My dog fell ill, and I forgot every healthy lesson life has taught me. Ralphy, an eleven pound mass of gray white fur and–I believe–the most affectionate companion in the world, has been one of my steadiest supporters for seven years. Saturday morning, after seeming tremulous and weak the night before, he showed no interest in breakfast. My pal stood unsteadily with lowered tail, made no move toward his food bowl, and gazed up at me in askance.
What else to do but assume the worst? My field narrowed to a poodle-sized circle of sorrow. Waiting for hours in the pet emergency hospital, to which my wife and I drove through sparse weekend traffic at 7:00 a.m., I used my imperfect knowledge of the human body to diagnose my dog with fatal illness.
Having concluded that my canine friend was dying, it felt natural to review the setbacks of 2014, which now seemed like preludes to this final disaster. Sitting in a rectangular waiting room as large as a convenience store, decorated in a palate of burgundies and browns, complete with a black and chrome machine that made cappuccinos for free, I recalled the major surgery in March that left me with a chronically uncomfortable belly. I rued how my poetry teacher had informed me, in a private lesson for which I paid good money, that my verse is unschooled and unpublishable. I revisited exciting plans to train as a meditation leader that had collapsed in a matter of hours. Eyes pooling with self-pity, I moved back in time, replaying insults I’d borne in childhood: losing my first dog just weeks before losing my mom; being pulled away from relatives who handled me with love to be raised by a stepmother who showered me with hate. The list of hurtful memories, lengthy even when I’m feeling well, grew longer.
Every tool in my kit of remedies stayed in the box. I did not center myself in my body. I neither stilled my thoughts nor explored my mental state with curiosity. I did not remember all the good things in life that help balance out the bad. I barely inhaled. Instead, I slouched on the tasteful furniture, rigid with pessimism, taking in just enough air to support my negative thinking.
What went wrong? Why did my pet’s listlessness and poor appetite (which turned out to be due to back pain–a diagnosis that cost what you’d expect in a facility with complimentary espresso drinks) shatter my defenses?
How easy it would be to move from self-punishment to self-criticism, from bothering every wound to blaming myself for deepening the scars. I’m trying to avoid that.
Instead, I’m reminding myself how life works. Loved ones get sick; they even die. Cherished plans and imagined futures crumble as if made merely of dreams, which–of course–they are. How do body and mind respond? They wind themselves up until each moment becomes a knot of suffering. Hell visits earth.
As unwanted as this tightening can be, it is a natural reaction to stress. Perhaps those from happier backgrounds can remember, while feeling the jackboot press of grief, that circumstances are always changing. Pain crushes us for a time, then sooner or later it eases. Yet we who grew up abused, neglected, and bereaved are prone to forget. We fumble the lessons of adulthood, and retain only those of childhood. Life becomes a study in helplessness, where emotions as big as bears loom over us, and we know no escape.
Despair in the face of uncertainty is a conditioned reaction, a learned response. It was, for many of us, one of life’s earliest teachings. When we didn’t know what to expect, we grew to expect the worst.
For me, the habit of defeatism has proven hard to break. The most I could manage in my exhaustion Saturday afternoon, with my aging, beloved dog in my lap, was to reach out to others. At first, reaching out resembled complaining. As hours passed, however, the insights received in return began to unlink the chains, permitting some wiggles of freedom. Good friends reminded me that others have problems, too, and that there are means of coping. My wife pointed out the ways my mind cycles with negativity when under duress, and how she’d seen me spiral with this exact same vortex many times.
Sleep helped, too. I awoke Sunday feeling raw but restored, ready–more or less–to enter the drama of the next day.
Sometimes, coping after childhood adversity isn’t about remaining upright and centered. It’s about recovering after falling, about gravitating back to one’s axis after the centrifugal forces of fate and conditioning have spun the system to its edge. It’s about breaking apart and then recollecting one’s better understanding.