I’ve been watching our dog lately. Not that this is really unusual–just looking at her is good for lowering the blood pressure. Especially when she sleeps. Within a day of picking her up from the rescue agency, my daughter had named her main sleeping positions Taco and Jellybean. These are used as verbs too: “She’s jellybeaned at the top of the stairs” or “She is so going to taco when we get home.”
The first time we saw her jellybean was shortly after we got her home from the airport. After a fourteen-hour flight and much more time in the crate for customs and other travel, her four-month-old self was completely overwhelmed. My daughter talked to her all the way home, getting her used to the sound of this new voice. On our couch, she scrambled onto my daughter’s stomach and jellybeaned, not to move for several hours. It cast a kind of spell on all of us.
For me, the emotions were those of someone bowled over by an unexpected attachment. As I wrote about in Suicide Puppy, I agreed to get a dog for some dark reasons. I didn’t expect to bond closely with her. But as I watched her sleep the sleep of the exhausted I was swept with a wave of empathy. She’d come from chaos, hunger, danger and abandonment, through a series of confinements and transitions and here she was, at last, curled up in a quiet place. A safe place, and one she would not have to leave–at that moment, the fact that we’d brought her to this haven seemed the most comforting thing in the world to me.
I continued to feel this way every time I watched her relax. This wasn’t all the time–she remained an anxious dog, perhaps because of her history. She got worried when left alone for any length of time and still tends to be a drama queen at the door. But when we are home, and especially when the entire family is home, she seems to give a great sigh of relief and just let go. And I get that same feeling as I see her thump down on the rug, or next to one of us on the sofa, or on the bed at night, and assume one of her positions.
I love that she can do that. And it hurts to realize that the closest I’ve ever gotten to that feeling involved drugs. I know I am not the only addict to feel that way; drowning fear and anxiety is a frequently stated reason for using their substance of choice. Many talk of their first experience as an “all is well” feeling they never had before that time. Whether our fearfulness is the general human condition or we had things in our background that made it worse, we tend not to be good at relaxing. The rate of diagnosed PTSD, anxiety disorders and panic disorder among substance abusers is higher than in the general population, and many who are not diagnosed have traits of these.
Our substances were our haven, and in recovery we struggle with finding ways to feel safe. Or ways to be at peace with the fact that we don’t feel safe. Ways to be present in the moment and accept the fact that we don’t control what will happen in the next one.
What do we do? Do we turn to support from others, seeking a feeling of safety in numbers? Do we seek therapy or other help for issues we have that make us feel anxiety out of proportion to a situation? Do we develop new methods of coping with stress by exercising or adopting soothing hobbies? Do we work toward changing living situations or other things that are truly unsafe? Do we pursue a feeling of serenity through our spiritual work?
Hopefully, we do all of these things. But the truth is that we may never re-create the feeling of womblike bliss or freedom from worry that we might remember from our using days. In times of not feeling safe or serene, it’s tempting to exaggerate that memory and forget how much time we spent chasing it versus how little time we ever really had it. Or forget how high a price we paid for it.
Sometimes my dog looks at us with what seems like questions in her eyes. After years, she still seems tentative, as if wondering when this tranquil dream is going to end. But she’s better than I am at enjoying the present, and I hope I’ll learn to be more like her as I grow in my recovery. Sure, at any moment a dangerous squirrel or bird or mailman might disturb my serenity…but they aren’t here now. Now there are toys and a sunny spot and walks to think about.