I recently got my first dog.
Technically, there have been other dogs. When I was in first grade we had a dog briefly before my family made a major move from Orange County to San Diego County, California in the early 1980s. I have a couple of vivid memories of our dog, Tanner, though I could not tell you his breed for the life of me. He was a big, brown dog. And I recall not having him in our home for very long before our move.
We relocated frequently and my growing up years were too unpredictable and lacking any routine structure to be compatible with having a pet for the long haul. As an only child, my social and adaptable nature was well suited to my two fun-loving, adventurous (and maybe a little crazy?) parents who didn’t seem to prioritize setting down roots in any one particular place. I think I was still in elementary school when I realized that there were two places where I felt most at home. One of those was in the car, riding with my parents on the Interstate 5 freeway in Southern California because I could point to at least 5 exits between the San Diego/Coronado Bay Bridge and the city of Santa Ana off of which we had lived.
I have mostly fond memories of our car rides. We loved to sing together as a family. My parents were both in church choirs for years and for a time sang in a barbershop quartet with another couple from our church. Car time was pleasantly spent harmonizing, chatting, or on longer trips for me, sleeping. (I’m still a big fan of sleeping.) I was always included in my parents’ conversations. They always gave me a sense that my input was valued, and I had the assurance that there was no subject that was off the table to bring up with them. Even better were the times I’d spend in the car with only my mom because then we could listen to the guitar-driven rock and roll music or new wave synth pop we enjoyed that was never tolerated or appreciated by my dad, but I digress.
I didn’t feel the same affinity for the 57 or 10 freeways, though we traversed and exited those to get home for a brief stint. By middle school we’d be back to taking the 10 to a new exit further east, or we would travel by way of I-15 to highways 94 and 111 to reach our homes in the Coachella Valley desert communities. Later, we traveled a lot on the 210 freeway in my high school years when we made the move to the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County. I think you get the idea. My upbringing was a little nuts. By the time I left “home” for college at age 18, my family had made at least 23 moves to different residences. That’s my best count, give or take one or two. In case you’re wondering, the other place I felt most at home was at Camp Maranatha in the charming mountain town of Idyllwild, CA. That would be off of highway 94, but I’ll have to save any more about camp for another time.
This lifestyle would not have been sustainable for my parents if there had been more children, and pets definitely did not fit well into the equation. I do credit my parents for trying, though. Over the course of my early years, in addition to Tanner, I had a cat (Sonshine, the O is not a typo), a bird for a short time (Woodstock), and a fish (Fishiepoo named after the character, Witchiepoo, from Sid and Marty Krofft’s H.R. Pufnstuf, for all you 1970s pop culture lovers). All of our pet experiences were short-lived. My parents tried to give me as normal of a childhood as possible, even though our day to day was not much like that of any of my friends. My dad’s job as a department store executive demanded long working hours, and for at least a couple of years, our almost nightly family meals were taken at a table in the restaurant of the Plaza Bonita May Company. We would have been a horrible family for a pet, to be sure, but I didn’t suffer from parental absence. I remember getting help with my homework and special projects either late at night when Dad got home, or while working at the conference table in his office. And not everyone can say they remember taking a nighttime nap in the furniture department of a major department store when the silent alarm went off at night and Dad had to go check things out at the mall. All three of us went. That was the way we did things, and most of the time I found it to be a pretty exhilarating way to live.
All the moves and excitement of my early years served to give me a tight bond with both of my parents who made up for any lack of stability in our living situation with their constant encouragement, deep and authentic Christian faith, and undeniable love that was never in short supply. We had a unique parent/child dynamic, and that became apparent to me as I observed my friends’ relationships with their folks, especially by the time I entered my teen years.
While I never lacked the comfort of a loving family, nagging insecurities began forming at an early age and mounted as I got older. Not having a pet or much experience as a pet owner has always ranked up there with not having participated in organized team sports in terms of character flaws in my mind. Turns out when you move a lot being involved in team athletics can also be problematic. I had two pretty pitiful seasons of AYSO soccer in two different cities, so props to my parents once again for making the attempt to encourage that. It was not to be. You’re welcome to anyone who may have been a potential teammate back then. I was NOT an asset to an athletic team in any way. Not being a part of pet culture was also something that felt isolating to me well into adulthood, like a popular secret that I was not in on, or some elite yet common club that would not have me.
Worse, not relating to any animal companion felt diminishing to my humanity. Any time spent around pets in friends’ homes only served to confirm that I was not an animal person. Not understanding that animals likely picked up on my own unfamiliarity and discomfort, my interactions with them always felt like they were rejecting me. When my husband and I were dating (long distance between San Diego and Orange Counties off my beloved and familiar Interstate-5 freeway), he had two dogs that he had to leave in the loving care of his roommates when we married and moved into our “no-pets allowed” first apartment together. The fact that he had to give up his dogs to be with me felt like a huge sacrifice, and I hoped that someday we would be dog owners together and I’d be able to gain access and learn from him.
It seemed that day had come after 9 years of marriage when we had purchased and settled into our first home, and our kids were 3 and 6 years old. For a short time we had a beautiful Black Labrador named Molly. Her owner had passed away, and a teaching colleague of mine who was also a lab breeder gave us the opportunity to give Molly a new home. We had absolutely no idea what we had signed on for. I can’t recall the exact length of time she was with us, my husband thinks it was about a year, but it was one of the most stressful periods of my life.
Two adults working full-time with two young children and long hours away from home during the week do not make for ideal dog owners, so that would have been a challenge in and of itself. We did not know we were taking in an alpha female with some serious behavior issues. She was too aggressive in her play with our kids, especially our 3 year old daughter who loved the rough play but ended up being slammed against the walls in our narrow hallways. It was not a good fit. On top of that she barked loudly and frequently, scaring any friends or neighbors who tried to come to our doorstep and resulting in complaints and threatened HOA fines. Behavioral training would have helped, I’m sure, but we were in over our heads. It was all too much for me while learning how to parent my two little ones in addition to teaching full time. Ultimately Molly ended up going to a retired couple with a wide open schedule, plenty of property, and no small children. Her quality of life improved, and for me it was both an enormous relief and an acute failure. It felt like proof that I did not have what it takes to be a pet owner. On a deep unspoken level I internalized this as definitive evidence that I was a flawed person lacking an essential quality one must have to love or be loved by a pet.
The Molly episode and my unhealthy, internalized reaction to it may have been an early indicator of the mid-life saga that was to unfold for me a few years later. Some people might call what I experienced a breakdown, but I prefer Brené Brown’s more gracious and clarifying choice of words: a “breakthrough.” There’s no way to summarize the events well. The best I can do is call it a period of intense pain and struggle that required letting go of expectations and some dreams; taking off masks, and disregarding my intense need to save face. In the end, it required learning how to love and appreciate my life as it is and myself as I am. Clearly this all involved a whole lot more than not having success owning a pet.
Patterns of perfectionism and the drive for accomplishment served me very well in my younger years. Each time we moved, I readily took on the challenge of forming new friendships, keeping myself entertained when other children weren’t around (my love of reading started young), applying myself in school and figuring out how to excel in my studies and adapt to new school and teacher expectations. It became almost like a game for me to see how quickly I could fit in, find my people, and feel like I was at home in each new environment. As a teacher now, when I see student cumulative files — their educational histories — of kids who move as much as I did as a child, and the serious academic and behavior struggles that often result are striking to me. Viewing my own years of K-12 education through the lens of an educator, I find it remarkable that I maintained those high grades, graduated with honors, and came out of it with enduring friendships dotting the map (beginning in California and now branching across the country into our adulthood). I realize I have been very fortunate, and I don’t take that for granted.
But there is a price to be paid for a lack of stability and constant change when you have a psyche like mine. For me the cost has been a pretty intense battle with perfectionism and its ugly step-sisters, anxiety and depression. The earliest signs of that miserable duo were bouts with stomach ulcers and migraine headaches that began in middle school, later followed by other physical symptoms long before I ever acknowledged or identified any emotional struggles per say. The mental and behavioral patterns that had served me well coping with my life as a child and young adult completely undid me after I became a wife and parent and then entered my forties. Like many others in this season of life, I reached a breaking point. Going on four years later, after putting up a very strong fight, seeking much-needed help, and learning to use the right tools to transform deeply ingrained toxic thinking patterns, I wouldn’t trade that excruciating season for anything. It gave me my life back.
And it gave me the opportunity to be ready to be a dog owner, for real this time. Who knew there was so much psychological junk I had to work through first to experience something so inherently basic for others? We all have our own particular challenges. What seems simple for one person can be incredibly difficult for someone else. No one’s personal struggle is any less significant than anyone else’s, and being honest about the things that threaten and scare us most — being vulnerable — has an amazing way opening a flood of empathy and connection. (Again, thank you Brené Brown. If you haven’t read her books yet, I highly recommend each and every one of them.) I look back on myself in my 20s and 30s and chuckle at what I thought I knew and understood and what I accepted as truth about myself and others. Life has a not so gentle way of humbling us all, and whether we view that as a curse or a blessing is largely dependent on our attitude, perspective, and willingness to grow and change.
I learned that with all the disruption I routinely experienced as a child, change was not something I wanted to readily invite into my life once I was out on my own in the world. There’s a reason I have taught at the same school for 22 years and tend to drive the same car for a decade if I am able. I am not at all spontaneous when it comes to big decisions, which is entirely unlike my parents. It became my goal as an adult to build a life with as many constants and as much stability as I could possibly construct. This objective was very clear and actionable for a seasoned perfectionist and control freak such as myself. I had all my ducks in a row. I entered college knowing I wanted to be a teacher (that had pretty much been decided by the time I was in 3rd grade). I completed my education coursework successfully and in a timely manner. I landed a teaching job right after I got my credential. I taught for a couple of years before moving on to a master’s program so I could get that under my belt and obtain a graduate degree prior to getting married and starting a family.
I was able to check off many boxes on my master life plan. If only life would have cooperated! It was manageable to keep this plan moving right along as a single woman. I chose a career that is full of people much like myself, so I was comfortable and in good company. Get in a room filled with elementary school teachers, and you’re sure to spot several highly organized, Type A, take charge personalities in no time. But when the stresses and ever-changing dynamics of teaching, the challenges of marriage, and the learning curve of parenting all combined and escalated as they tend to do — any notion of maintaining a comfortable degree of control over my circumstances flew out the window. Flexibility is a must, and I had become as metaphorically rigid as someone in a full-body cast. I was in panic mode. This girl needed some training in radical acceptance, distress tolerance, and learning to go with the flow in a big way.
It may have taken until I reached age 47, but now I am at long last a person who can fully enjoy and embrace the experience of something as simple as having a dog. And he has entered my world at just the right time. Those who know me personally and see my social media have been inundated with posts about our adorable Cappie (short for Captain, and also fondly referred to as Cap, or El Cap by all of his adoring family members). Everyone in our house is in love with this guy, and flexibility sure comes in handy when settling a new fur baby into your home. The most surprising and wonderful part is how he has taken to me. All my fears about not being able to care for a pet properly, or not being the kind of person who a dog would love, have proven to be unfounded. Those old, ridiculous messages I would play in my head, telling myself lies about my deep character flaws and inadequacy were just that… lies. By resisting unrealistic expectations and learning to allow mistakes and accept what comes, I developed the capacity to enjoy life not just in spite of but with all of its imperfections and uncertainties. I am no longer seeking out some distant, opportune time when everything with which I’m unsatisfied will magically fall into place, and I can finally live my life. I recently read the quote, “You’ve mastered survival mode; now it’s time to live.” I’m learning how to live life fully right now, as is. It feels pretty great. Even when it doesn’t. That’s a profound paradox.
Now I find myself every bit the happily obsessed dog lover, and so many mysteries of pet ownership are becoming clear to me. For example, I now understand how so many people manage to endure pain and unpleasantness in life without paying for expensive therapy. I am fascinated and heartened watching people at the dog park and seeing the delight in their eyes. Pets may very well be the thing that keeps many people from completely losing it in this world of ours. I’m fairly confident that it will be Cap that helps me maintain my sanity during this 2020 election season and the remainder of my children’s teen years. I have also discovered that walking the dog is far superior to walking alone when I am overwhelmed. Being mentally present with Cap and focusing on what he’s looking at and enjoying is a tremendously effective grounding technique and is immediately calming. I could begrudge the fact that I didn’t benefit from this years earlier, but instead I am grateful to be the owner he has and needs now. The feelings seem to be mutual.
Icing on the cake, I am officially part of the once elusive (for me) pet lovers club and someone who gets birthday gifts like this:
Big breakthroughs can sometimes be outwardly evident to all. Working through the pain of adverse experiences can result in transformation that is identifiable by everyone around us, as in the case of dramatic weight loss or surviving addiction. But sometimes it’s the unseen, private metamorphoses that change the fabric of our being. Sometimes it involves something as simple as finally having a dog.
I have found my imperfect bliss living off the Interstate 8 freeway. And I’ve only had to use 3 different exits to get home for the past 20 years. Not bad.