November 15, 2016
by Katherine Waldrop
by Katherine Waldrop
November 15, 2016
A diagnosis in a strip mall calls for woman's best friend
My mother was driving and I was counting telephone wires with a little red dachshund in my lap. I paired them off by twos with a click of my teeth and no one had to know. Click by click by click and we were all safe. It never mattered how cautious she was. Seat belts were no guarantee. I trained myself to ignore the thoughts in my head, the fear, the demands to jump. Just count the wires and if the wires weren’t there, count something else. Always be counting, always by twos.
Her car smelled like home - nothing distinct but always familiar. I imagined my house smelled like fabric softener and dachshunds, but the intimacy of her CRV created a concentration of Mom. It should have comforted me. Mothers are protectors, but no one was protecting her. So I counted. I counted and stayed in the car.
We devoted the summer after my freshman year of college to a new psychiatrist who didn’t accept insurance. She drove me 30 minutes to a strip mall two towns over. I couldn’t drive myself. I couldn’t count and drive at the same time. His office was sandwiched between a Mexican restaurant and a fabric store. There wasn’t a sign, only curtains to black out the windows. Patient privacy is key to a psych specializing in drug addiction. She stayed in the car with a dog in her lap. Chileigh kept her company.
Before I was seen by anyone besides the receptionist, I was sent to a back room to pee in a cup. I’d never had to pee for a psychiatrist. Maybe it was a formality, but having my first impression based on urine was not ideal. I thought about watering it down in case it looked unhealthy. I wondered how many hands my doctor shook that day and how many of those hands were covered in pee splashes. I washed mine twice.
An older woman in a white coat led me to a waiting room, offered me coffee, turned on the TV. She was the appropriate amount of friendly for people like me. She asked me how I was doing and only smiled when I told her I was fine. My new patient paperwork was mailed in a week ago so I was spared the weigh in, the questionnaire. I was left alone to watch Animal Planet and pocket a couple tissues.
Dr. Passer looked like a a six foot version of Snow White’s Doc. I was paying for an hour in an unmarked section of a strip mall with an overgrown cartoon character. He shook my hand and had me sit in a leather chair. His own chair was small but it swiveled. Mine was twice the size and stayed in place, directly facing him. I pulled a tissue out of my pocket and began to fold.
“So your urine analysis showed three substances. Let’s talk about those.”
Easy. “Prescribed. Prescribed. Recreational.” I wasn’t in the business of lying to people paid to help me, no matter how anxious I got. The more questions he asked, the sweatier my palms became. My tissue was folded 8 times every which way and began to divide itself in two. Single layers were twisted and untwisted, rolled around my fingers one by one. My anxiety was methodical and I guess he noticed.
“Do you find yourself thinking unwanted thoughts or experiencing impulses to do horrible things?”
I thought that was obvious. “I guess so. Isn’t that normal?”
“Do you have any rituals or things you do repeatedly?”
I told him about the telephone wires, but I didn’t know why he was asking. I wasn’t paying to talk about telephone wires. They had never mattered before.
There wasn’t a follow up question. He excused himself and left me alone with my tissue. It was in fragments. I scanned the room for patterns. Ceiling tiles, remotes, even framed diplomas would work in a pinch. I was lost in my oversized chair. I needed to ground myself with my counting but he didn’t have enough picture frames. I was lost and stranded with nothing but hands covered in tissue remnants.
Dr. Passer came back with a book. He flipped to a page in the back and handed it to me. “Read this and tell me what you think. Does this sound like you?”
The section was about thinking ritualizers. It talked about obsessions and thinking compulsions and anxiety and distress and I needed to count. I closed the book and paired my fingers off instead. Of course it sounded like me.
“I thought this was normal. Why is this a problem?”
He spent the rest of our hour explaining Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and thought rituals. I used them to keep Bad Things from happening. I used them to keep my Mom safe in her car. My counting became a problem bigger than general anxiety only when it took time away from me. I didn’t know how much time I spent counting every day. I never had a reason to think about it. If I was in the car, I was counting.
“So our goal is to limit how much time a day you spend on your compulsions. Take this book and live with it. I want to see you next week.”
My mother drove me the 30 minutes every week that summer. She sat in her car, ran errands, wasted time until I was let out. She brought Chileigh more often than not. Our time was devoted to my behavioral therapy. My doctor didn’t believe in one-pill fixes. Instead I created mood charts, followed my book, spent more time trying not to count than I did counting in the first place. I needed to solve a problem I didn’t know I had, a problem no one else could see. Everything I went to a doctor for in the first place took a backseat to what I thought were normal behaviors.
Dr. Passer was always surprised by my mood charts. It didn’t make sense that 25 out of 30 days were overwhelmingly sad when the amount of time spent counting decreased. I wasn’t getting any better. I wasn’t getting any better.
The summer was ending and I’d have to leave again. Four hours away without any home smell, without the comfort of my mother. All I’d have left was a paperback self-help book and an empty apartment. I was too sad to wash clothes regularly and my dogs would be left behind. I knew what my life was going to smell like. Stale.
It was an easy fix. I was going to have the same trouble taking care of myself as always, but I knew there was someone else that I never had trouble taking care of. I needed a dog. If there was an animal dependent on me, I’d be alright. By taking care of them, I’d take care of myself. They’d take care of me. My dachshunds always had. I’d never lived without a dog watching over me, rubbing their faces against mine, curling up in my lap. Chileigh spent the last 18 years keeping me company, Reuben the last 14. There had been others, but dogs only live so long. My dachshunds were all I had left.
A golden retriever adopted me in middle school. Benjamin was a stray that never left my side. I never wanted him to. He must have been old when he came to me. Our days were spent curled up together, running in fields, hiding in the bathroom from thunder, sweeping up clouds of red fur. I loved him and he loved everyone, but it was me that he adopted. I was special. Maybe he knew I needed him the most. Benjamin stayed with me through my first diagnoses, my second, my third. Before I left for school the first time, he had a diagnoses too. It was too late to help him. Cancer doesn’t care about golden retrievers.
I wanted to take Benjamin with me that summer. He was the dog I needed, but he wasn’t there. Chileigh couldn’t leave either. Chileigh had a family to take care of. Reuben seemed like the best option, but 14 was the beginning of the end for the healthiest of dachshunds. He belonged at home with Chileigh, with Mom, with Dad.
I went to my parents with my idea and they understood. Dogs took care of us all. Dr. Passer understood too. I was the Ideal Candidate for an emotional support animal. It was an easy fix. Everyone agreed on a low maintenance, big cuddly dog. A middle aged golden retriever would work. We could adopt each other this time.
My mom took me to the shelter when I was sad. I was only supposed to look and ask questions. How often did they have golden retrievers come in? Did they have any now? Are they any local retriever rescues? I asked these questions to a boy in a blue shirt covered in dog hair.
“We see a lot of retriever mixes here, but it’s pretty rare to find one with the look. They’re a popular breed. Lucky for you, one came in about a week ago. He’s three years, house broken, and looks about as golden retriever as they come.”
His name was Human. His coat was very white and he looked very tired. I took him to a fenced in area outside to introduce myself. Human walked well on a leash. He knew where we were going. When the fence was closed and his leash was unhooked, Human was nose down exploring the grass. He didn’t come to me. He didn’t want anything but to be left alone in the grass.
The blue shirt explained. “He’s named after his personality. I think he’s more human than dog.”
We wouldn’t work. I needed a dog that was a dog and I was sadder than when I went in. Blue Shirt showed us the rest of their larger dogs, hoping one would be close enough to a retriever to work. There were only four other big dogs, and they all had some problem. Too old, too aggressive, too young, too scared. I gave up and began the routine of saying goodbye to them all. Walk through and give the shelter as much love as I could. There would be other times.
I was almost to the door when I saw a skinny silver hound speckled with black spots, one brown eye cracked with blue. His sign said Catahoula Leopard. I’d never seen anything like him. He leaned against his kennel gate, getting as close to me as he could. I wanted to be close to him too. Blue Shirt led me to a room across the hall and brought the hound in after. He ran straight to me, pressed his face against mine. Only five months old, but he was already too big to fit in my lap. He climbed in the chair next to mine and put his front paws on my legs—close enough.
He didn’t look at my mother, didn’t pay any attention to Blue Shirt. This silver hound was looking right at me. We both knew. He wasn’t what I was looking for. He was too young and the wrong breed. I’d never even heard of Catahoulas. I only knew we were right for each other.
Blue shirt told me he was sponsored - someone already paid his adoption fee. I had to make my decision then. He wouldn’t be there if I waited any longer and I couldn’t risk that. I signed the papers and went home to wait the two days until I could pick him up from the vet. He’d come to me in a cone, heavily sedated, and unable to reproduce. I named him Benson.
I spent the next two days buying the essentials and researching his breed. The Catahoula Leopard is one of the only breeds to have evolved in America, and one of the only domesticated animals able to face a wild boar and come out alive. They were bred to work and only the most useful could earn their keep. They were culled and lined. Pups too interested to stay with the pack and pups not interested enough were shot. Catahoulas were carefully crafted, a curation of all the qualities needed in a working dog with unparalleled drive. Days left in the woods without food taught Catahoulas to scale tall Southern trees for game. Perfect for herding or protecting livestock - children included. Absolutely not recommended for apartment living. Need at least an hour of free running every day and a firm owner dedicated to consistent training. They are protective of their family, highly intelligent, and ready to challenge any slack in authority.
The more I read, the more I realized that Benson would be no Benjamin. I lived in an apartment. I never exercised. I’d never seriously trained an animal before. I was weak and needed someone to take care of me. Blue Shirt should have told me. I wasn’t the right person for this dog. He couldn’t be happy with me.
Benson slept in my bed for two days before he started acting like himself and even then his favorite place was asleep in the crook of my legs. He was an under the covers dog, even with a cone on his head. We would be okay. He didn’t act like his descriptors. Benson was sleepy and wholly devoted to me. That’s exactly what I asked for. I was devoted to him.
We moved three weeks later. I spent the four hour ride thinking about him, counting nothing. He slept. The apartment smelled just as stale as I thought it would, but Benson was determined to smell all of it. His kennel was set up in front of my bed, right where I could see him. I read that kennels were never to be used as punishment, so he got a treat every time he went in. Positive reinforcement. It became his safe space away from me. Putting him up when I left for class was easy and painless for us both.
Benson loved food. He’d ask for anything I had - loudly. Howling is apparently pretty important to hounds. He’d open his mouth just enough so I could see his bottom teeth—the middle two shorter than the rest—and gurgle, yelp, howl, whine until I either gave in or stood up. If I stood up, Benson ran under the bed. I was always too annoyed to realize he was afraid. My goofy dog with silly teeth was afraid of me. I eventually started to give him food - his food - and make him work for it. He could catch even the smallest pieces of kibble from the other side of our room.
The toys I bought for him lasted days if I was lucky. He chewed. The older he got, the more energy he had, the more he chewed. There wasn’t a yard for him to run around in. I couldn’t drive him to the dog park. We could only go on walks. So he chewed. Every day I picked up rope strings, stuffing, mangled squeakers. I learned to put away anything I cared about. Books, schoolwork, pictures were all hidden. I stopped buying toys.
I found the first hole under the bed. Benson chewed through the drywall I was paying $550 a month for. Maybe I was sleeping when he did it. Maybe he was mad at me. Maybe he just wasn’t getting enough exercise and keeping a sad kid company wasn’t the job he needed. Maybe he needed to go to a farm and have a place to run, livestock to protect. I tried not to think about it. I tried not to count the ceiling tiles in my room.
The second hole was eye level. I left him loose in the room while I went to answer the doorbell he was howling over. I hurt his feelings I guess. Flakes of paint and drywall covered my bed, but I didn’t care. I was going to lose the dog meant to make me better. I couldn’t keep him. He was unhappy, I was unhappy.
But even when it was clear he needed to live somewhere else, I knew Benson loved me. He leaned his whole body against me as I cried and tried to muffle my sobs with his neck. My nose was trapped right below his ears and I smelled comfort. It wasn’t fabric softener and dachshunds, but I was okay. Benson smelled like musk and pepper and Benson. The fur right below his ears was soft and cold and I was okay. We stayed like that for a while. I could just breathe and not think about the walls, about the trash on the floor, about all the problems I had outside of him.
We made it past the walls and I started to read more. All we had to do was make it through that year and we could move to a place with a yard. I could start driving to take him to the dog park. I could take him to training classes. We could be happy if I learned to work harder. I had to work for him and then he would work for me. I knew he would. Catahoulas are strong-willed, but they excel at any job given to them. I just needed to make sure he always had a job.
I started to teach him. He learned to wait for my permission to take any food from me and he learned to leave some food alone all together. It only took a “leave it” and Benson would stiffen up and look anywhere but at the treat in question. He could earn the treat by shaking my hand, giving me a high five, sitting, laying, or standing. Catching kibble was still a favorite pastime. Our walks became more structured. He mastered walking on a loose leash - no pulling or straying from beside me. If his head ever passed my thigh, we would turn around immediately every time. The first five minutes of every walk for a long time was spent walking three feet, pivoting, repeat.
Benson needed just as much structure as I did. He wasn’t able to spend all day in bed. If I forgot to take him outside or slept too long in the morning, he would tell me. My body was conditioned to wake up at even the smallest whimper. If I was too wrapped up in myself to remember to feed him, he’d bring me his bowl. We both had to work every single day or he would get rid of his energy the only other way he knew how. I bought an “indestructible” rubber toy, filled the inside cavity with peanut butter and kibble. No more rope strings. I learned what worked for him and I learned what didn’t. Positive reinforcement didn’t mean just rewarding good behavior; it meant actively not rewarding bad behavior. I couldn’t let him bring me his food bowl, command me to feed him. We needed our own rituals. I eat then he eats but only when I give him the cue. Tap into some of the wisdom of the old Catahoula owners, remember that my Benson works just the same as their dogs. He had to work for everything, food included.
The year was slow. I color matched the paint and taught myself how to fix the holes in the wall. Benson had his first birthday and eventually grew up. He wasn’t a puppy anymore. We trained together in our room to pass the time and built a relationship on respect instead of desperation. I respected his need to work and he began to respect me as his person. I had to be the leader of our pack even when I thought I needed someone to lead me. He depended on me for food, for consistency, for the same love I required of him and I couldn’t let him be unhappy. I’d already been selfish enough to keep him, so I had to step up.
I learned to drive that summer. I didn’t think about telephone wires or counting or crashing. I thought about Benson running every time I started the car and then focused on driving instead. I trained my thoughts to stay focused. My reward was Benson.