation that you're interested in fully living life in the year to come.” ~Melody Beattie
So, I don’t usually make New Year’s Resolutions—or at least not since I was a kid—so this should be an interesting experiment. Because these thoughts will be written down and posted online, I will be able to revisit them throughout the year as needed. No excuses, right? OK, well here goes.

This year, I intend to take inspiration from others to improve my life, myself, and the way that I impact others.

“If you asked me for my New Year Resolution, it would be to find out who I am.” ~Cyril Cusack

I’d like to believe that I know who I am, and in many ways, I do. But, I learned last year that there are parts of myself that I have not always acknowledged and dealt with well. This year, I will be more open to examining these shadow aspects of myself. I will appreciate them for the gifts that they bring to me, and I will challenge them when they interfere with my progress.

“Take a leap of faith and begin this wondrous new year by believing. Believe in yourself. And believe that there is a loving Source - a Sower of Dreams - just waiting to be asked to help you make your dreams come true.” ~Sarah Ban Breathnach

Doubt has kept me from achieving my goals and dreams in the past. I didn’t stop dreaming, but for too long I could only wish for my dreams to come true. Now, I realize that dreams can be achieved if I work hard enough and believe in myself enough to make them happen. This year, I will believe in myself first. I will remember my dreams, and I will believe that I can realize my dreams.

“Ring out the false, ring in the true.” ~Alfred Lord Tennyson

My gift to myself for my 30th birthday was my first planned tattoo. (The first was quite unplanned.) It was the year 2000 and Japanese kanji was still popular in tattoos—as were lower back tattoos, later to be known as “tramp stamps.” So, I designed a tattoo that would go on my lower back. It was a starburst design with a kanji in the center. I had designed it with the symbol for love in the center. I had just gone through a divorce, and I was more sure than ever that love existed, especially love for yourself. Fast forward to a tattoo studio in East Ridge, TN, where I am presenting a tattoo artist with my design and just before he creates the stencil, I decide to switch out the kanji symbol for love for the symbol for truth.
“Love will come and go, but truth is the one constant,” I said with the kind of arrogance that every 30-year old has. I was sure that I had all the answers, of course. Ha!

So, while my tattoo is no longer in fashion, its message still holds valuable meaning for me. Truth is important to me and always has been. It was truth that led me to leave my first marriage after only months. I could no longer be untrue to who I was, and I believed that love should always be based in truth. I knew then that I deserved to be loved by someone for who I really was rather than on some version of myself that someone else wanted me to be.

This year, I will continue to strive to be truthful always. I will look for the truth in all matters, and I will be true to myself above all else.

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're doing something.” ~Neil Gaiman

I have a strong tendency towards perfectionism and a huge fear of failure. I’m sure that both have kept me from trying a lot of things. They’ve also probably limited me from expressing my full potential for creativity and imagination. I know that it would be ridiculous for me to resolve to eliminate my perfectionistic thinking. It will always be a part of me, and I appreciate that it pushes me to do my best. What I will do instead is to strive to see my mistakes as opportunities. I will think less about the outcome or the evaluation, and I will focus more on the experience of learning, feeling, and enjoying the moments. I will open myself up to my own imagination and creativity without concern for the finished product.

“My New Year's resolution is to stick to a good workout plan that will keep me healthy and happy.” ~James Lafferty

I grew up as a skinny kid, but I’ve struggled with my weight for almost 15 years since it was discovered that I had a tiny tumor on my pituitary gland that really screws with my hormones. I’ve been up and down, but mostly up, and I’m currently heavier than I’ve ever been. I refuse to set a weight loss goal, because those don’t tend to work for me—or rather, I’m not good at those. Instead, I resolve to make regular exercise a part of my routine once again. I know that I feel better when I exercise and eat well. I want to be healthier. I want to be able to walk and climb and dance without losing my breath. I want to feel better inside my own skin.

“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don't allow our bodies to heal, and we don't allow our minds and hearts to heal.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

I used to struggle with falling asleep. I would lie in bed, my mind racing, worrying about what I needed to do the next day, obsessing over things I could not control, and stressing out over anything and everything. I was a textbook insomniac. I struggled with waking in the morning, and I would sometimes stay in bed for hours.

I don’t have these problems with sleeping on a regular basis anymore. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s necessity. In any case, I sleep ok, but I don’t experience true restful relaxation each night. I still worry too much. I still don’t always dream. I still don’t often reach that state of healing peace and tranquility. I still don’t wake refreshed each morning. This year, I’m going to work on this. What an amazing goal!
“Celebrate what you want to see more of.” ~Tom Peters

I should know well enough from training dogs that in order to eliminate the negative, you must accentuate the positive. I’ve got an advanced degree in complaining. This year, it’s time for me to work on improving my skills in the areas of complimenting, appreciating, praising, and celebrating.

“Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” ~Dalai Lama
I often have a hard time connecting with others who seem so very different from me. I know that I could learn to appreciate them more if I could somehow understand their motives, what makes them tick, and what they care most about. I know this. But doing these this is hard—really hard sometimes. This year, I’m going to try harder to understand the perspectives of others. I’m going to try harder to open my eyes, my ears, and my heart.

“Accept what people offer. Drink their milkshakes. Take their love.” ~Wally Lamb

I say “no” a lot. I turn down invitations, gifts, gestures, and relationships. Maybe my life would be improved if I said “yes” more. Maybe it wouldn’t. This year, I hope to find out.

“Always do what you are afraid to do.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

My third skydive (2008) & the first one I truly enjoyed.
I’m afraid of heights. That’s why I jumped out of an airplane in 2005, and that’s why I’ve done it four more times since. I’m still scared of heights, but I can always say that I’ve faced my fears. Even if I couldn’t conquer my fears, I have faced them. How many people can say that?

The good news is that I have many, many more fears, so I have lots of opportunities in this new year to keep facing them. When given a choice, I will choose to take risks. I will do what I fear.

“Your success and happiness lies in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.” ~Helen Keller

I’ve learned through my education and my practicum that one of the best ways to treat depression is to increase a person’s pleasant events. Don’t wait for your mood to change to take action; take action and your mood will change. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy to just “choose” to be happy, but it does mean that it’s often possible to choose a better mood. This year, I will choose happiness more often.

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

We often live our lives waiting for “someday.” Someday, I’ll be thinner. Someday, I’ll be older. Someday, I’ll be happy. Every single day can be someday—or at least a bit of it. This year, I’d like to be more present, more awareness, in every moment. I will make the most of each day, not in a stressed out, frenetic way, but with the appreciation that it will only come once and that once it passes, I will never again experience it.

Calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that's very important for good health.” ~Dalai Lama

Meditation has brought me inner calm and sense of balance. It grounds me and empowers me. It allows me to simultaneously feel fully whole within myself and connected to all of the universe. This year, I resolve to meditate more often. I will do my best to create a daily practice by which I connect, center, and focus.

“Let our New Year's resolution be this: we will be there for one another as fellow members of humanity, in the finest sense of the word.” ~Goran Persson

In my fantasy world, I’d be the hermit—alone in my cave, high in the clouds, away from the troublesome world below. Alas, I live amongst the mortals, and thus, I must learn to deal with them. Actually, if this past year has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t do this alone. I depended so much on my fellow students and my professors during my practicum semester. I may have literally gone nuts without them. And, my happiest moments have come when I’m with those whom I consider family or friends. Whether I’d like to admit it or not, I need people, and I do my best to be a friend to those who need one. This year, I will spend more time with friends. I will call those who are far away. I will help more often. I will volunteer more. I will donate what I can.

“To have the kind of year you want to have, something has to happen that you can't explain why it happened. Something has to happen that you can't coach.” ~Bobby Bowden

And, in the end, no matter how much we plan, no matter how many goals we set, the magic of life is that we are never truly in control. This year, I will make more space for that magic by relinquishing more control. I will leave room for miracles. I will allow time for wonder. 
The sunrise outside my front door on the morning of January 1, 2015.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Rescuing Roscoe

"In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn't merely try to train him to be semi human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog." ~Edward Hoagland

It was a normal Tuesday, so I was home until mid-afternoon when I went to class. The dogs had already alerted to a dog running loose past the house. In the last two years living on this somewhat busy road in an unincorporated section of a large and mostly rural Louisiana parish, I had become used to seeing dogs running loose past the house on a regular basis, but it still bothered me greatly and I always tried calling the dog to see if it was wearing tags. The first dog was traveling by quickly and had no interest in coming to me, yet when the dogs informed me of another wayward pooch, I went outside again. This time, I was surprised to see two dogs—a scruffy black terrier and a tiny white poodle. They were both dirty and wet and moving at a clip down the road. I whistled anyway, and the terrier came running to me. The poodle, however, turned up his nose indignantly and ran off back in the direction from which they had come.

I had no idea what trials would be brought upon me for calling that little terrier to me. There was a blood-drawing fight over a ball with Iko, the found owner who told me to “just let her go” and wouldn’t return my calls to claim her dog, the threats followed by thanks,  a mysterious and jarring incident in which someone entered our home and released all of the dogs from their crates and left the front door open, a police report, an almost adoption, and then Roscoe. That terrier was Toto and just when she had learned to live with my dogs in peace and harmony, I was asked to take in a different foster dog, one who “needed me more.” Roscoe, it seemed, had already been in a couple of different homes, and he was having behavioral issues. The theory was that he needed to be somewhere where he could run and play and expend the energy that a young Lab mix naturally has while also learning structure and manners. No problem. As an experienced fosterer of Labs, that was what I did.
He came home and destroyed dog toys, jumped on the beds, and chased the cats. All totally normal, so far. But, soon, we started to notice things that weren’t normal. There were behaviors we’d never encountered. He was extremely protective of his neck and would grab your hand with his mouth if you attempted to grab his collar. He was rough with his mouth and paws and quick to use both. I spent the first month nursing my scratched and bruised wrists and forearms. He frequently had an “absent” and distant look and didn’t connect with us or the other dogs. He didn’t know how to play and would growl and snap at the other dogs when they did. After a particularly vicious fight that resulted in a deep wound on Iko’s thigh, my dogs started avoiding him.

He seldom seemed to be living in the present moment like most dogs, overly concerned with what he could hear but not see, or with what he could see but not reach. He noticed everything—the moon, the trails of planes in the sky, a siren miles away, the closing of car doors at the neighboring houses, children laughing somewhere in the distance—and much of it upset him. He was highly sensitive to sounds especially. The 4th of July fireworks turned him into an unresponsive, erratic mess, running from corner to corner of the yard, angrily barking at the sky. He wouldn’t come when called, and, one night, after reacting to something that only he could see, hear or smell, he jumped our fence right in front of me.

We did what we normally do. We soon realized that his collar sensitivity was most likely the result of tenderness of his neck. He had been wearing a tight prong collar when he came to us, and, based on the look of his neck, it had been used on him more than it should have been. Using treats and repetition, I soon got him to accept having his collar touched. We used caution in the yard and put him on a long lead whenever he got that “lost” look in his eyes. We walked him regularly and used treats to reinforce good behaviors. We maintained a calm and confident energy around him and minimized his stress as much as possible.

We saw improvement, but we didn’t see internalized change. As Mitchell put it, he had simply adapted to living with us. He no longer chased the cats, and he had learned that beds were off limits (mostly), but he still seemed distant and disconnected. And, while those at Petsmart, where he attended adoption events weekly, said that they noticed good changes, he never had a full day without some sort of freak out event. For every two steps forward, there was at least one step back. And, then we had a huge leap backward! In just one day at Petsmart, he lunged and snapped at two different dogs—one while coming in and one while leaving. Later that night, he turned quickly and snapped at me, catching the side of my hand with a tooth. It was scary, painful, and very, very sad. I struggled with trusting him again. I was afraid of what I knew he was physically capable of. I didn’t know if I could come back from it.

But then Mitchell, who is notoriously both more relaxed and optimistic than I am, said the simplest thing. “He just had a bad day.” I started viewing each day as a new opportunity. I was no longer obsessed with the overall picture, but instead I focused on making each day the best that that day could be. I realized that if Roscoe wasn’t able to live in the moment, I needed to do it for him. Maybe he could learn from me. Maybe not. But, at least he would no longer be judged by what he had done in the past. I would model for him the freedom that comes with being present in the here and now, worrying only about what is in front of you at any moment.
We did our best to address each issue he had with as much understanding as possible. Every intervention was deliberate and directional. When we noticed that he was sucking on his tail at night, we allowed him to sleep outside of the crate and saw improvement. Then he started chewing raw spots on his tail when we left the house. It wasn’t the typical separation anxiety. We tried bitter agents on his tail, an Elizabethan collar (you know, the cone!), a dog pheromone diffuser, a calming collar, and ultimately Xanax. We gave him his favorite toys and a Kong filled with peanut butter and frozen. Still he got to his tail and chewed it up. We even found him putting himself into his crate just to chew on his tail. It was so frustrating, but finally, on a whim, I left music playing one day and came home to find his tail dry.

So, next, we set about creating a new, positive association for the crate. He was doing better at home, but we hoped to have him do well in a crate at adoption events. After a week off, we decided to bring him back to Petsmart and to leave him while we went to lunch, then to return for him. We brought treats along (as always) and asked that the volunteers there approach him every 10 minutes or so, ask him to sit, and give him a treat. We wanted him not only to see the crate as a place where good things happen, but also to see that other people were a source for positive rewards and that Petsmart, while loud and scary, could also be good. Unfortunately, our training attempt didn’t go as planned, and we got a call just minutes after ordering an appetizer and drinks. Roscoe had “bitten” a child, and he needed to be picked up.
It turns out that he didn’t actually bite the child and that the child had been beating on the crate before sticking his hand inside, but it was still a devastating blow. Roscoe could no longer return to adoption events at Petsmart. His association with the crate had been made even worse. He had been stressed past a point for which he had coping skills. He probably felt scared, confused, and desperate. Or maybe that was just how I was feeling. At this point, it had become difficult to separate my own emotions from Roscoe’s. I had tried so hard for so long to get inside his head to understand him that I could no longer tell if my thoughts were my own, and I definitely felt that he could read my thoughts. I was worried that if we couldn’t “fix” Roscoe that there would be no options left for him. I was angry that people had failed him. I was sad that he was broken. I was devastated that I couldn’t help.

I struggled for a solution. I don’t like not having answers. In fact, I don’t like not being right. I have to be right. I’m not used to failure, and I don’t tolerate it well. Yet, here I was, failing this dog. My heart and my mind were committed to him, but I lacked any hope of being successful on his behalf, and it crushed me. That’s when I did something crazy. I contacted an animal communicator.

The jury is still out on the reading that I got from the communicator, but I have felt better since contacting her. She advised me to trust my intuition, which gave me the freedom and the confidence to stop taking Roscoe to a group training class that I felt was causing more anxiety than helping. She affirmed my gut feeling that Roscoe was afraid of being abandoned and that he needed to feel love. Mostly, I think that it felt good to talk about how I had been feeling, to feel less alone.

I don’t know where things will go with Roscoe and I, and I still have huge concerns about how he will deal with the change of me returning to a full-time (plus) schedule at the end of August when the fall semester and my practicum begin. I don’t know if he will be ok being crated for so long every day. I don’t know if he will behave for my petsitter. I don’t know if he will ever learn to play with the other dogs.

But what I do know is this…growth and healing are not linear; patience is difficult to practice, but results in great rewards; finding understanding may be more important than finding answers; and love is, well, you know, love is all you need.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

a dog's dash

"...but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years."
 (from The Dash, by Linda Ellis copyright 1996)

I've been missing Bennie a lot this past week.  Maybe it's the holidays.  Maybe it was my birthday, which is when I usually reflect on the previous year rather than on New Year's Day.  Or maybe it's just that my heart has healed enough to allow my brain to start thinking about her again.

I still can't believe that she's gone.  That little dog was a fighter from the moment she wandered into my life right up until the moment she took her last breath.  I knew she would fight the ending.  I told Mitchell that she would.  I worried so much about it that I considered putting off the appointment for another day.  I wanted her to give up, but she wouldn't.  Her body had given up;  it was her spirit that hadn't.  Her final days consisted of a cycle of her lying down on the bed, sleeping, and going out to the bathroom.  She had stopped eating altogether three days prior.  Her seizures had increased in frequency and in severity.  I witnessed two that I thought would take her life.  Yet, still she fought.

She fought the injection by the vet.  She had to be catheterized.  She jerked her leg back again.  I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, "STOP!!!  JUST STOP!  I'm taking her home!"  But, I didn't.  I knew that it was time to let her go.  I knew that her life had lost all pleasure.  I mean, really.  This dog had lived to eat, and now she couldn't be enticed by any of her favorite treats.  I knew that she must be in pain.  Her liver was not working properly.  She was toxic.  It had affected her brain.  I knew that it was time.  I knew that my duty now was not to take her home and keep trying to keep her alive.  I knew that it was my job, my duty, my responsibility, to help her die.  I knew that I loved her enough to face that task.

I left her side and went to the end of the table--to her head.  I cradled her little face in my hands, and I buried my face into her cheek.  "You can go now," I whispered.  "It's OK to let go.  You don't have to fight anymore."  I felt her relax--not from the sedative, but from the comfort of having me close.  She stopped fighting.  She trusted me, and she let go.  She let one last sigh pass through that perfect, little, black, wet nose, and she left her no-longer-useful body behind.  She left me behind.

I debated about sharing her last moments.  I felt guilty for telling her to go when I so desperately wanted her to stay.  I felt like a fraud for putting her to sleep when I should have been doing more to keep her alive.  I felt like a failure for not being able to fix her. 

But, the truth is that I had already fixed her--at least a couple of times.  I had already saved her life.  She probably wouldn't have lived more than a few years longer if I hadn't found her.  She was so heavily infested with heartworms that her heart would have become unable to beat.  She was nearly bald and would have likely lived in constant pain and discomfort from her irritated skin.  She was not yet spayed and would have probably become pregnant again and again, bringing litters of unwanted puppies into the world and becoming more and more depleted and malnourished with each pregnancy and nursing cycle.  She would continue to wander loose, perhaps being hit by a car, maybe being picked up by someone with less than noble motives, certainly never knowing as much love as I would eventually feel for her. 

She wouldn't have received treatment for her heartworms, or if she had, she may not have survived.  She nearly died on me following her second injection.  She wouldn't have had the x-rays that revealed the pain that she lived with daily, her ribs splayed outward on one side, her left rear femur bone had been out of the hip socket for so long that it had created a pseudo socket from wearing down the pelvic bone, and her left rear kneecap refused to stay in place due to the angle of her hip.  She wouldn't have received the care she needed when one of her molars became infected.  It was during the pre-anesthetic bloodwork for that tooth extraction when her liver issues were first hinted at.  She wouldn't have been on a daily supplement to support her liver from that first early warning. 

She wouldn't have survived the gall bladder issue that emerged in May 2012.  She had only missed one meal.  Most owners wouldn't rush their dogs to the vet over that.  I did.  I knew better.  The stars aligned and she received an ultrasound that day that diagnosed the severity of the problem.  Her vet had just been to a workshop on the same topic.  She knew that surgery was the best solution, but didn't feel that Bennie would survive it.  She prescribed a medication that was compounded especially for Bennie.  I believed that she would heal, and she did, surprising every vet who had seen her.  She wouldn't have been put back on the gall bladder medication when things seemed "off" again later that year.  She wouldn't have had the last sixteen months.

And when she had the first seizure, she might not have gone to the vet immediately.  She may not have been diagnosed as being in the end stages of liver failure.  She may not have gotten the medication that helped her body shed the toxins that were building up within it.  She may not have gotten a choice of chicken salad (from Leblanc's, not Albertson's) or hot dogs or cat food or cooked chicken or whatever-she'll-eat.  She may not have been able to stretch a two-week prognosis into a two-month process of living each day to the fullest--a prolonged kiss goodbye.

She would not have had any of these experiences.  She would have lived and died in Indiana.  She would have never seen the inside of a U-Haul truck on its way to Chattanooga.  She would have never lived on or near a mountain.  She would have never spent a week without power after an early Nor'easter.  She would have never been to the city that housed the famous coffee shop where her namesake "donuts" were made and sold by the millions every year. 

She would have never, ever, ever have been as loved as deeply, madly, truly as she was by me.  And, I never would have known what an amazing little soul she was.  I wouldn't have been saved by her.  I wouldn't have known her constant and faithful companionship.  I wouldn't have experienced her soft moments.  My life would have been much emptier.

I miss you, Bennie.  More than words can ever say...

In memory

Sunday, July 28, 2013

the accidental cat

Crossing the road and walking past just one house from my neighbor's house to mine, my sister, Laura, and I encountered a little, furry, grey kitten.  "If that kitty follows us to your house, you need to keep it."

I already had two cats.  I wasn't looking for another.  I responded with one of our usual responses--"whatever" or "I'm sure" and kept walking.  The kitten kept walking, too, following us across the yard and up to my front door.

"If this kitty comes into your house, you have to keep it," she said while she literally nudged the little fuzzball with her shoe towards the open door. He walked in.  My fate had been sealed.

That was over 17 years ago, and that little kitten never left, even though he was the only cat I really ever let outside for any length of time.  He loved to roll around on the concrete, covering his back and sides with dirt and dried leaves.  He would literally go out with the dogs and come back in when they were done.  It seemed that for whatever reason this cat had made a conscious decision to live with me.  Maybe he heard and understood Laura's imperative.  We had made a contract with each other, a commitment formed without words.  We were in this together.

From the beginning, Eli was different than any cat I'd ever met.  He seemed somehow mature and knowing.  I spoke to him like he was human.  On some level, he was.  When there were no words, we communicated telepathically.  I believe that it was our connection that saved his life during that first year.

I was doing laundry, transferring a load of items from the washer to the dryer when he somehow got into the dryer.  I didn't see him in there when I started it.  I walked away and started the shower.  I had just climbed in when I heard something and felt my stomach drop to the ground.  I ran to the dryer, opened the door and called for him.  I felt around with my hand.  I didn't see or hear anything right away.  Maybe he wasn't in there.  But, I somehow knew that he was.  My greatest fear had been realized!  Eli had been killed in the dryer!

Then, I heard a faint meow.  I frantically started pulling things out of the dryer until, finally, a visibly shaken Eli wobbled into my hands.  It was late on a weekend night, so I called my vet and requested a call back through the answering service.  When Dr. Dircksen called, he asked me to describe Eli's condition and told me what to look out for.  He agreed to call me every 15 minutes for a status update.  We spoke throughout the night until we were both satisfied that Eli would be ok.  Before we hung up the last time, he pointed out to me that in my initial description I had said that Eli was "extra fluffy" and we had a laugh over that and joked that he was now "April fresh."  He was no worse for the wear from his ride around the inside of the dryer, but years later, Mitchell joked that maybe we should run all of our cats through the dryer to make them come out as cool as Eli.

Whatever lesson he might have learned from this experience, though, certainly wasn't generalized to the dangers of climbing into other large, metal objects.  About 10 years passed without incident, but early one morning, Eli decided to climb into the open trunk of Mitchell's car while he packed for a business trip.  He went unnoticed and seemed unconcerned until Mitchell was over 30 minutes into his voyage.  Somewhere just outside of Andrews, NC, Mitchell heard the panicked and harried meows emanating from his trunk and pulled over.  I was surprised to see him return home, but I wasn't surprised to hear the reason.  Once again, I was just grateful that Eli's curiosity hadn't gotten the best of him and that he had found an effective way to communicate.

It was in that year that Eli's life really changed.  He had already moved with me from Indiana to Tennessee and then to North Carolina, but he had always had his brothers, BoBo and Otis, to keep him company.  Unfortunately, though, BoBo lost his fight to chronic kidney failure that year at the age of 16.  The younger duo missed their older brother, but then welcomed a new brother into their lives a few months later when Manny came to live with us.  Towards the end of the year, Otis got sick for the first time ever in his 12 years.  In January, he was very sick as we made our next move to Connecticut, and by March he had lost his life to intestinal cancer.

Eli suddenly went from the "baby" of the feline branch of our family to the patriarch.  And, he took his new role seriously.  When Manny pestered me to go outside on the deck with Eli, Eli gave me a knowing look and assured me that he would take his brother under his wing and would keep him safe.  I watched cautiously from the back door as Manny jumped down from the deck into the yard and headed toward the corner of the house.  Eli immediately fell in line, following him and then circling around in front of him and corralling him back into the backyard once that invisible line at the edge of the house had been breached.  I watched him do this time and time again until Manny had been trained to stay inside the area defined as safe by Eli.  Manny was allowed to hunt and play in the backyard, but he knew not to ever leave and he learned from Eli to come in when called.  Eli and Manny became good buddies, and they spend a lot of time together enjoying the sun from our deck.

Sadly, only a couple of years later, Manny succumbed to intestinal cancer, just as Otis had.  Eli was the only cat in the house for six months until we adopted Alla, a breathtakingly beautiful Birman cat.  She was just seven months old and brought a new energy and youthfulness into the home, and Eli loved playing with her.  Just seven months later, she withdrew from the family and lost weight.  A simple trip to the vet ended in a terminal sentence of FIP (feline infectious peritonitis).  Alla was gone within two weeks, and Eli was alone again.

I was devastated by Alla's loss and didn't want another cat, but Eli made it clear that he wanted company.  I was so afraid of losing another pet, but I knew that I would have to take that risk to make Eli happy.  Only one month later, I found myself agreeing to adopt a cat from the Savannah, GA shelter after receiving her picture from a local rescuer.  I met the transport van the next weekend, and Hazel joined our family in a seamless transition.  Eli was happy once again.

Maybe it was his own rescue that inspired him, but I always felt that Eli was my silent partner in fostering and adopting new animals.  He welcomed every cat that came to stay, whether for a short time or for good.  I never heard him hiss at a cat who was scared or confused and who hissed or swatted at him.  He also allowed every dog to paw him, mouth him, and nudge him with its muzzle.  He never showed fear, and he never reacted.  He showed the most spastic, cat-chasing pup that there was more reward in being calm than in running after a cat.  He showed the paranoid, possessive, and territorial dogs that there was no difference between the cat in your yard and the one walking by your yard and, therefore, no need to freak out.  He was brilliantly effective in a completely unassuming way.  He was steady, confident, and constant.  He was literally the coolest cat I'd ever known.

It's now been seven weeks since Eli let me know that after over 17 years he was ready to leave his little body behind.  He had lived for several years with an intense allergy that caused his intestines to thicken and lose their ability to absorb nutrients from his food.  He had been diagnosed through bloodwork after I took him to the vet saying that there was something wrong with his belly.  "He's meowing weird," I said.  "I think his stomach hurts."  The vet looked at me strangely, but then apologized when his values came back.  "How the hell did you know what was wrong?" he asked, and I explained that I just understood Eli. 

I understood Eli, and he understood me.  He was more than a cat.  He was my friend.  He had been my friend since he walked through my front door that night.  I miss my friend.  I miss him so incredibly much.
Alla & Eli

Monday, April 29, 2013

a perfect gentleman

re: need a foster for an 8 year old PERFECT lab in Baton Rouge
This fellow came from the Baton Rouge shelter.  He is housetrained and gets along with all dogs.  He is incredibly sweet and has perfect house manners.  He is ½ thru his heartworm treatment.  He is easy to keep calm.  His foster mom is pregnant and getting close to her due date.  Can any one  foster him for 3 weeks????

That was the email I responded to when I agreed to foster Bach.  It was March 7, and he came to me on March 12.  My 3 week, easy fostering assignment has turned into a 7-weeks-and-counting mission to save a dog's life.

Bach is the sweet, good-mannered boy described in the email.  He's clearly lived a rough life.  His elbows and heels are heavily calloused, and his teeth are worn down to nubs, probably from chewing on rocks out of sheer boredom.  He hates to be outside without a human, and he loves tennis balls with an obsessive joy.  He climbs on the couch to snuggle, and he flops over on his back to wriggle and scratch at least four times a day.  He really is a wonderful dog.

There's no telling how he ended up in a shelter at his age, but it's clear that he wasn't valued by the people tasked with caring for him.  He had not been neutered, and he tested positive for heartworms, a preventable and potentially fatal parasitic infection.  He was saved by the rescue organization and neutered.  He was then treated for the heartworms, a risky and potentially fatal procedure on its own.  And then, I realized that he was occasionally dripping urine.  
Combined with the fact that he had some weakness in his hind end, we guessed that he had some sort of nerve damage.  The rescue coordinator was advised by one veterinarian to euthanize Bach, because he was "unadoptable" as he was.  I urged her to at least have him examined by another vet to determine what the cause might be and whether there might be any medical options available.  I let her know that I was committed to his care and wanted to give him every chance possible.  I bought him custom made belly bands, and I cut up blue pads to use as "panty liners."  I made special beds for him in his favorite spots (right next to me) that could be washed easily and kept the floors protected.  I started giving him homeopathic drops.

As suspected, an X-ray showed that two of the sacral vertebrae are closer together than they should be, indicating that the disc between them is likely bulging or ruptured and pressing on the spinal column.  This explained both the urinary incontinence and the difficulty getting up in his hind end.  We added steroids to his daily regimen of an NSAID, glucosamine, and chondroitin.  I ordered two more belly bands.  Bach continues to be a happy guy, unaware of any problems.  He sometimes goes for days without dripping, and then he sometimes drips all day. 

I urged the rescue coordinator to put out an emotional plea for Bach, and we both shared it far and wide.  I hoped for an immediate response from someone with a big heart and a patient soul who wanted to give him the retirement home that he deserves.  No such offer has yet come in, but we have been contacted by a chiropractor who would like to help.  She has offered to treat Bach without charge.  Again, I become hopeful.

I believe in a forever home for Bach.  I know that he didn't survive his rough life, his time in the shelter, and his heartworm disease and treatment only to be "put to sleep" over some dripping pee.  I'm sure that there's someone out there for him.  I imagine him leaving my house to have his happily ever after, and I'm doing everything I can to get him ready.  He's learned to take treats nicely and gently.  He knows how to sit now, and he sits for his food and treats.  He has become acquainted with cats, and he's learned that they exist on level somewhere above even the humans in the home.  He walks well on a leash, rides well in a car, and (sort of) understands what "go potty" means.  He's an old man with some medical needs and some routine maintenance requirements, but, other than that, he's absolutely perfect.

Bach's Petfinder profile can be viewed at:

Bach was adopted and is a much loved family member living in the Bronx, NY.  The day after meeting him, his new parents wrote:

"Yesterday morning we went up to Exit 14 in Spring Valley arriving at 8:30.  A large van was in the parking lot giving a family a dog.  The driver said that he was going off to Danbury, Connecticut and that another van would soon arrive.  About 10 other cars arrived with children and adults  At 9:00 a.m. the second van arrived.  Each family stood in a row holding a leash.  The driver asked, "What's the name of your dog?"  Then the driver went into the van returning with their dog.  There were yellow and black Labs and an assortment of other dogs.  They were all wagging their tails and all the families had smiles on their faces and were joyful.  The driver came over to Val and asked her dog's name.  "Bach" she said.  The driver went into the van and walked back with Bach, the king of all the dogs who was wagging his tail.

We brought him home and he played catch most of the day.  His tail never stopped wagging.  We love him and he loves us!  We gave him his pills and his dinner at 6:00 p.m.  He is loving, beautiful and friendly--we feel he has adopted us.  Bach is a great dog.

Thank you for all you do for Labs and for bringing Bach into our lives."