Dogs Are Therapy

It’s a tough time right now, isn’t it? Honestly, I didn’t think Shelter in Place due to the pandemic would be too hard. I’m an introvert who needs solitude to recharge. So I had all these grand plans for self improvement. Teach the dogs new skills. Declutter the house. Run every day. Refresh my French. Write that novel. Dust off my clarinet.

Instead, I obsess over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily press conferences and COVID-19 coverage in the New York Times and my local newspaper, the Daily Herald. Late at night, I get on the emotional rollercoaster of reading NYT comments while devouring gourmet ice creams. Thanks to curbside delivery, I am singlehandedly (singlescoopedly?) supporting all small, local ice cream shops within a 5-mile radius. My current self care ratio is two miles of running per one pint of eating.

This brain freeze is about more than ice cream. The feelings of uncertainty, grief and anger are familiar to me. Bitterness is back, too. My six-year-old son has driveway talks with Grandma and Grandpa instead of being able to hug them and play with them. I want to hug my mom, too. I want to hug my friends. I hug. It’s what I DO. Nothing in my Introvert Handbook prepared me for that. And it makes me mad. Sometimes, I rage. And it scares me. Where does that ugliness come from?

My dear friend, Victoria, reminded me that it’s PTSD, from Hurricane Katrina. Almost 15 years ago, our New Orleans home filled up with brackish water that rushed into our neighborhood from a break in the levee. Fish and frogs explored the bookshelves that toppled over in the living room. They swam among our clothes tumbling in a house-sized washing machine. The water line was 12 feet. We found a dead fish stuck to the side of our house. Mushrooms grew out of moldy book pages that slimed my fingers if I tried to turn a page.

I was a book editor and a writer for a local alternative newsweekly. Many of those books were signed first editions. Many of them were personally inscribed to me by the author after I attended their reading at an independent bookstore or literary festival. I still have buckets of ruined books in my garage today. Declutter the house, indeed. Declare war on my heart.

And now you are asking, what about the dogs? You promised dogs are therapy. Where are they? The whole time I am writing this, Ginger Peach is sound asleep at my feet. Her quiet presence is my therapy. She is 13 years old. She has no memories of New Orleans.

Ginger Peach at my feet while I write.

Of the four dogs and two cats who saved our lives – we evacuated for Katrina because of them – only one 18-year-old kitty is still alive. His name is Bruiser Bear. He looks like a real bruiser with little ears, beady eyes and a broad face. In fact, he is a sweet teddy bear.

Bruiser Bear is therapy of a different sort. When I pick up his elderly, bony body, I feel a surprising weight in my arms. A flood of memories rush in. Bruiser Bear and his sister, Cricket, when they were stray kittens. Meeting our first dog, Shelby, when she was a puppy. Adopting more rescue dogs – Darby, Desoto and Jolie. They were young and alive. When everything was fine and I didn’t know it.

Me & Bruiser Bear

What is therapy? Whatever we need at any given time. Walk the dog. Bake cookies. Dance in pajamas. Cry in the car. Pet the cat. Write a note. Hug your child. Read a Mary Oliver poem. Wave to neighbors. Eat ice cream. Sing Lady Gaga songs. Run a mile. Call a friend. Plant a seed. Thank people. Thank you.

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