A few years ago, as we found ourselves watching our oldest three children prepare to leave the nest for college, marriage and whatever else lay down the road for them, we decided it would be a good idea to find an emotional support/therapy dog for our youngest who is on the autism spectrum.
Guess how much therapy dogs cost?
So I turned to adoption and found our Daisy Mae via a local foster organization. And if you’re wondering whether or not that was a good decision, I give you the following photographs as evidence that it was:
This dog. She calms our boy. She calms all of us. She wasn’t trained to do this. We couldn’t afford to train her to do this. Her ability to calm is just a part of her nature. And what’s funny is that as much as she is a calming presence for us, she actually isn’t all that calm. She growls threateningly when a car door slams in front of the house six doors down. She freaks out when someone knocks on the door. She loses her mind when encountering men (young or old) wearing ball caps…especially if they’re also bearded. She doesn’t do well with other dogs. And the vacuum cleaner is tortuous every. single. time.
She loves car rides. LOVES. But she can tell when I’ve tricked her when I turn into the drive to visit our lovely vet and by the time I’ve parked the car, she has huddled as close to the opposite door as possible – shaking and whimpering and giving me her classic Olivia Rodrigo “you’ve betrayed me” eyes. The girl is a bit on the hefty side (no judgement here, Daisy Mae – I get you) and STRONG. It takes all of my strength to pull her out of the van for those visits, and we both end up traumatized by the time we get home.
Despite the mildish irritation that accompanies these little quirks of hers, we have come to the conclusion that the secret to a good emotional support animal is to get a dog that has her own set of neuroses. Not only is she keenly aware of how to navigate the emotional minefield often present with our son’s autism, she also makes us feel safe. There is zero doubt in our minds that an unwanted intruder in our home would find himself (or herself – women can be criminals, too, ya’ll) at great risk of losing life or limb.
She sure is scary when she gets scared.
Same, Daisy Mae.
I can be scary. I’m an eight on the Enneagram, so anger is always hovering just below the surface. It’s my most dominant emotion and usually my first reaction to danger, to sadness, to frustration, and to pain – to name a few. I am innately designed to challenge others – their actions and ideas. Life experiences have enhanced this tendency exponentially. I’m not dissing myself. I like my eight-ness. I think good ideas are good because they hold up to challenge. I also think the safest people for me are those who are okay with my push back – or at least those who are willing to tolerate it. Within reason, of course…and my safe peeps are also really comfortable with telling me when I’m being unreasonable. Yes, that happens sometimes. A lot of times, actually. And yes, it makes me angry. They’re cool with that, too. #eyerollsfordays The truth is, the rest of the people eventually fall away anyway. I’m good with that, too.
The wisdom of the Enneagram (plus…#allthetherapy) has taught me a great deal about the angry energy that often spills out of me. The most disorienting discovery was that my angry stance is rooted in fear. When I first heard this from my therapist, I’m positive I gave her the look. You know the look. Well, if you know me then you know the look. I hear it’s scary. I hope it’s scary. Actually though, the moment I realized my therapist wasn’t scared by the look was also the moment I knew in my gut that she was the right therapist for me. It’s probably important to acknowledge that this was also the moment I wanted to run like hell out of her office.
I don’t think my anger looks like fear to others. At least, I like to believe it doesn’t. I want to feel big and strong in my angry stance. I want others to feel like I’m big and strong. I like what I’m able to accomplish from my angry stance. And I’m pretty sure I wield it well on behalf of others most of the time. I try to, anyway. And Daisy does, too. She never had puppies of her own, but she loves my people like they belong to her. She’s marked them as “in” which means she will protect and defend them at all costs. This is all well and good – pretty wonderful, actually – except for the times she moves into protect and defend mode when there’s nothing to protect and defend us from. Like when I’m sitting at my computer writing while she lays nearby and suddenly, out of nowhere, she leaps up and explodes with ear-splitting, ferocious barking that causes me to jump out of my skin. Or worse, when she’s sitting with our rarely calm and peaceful youngest child – helping to create a space of calm and peace for him – and then suddenly flips her lid because an Amazon package has been placed on our doorstep. For. The. Love.
Bless her hypervigilant little heart. Although there’s a certain level of hypervigilance innate to all dogs, it sometimes feels like hypervigilance is her resting state. I’m guessing that something happened to her when she was little that hardwired her nervous system to respond quickly to threats.
Same, Daisy Mae.
Anger is my way of shoring up defenses against the threats I sense around me because it’s WAY more palatable to me than fear, and it has served me well over the years. It has given me a sense of empowerment that I have needed time and time again.
The thing is, though, I don’t want to be an angry person.
And I really don’t want to be a fearful person.
My therapist has this maddening habit of using a white board during our sessions when it’s clear I’m struggling to feel anything but anger and overwhelm in response to whatever challenging situation I’m facing. As much as I hate to admit it, these little charting exercises of hers help me get to whatever is at the bottom of all the big feelings and bodily sensations that swell up inside me when something in my present touches on something in my past. I wish I could be more subtle with my irritation when she does this, but unfortunately, I’m kind of a pain in the ass. The best I can do in those moments is to limit my angst to eye-rolling, big sighs, and shifting uncomfortably on the floor. It’s embarrassing, but she usually decides to ignore it and keep going.
Also, yes. We sit on the floor. That’s a story for another post.
Inevitably, every time we do this white board exercise I end up realizing that the core belief underneath whatever it is I’ve said I’m feeling – be it frustration, anger, overwhelm, sadness, disappointment, and so on – is the one I least want to acknowledge.
I am not safe.
And guess what emotion is associated with this core belief?
This is a brutal realization every. single. time.
Which of course makes me mad.
I am so predictable. #insertmoreeyerollinghere
But despite the great discomfort over the revelation, I have to admit that learning that the rage often swirling around within me is fueled by terror has begun to bring me to my knees before the only One who can really calm and soothe my terrified little self.
And it’s not Daisy Mae.
Jesus sits with me. He hears me out. He helps to still my soul – slowing down my racing heart, guiding me through deep, cleansing breaths, and calming my stressed and shaking body. Sometimes He does this through my therapist because I’m too human and need another human guiding me through it. Regardless of how it happens though, slowly, but surely, my whole self responds to His presence with me. And the anger and the fear both fade. They don’t fade away. But they most certainly do fade.