I do in fact quite literally live with a black dog. His name is Phillip and to me, he is not just a dog he is my best friend and my companion, but as much as I love and adore him, he has been my biggest stumbling block to heading off on this trip. To understand my love for this dog and why it has been such a hard decision to leave him is to understand the circumstances in which he came bounding (uncoordinated stumbling is more accurate) into my life.
Before I met Phillip I already had a black dog in my life … if you have ever read any of Matthew Johnstone’s books, you may understand what I am getting at and if you haven’t seen them you should they are great! … As the books suggest, this black dog in my life was a metaphorical animal that had been developing and morphing, following me around for years. It was by no means the big black lab of depression that is depicted in the books, it was more a niggly chihuahua of anxiety, however, the social and emotional impacts illustrated in the books do parallel what I have experienced, to varying degrees, at various times during my adult life.
Anxiety is hard to explain, but also, hard to understand within one’s self. This lack of understanding creates problems on multiple fronts over time, with relationships, life decisions, work commitments and most importantly the view one has of themselves. The best way I can think of describing anxiety is a constant voice … like a little chihuahua yap yap … second guessing every decision, playing out every worst-case scenario, clouding judgment and making you feel as though you are not able or worthy of achieving anything. Eventually, it creates a ‘pitt’ of nervousness in your stomach, much like the butterflies experienced before a big event, however, instead of a brief moment of butterflies before a running race or public speaking, it’s there every morning when you wake up and it grows with every thought of leaving the house, with every new unknown situation and with every known situation. It can come in waves of panic or it can be a constant niggle, there is no uniformity to how it impacts, meaning you can never just learn to expect it at particular times. In time, it results in missed opportunities, withdrawing from social situations, broken relationships, frustration and a constant battle in your head to talk yourself around. It’s exhausting, frustrating and without education and understanding, it can lead to some forms of depression.
The unfortunate thing is all of this happens without anyone knowing about it, even yourself really. You begin to think you are crazy and awkward and useless and those around you begin to give up as they find you difficult and withdrawn and hard to manage. It looks from the outside that you are being selfish and moody and from the inside, it looks as though no one understands and you are all on your own. This is how life is, as you know no different. If you are lucky like I was, it will all become too much, there will become a definitive point in your life where everything comes crashing down and, within the mess of everything falling down around you, you are forced to open up, ask for help and begin to talk about things. This happened for me during my second year of teaching. I had isolated myself from my family, my self-esteem was at its lowest, I had taken on too much at work and, socially, was pushing myself to be something I wasn’t. In all honesty, it was the lowest point in my life to date and thinking back on it, I genuinely believed I was on my own and wasn’t worthy of anything more.
I still feel sick about how it all got to the point it did and I really regret not reaching out sooner. However, it happened the way it did and I can’t change that, all I can do is learn from it. It forced me to realize the need to openly talk about things with those around me and begin a journey of exploring what anxiety is, ways in which it can be managed and how to communicate what I am thinking with loved ones. In the wake of this realization, I found Phillip. He was from a rescue shelter in Hamilton (DC Rescue, they are amazing) and his photo popped up on my facebook page one day. He really was so cute. So off I trundled to meet him. I had no intention of actually getting a dog, but I fell in love instantly … he wasn’t as convinced, I would need to earn his love … so without really thinking it through at all, we went home together. I was not prepared for how my life was about to change.
Suddenly I was forced to put myself second and consider something outside of myself first. What’s more, Phill didn’t care if I was feeling crap about myself and didn’t want to get out of bed, he wanted his dinner, he wanted to go to the toilet, he wanted to play and I had to get up and do it all. Essentially he forced me out of bed and into the world. He needed two walks a day, he needed to socialize with other dogs, he needed to be out and about and he needed to be trained. So that is what we did, regardless of the nervousness that was building up inside me thinking about the prospect of failing him. I was all he had now, so I needed to step up.
Eventually, I spent less time thinking about myself and how I was feeling and more time considering how I was going to provide Phillip with adequate care and a quality life. Slowly, my anxiety began to subside and my confidence began to grow. I learned that I could go for walks in public by myself and everything would be OK, I could have conversations with strangers and survive and I began to realize that actually, I wasn’t alone at all. Phillip became a constant source of companionship, company and belly laughs.
He was always excited to see me and … as crazy as it sounds … I could talk away to him without the fear of judgment or response. As he grew and went through different developmental stages I had to change my thinking and adapt as well. I began to place less importance on material things … mainly because he ate all of my things … I found myself cleaning up vomit and poop, finding ways to cool him down in summer, teaching him how to swim and exploring things I took for granted through his eyes. Everything was new and exciting and as he learned about the world, I relearned about the world and developed a new enjoyment for it. At the time it was exactly what I needed to break down barriers and provide a catalyst to develop my self-confidence, identity, and sense of purpose.
The thought of being without him for five months scared me, I hadn’t realized just how reliant I had become on him providing a sense of security, offering an excuse to get out of situations I felt uncomfortable in and always being a constant to come home to. But also, how reliant I was on him being the driving force to get me out of my comfort zone and developing new connections with the world around me. I worried that without him I would revert back to the nervous, overly anxious person I was prior to getting him and that I would no longer have anything interesting to offer other people. I also felt an overwhelming sense of failure, as I thought I was abandoning him and letting him down.
Now, I have spent a week without him, I can admit it was hard to leave him. I am not going to lie about it, it was blimin hard … rather traumatic actually … But, I am content knowing he is happy and loved by an amazing family in National Park and in reality probably much happier than he was with me. They have four kids to play with, a whole farm block to play on and many other animals to run around with. Life will be different, yes, he is no longer leader of the pack and has to sleep outside like an actual dog. However, it’ll be good for him to be certain of his place in the pack and be treated like a dog. I hadn’t realized just how much I was projecting my human emotions, thoughts, and worries onto him and when I think about it this is where most of my worries about leaving him were coming from. He would miss me. He would be wondering where I am. He would think I have abandoned him and slip into doggy depression. He has done so much for me, I can’t possibly let him down like this. I must not leave him!!
But in all reality, he is a dog and they do not think like us. So it is really unfair and selfish of me to assume that he does and treat him as such. No, he would not forget who I am but he will also adapt and be happy on his own little adventure in the meantime. Someone is still feeding him every day, giving him cuddles and taking him on adventures and at the end of the day that is all he wants because he is, in fact, a dog. This is what I need to keep in perspective as I prepare to head off, he is a dog, he is safe, he is cared for, he is happy and it is not forever. I am a human, I am capable, I am confident, I have things to offer and I can do this.
Yes, Phillip has helped me through some tough times over the years, we have been through a lot together and it is OK to miss him, as I am sure I will, but I can not let missing him dictate the decisions I make and the opportunities I take. What the future looks like for us, I am unsure, but right now I am content knowing he is happy and I will see him and his quirky little personality in April when I return.