Like many writers, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Douglas Adams really hit the nail on the head with this one, at least for me. I know I’ve raised plenty of hell for others with my tendency to leave some things to the last minute, but often it’s that sense of urgency that serves as the catalyst for producing my best work. There’s something about the clarity of focus that comes when you’re down to the wire. With that in mind, I owe Jen an apology. This story should have been on her desk hours (or days) ago. Instead, tonight I’m writing through bleary vision from the loads and loads of tears I shed today.
“You’re, like, in full-fledged panic.”
That was the text I received this morning from my very dear friend, Angelina. And she was fucking right on the money. I was a mess. I was sitting in an examination room at the Emergency Vet Clinic half a block from my house, just throwing down panic like it was my job. Why? Because of this stupid, beautiful face.
This is Val—short for Valkyrie, named by my warrior husband after the powerful beings from Nordic myth. We brought her home only 10 months ago, a rescue dog with her own battle scars, who we chose for her laid-back personality and love of people. She’s been to the vet probably six times since we adopted her, and only 2 of those visits were scheduled. This wasn’t one of those scheduled visits.
She’d woken my husband up a couple hours earlier, heaving over the carpet and bringing up bile. Today is the first day of my husband’s senior year of college classes, and between school and his full-time job, he would not be able to join me in taking her to see the doctor. I’m very fortunate to have a pretty flexible work situation, but I don’t always do so hot on my own. Having my husband home all the time, now that he’s no longer in the military, has softened and spoiled me, and if I get stuck in my head it can be a pretty bad time. Unfortunately, seeing the bile and blood my poor pup was producing was basically issuing me a one-way ticket to Noggin-town.
Before I could even get dressed, I found myself convinced she’d been fed poison during yesterday’s trip to the dog park (impossible, because I watched her the whole time), or she’d swallowed something that was blocking her whole digestive tract (again, impossible—she was still . . . digesting), or worse yet, she was dying of an aggressive stomach cancer. My husband tried to comfort me, but I closed myself into our closet, cupped my hand over my mouth, and stifled my scream as much as I could.
A Dog, not a Child
I know. I know this entire thing may seem silly to many of you. I know she is “just” a dog. I know. I have always loved dogs, but I have spent my entire life rolling my eyes at pet owners who were willing to bankrupt themselves over an animal, especially an elderly animal. I still believe that it is selfishness to prolong the suffering of an animal (when that animal has a poor quality of life) simply because you are not ready to say good-bye. I know that, in this community, with our many grieving parents, grieving at the mere thought of losing a pet could be seen as disrespectful or offensive. And if I upset you, I am so very sorry. I have a son Upstairs, too.
But I also believe that there are times when rational, pragmatic decisions go right out the window.
A Lock and a Key
Last winter and spring, I shared a couple stories with you. One was about my husband’s struggles with PTSD after three tours in the Middle East, and one was about my own struggles with complex trauma. My husband, since combat in particular, tends to be fairly emotionally isolated and pragmatic. He has strong emotions, but often struggles to identify or express them. I, on the other hand, struggle to regulate my emotions. I overcompensate for his stoicism, and in return he demonstrates increased stability. Our combined emotional map would basically be a globe with North and South Poles, and nary a speck of land between them.
This past March, months after saying goodbye to the dog that got me through his deployments, our rockiest years, and the worst of his temper, I felt like it was time to look for another dog. I contacted a friend who works with local rescues, and she made an introduction that led to our adoption of Valkyrie. The day we brought her home, my husband was sick. I was a brat to drag him out, but I didn’t want to miss out on the possibility of finding a big dog that got along well with little dogs, and none of our previous meet and greets had gone well. We got back into the house, he sat down on the couch to rest his aching bones, and she jumped right up on the couch beside him, placing her front paws over his nearest arm and dropping her head atop them as if to say, “I know, I’m wiped out, too. Can you believe this chick?”
My husband, not a dogs-on-the-furniture kind of guy, didn’t say a word. And he didn’t say a word later that night, either, when we climbed into bed and she jumped right up between us. I don’t know how she did it, but she opened something in him that I didn’t even know was capable of opening.
Over the months that followed, my husband steadily bloomed with affection. He began with sweet mumbles and nicknames for Val, but he became softer with our daughter and me, too. As we all grew to love her more and more, I found my decades-long struggle with depression and anxiety begin to ease. She seemed to have a knack for knowing when I was feeling down, and would flop her solid sixty-pound frame atop my lap or chest. “She’s sending you beams of healing love,” my husband joked. But he was right. She was.
After she suffered a bout of allergy issues this summer, I started experiencing sudden waves of anxiety. I knew how this book would end—the dog dies. The dog always dies. Despite her youth and overall remarkable resilience and health, I found the unavoidable end of her life suddenly looming large and close over my horizon. So this morning when she got sick, my anxiety monster climbed up into my head and took over.
Coping without my Kit
I hoped I wouldn’t be there long. Surely this was an urgent situation and would warrant us a spot near the top of the line. I grabbed tissues (I could not stop crying for long) and my phone, and that was it. Despite sharing my list of anxiety-tackling hacks with another mom online only YESTERDAY, I left all that stuff at home. It wasn’t that I thought I didn’t need it, it’s that I was so wound up I couldn’t even think. I was not prepared, and so I got caught without my coping mechanisms.
Here’s what I said to that dear other woman who bravely admitted her struggles:
When I have anxiety, it's really helpful for me to immediately ground myself in my body by focusing on sensory input. Suck on something with a strong flavor (peppermint, lemon drop, cough drop, etc. are good portable options), take a quick sniff of a favorite essential oil (Amazon and Etsy carry inexpensive jewelry diffusers), put your hands on something with an interesting texture (a worry stone, fidget cube, or swatch of fuzzy cloth, etc.), look for 3 items in an uncommon color or pattern, pop in your headphones and listen to a noise machine app or mediation/prayer/worship.
And instead, here’s what I did today:
Lesson (Hopefully) Learned
This story isn’t really about the dog. As much as I love her, someday she will no longer be with me, and I will have to keep dropping one foot in front of the other. For now, she’s on the mend. After x-rays and blood panels and enough subcutaneous fluid to make her look like a camel, the prognosis was, “She’ll probably be fine.”
Right? Totally a camel. And when we got home, I doused myself in an essential oil that I knew would fight my own anxious nausea (wintergreen), I grabbed some caramel candies to take to work with me, and I resisted the urge to further shock my system with coffee (a decision I’m now paying for with an impressive headache). I still spent the day on the verge of tears, but my daughter diligently texted me with updates and photos throughout the day. We survived, she even ate a little dinner tonight, and we’re all on the mend.
I may not ever be free from anxiety, but as soon as I’m done writing this, I’m putting together a little kit to keep in my bag. And instead of waiting until the last minute to prepare myself, maybe I can start finding new ways to plan ahead. In the comments, and over on Facebook, I’d love to hear your suggestions for what else you think my mental health kit should contain.