In the aftermath of losing Cece, I felt like I needed to say something about mental health and the importance of our animals. So…here it is. Honest public discussions about anxiety and depression are becoming more common, and I think it can be incredibly valuable to talk about these experiences openly, because they are so often shared by others.
Every significant moment in my life is organized in my brain by date, time of day, and day of the week. As I get older, the number of days out of the year that must be noted, dreaded, or honored in some way just increases. Last Friday, April 1st, 11pm, was added to the list. My dad also died on a Friday, also at 11pm, December 16, 2011. On Tuesday, July 7, 2009, about 4pm, with afternoon sun blasting through the kitchen windows and a pretty terrible vegan quiche in the oven, I had my first proper kiss. But on another beautiful Tuesday afternoon in March, that boy broke my heart. Around 3pm on Thursday, December 18th, 2014, my favorite doctor called to say I had cancer.
Those little details shouldn’t matter, but somehow that is the information my anxious brain clings to when the alarm goes off and all the signs say “Pay attention, this is important.” Some of those moments are bright and vivid and joyous, but many of them are snapshots of the deepest pain, fear and uncertainty.
I was reminded this weekend that all of those moments are connected. They all live in the same part of my brain and heart. Experiences of trauma do not exist in a vacuum, and they like to gang up on you and combine in new and excruciating little ways.
In retrospect, I have realized that I was always an anxious child, and experienced a lot of physical symptoms of general anxiety disorder without any sort of understanding, but in October of 2013 (amazingly I don’t remember the date), I had my first full-fledged panic attack. It was the kind where you get super light-headed, dizzy, and nauseous, and your heart beats so fast that death seems like an inevitable relief.
I very rarely have those anymore. When I do, it usually involves a trip to the dermatologist, because two major surgeries and eighteen (and counting) smaller ones definitely counts as negative conditioning. Over the last year, the number of times each day that i think about those specific Tuesdays and Thursdays and Fridays, has decreased, by a lot. For the last year, the thing that I think about several times every day is, “I can’t wait to get home so I can take my dog for a walk. She’ll be so happy to see me. She’ll be so glad that I exist. Maybe I’ll bake some chicken for both of our dinners.”
My dog was not a trained service dog. She wasn’t a trained anything. She was old and falling apart and a very picky eater and not very smart and often loud and sometimes cranky and occasionally mean to children. But she was everything I needed because she needed me.
Everyone talks about the amazing unconditional love of dogs. It’s true, they give us affection without judgement. But the greatest gift that Cece gave me, was expecting more. She demanded that I buy the most premium dog food, and then demanded that I change it every week for variety or she’d go on a hunger strike. She demanded that I arrange my schedule so that she could make inconveniently tiny poops at least four times a day, instead of one or two big ones. She demanded that i get in bed and turn the lights out a reasonable hour, because old ladies get very cranky past their bedtime. She insisted that certain strangers we encountered on our walks were meant to be new friends. She demanded that I be present, and active, and brave, even at the airport, because her happiness depended upon my happiness.
Everything about Cece made me want to be the best human I could, for her. And that human happened to be the best version of myself. She was so deserving of love and protection and comfort and long walks in the sunshine, and it kind of blew my mind that I, and no one else, could do all of that for her. Caring for Cece gave me a daily purpose, and the stability and routine of her needs started to make it seem possible to take care of myself. That focus and consistency, and knowing what she expected of me, helped me in ways that medications and talk therapy never could.
I don’t think trauma or anxiety ever go away. This week I have been reminded of that in a sharp way. My apartment felt too quiet and empty, and I had my first real panic attacks in many months. I have learned that I am incredibly resilient. I have survived all of those Tuesdays and Thursdays and Fridays, and the past three months have been some of my absolute happiest.
Right now I still feel scared and sick and shaken, and the ticker tape of Bad Days has been on loop since 5am Saturday morning. But in the quiet moments when my heart stops racing, I am deeply, achingly grateful that I know now what it is to be needed. I know that the thing that can snap me out of an infinite anxiety loop, and pull me out of stagnation, is a little dog who expects me to wake up and be the World’s Best Human every single day. No excuses.