Healing From Childhood Trauma One Dog at a Time
How the animals in my life taught me about love
I hopped off my bike while our instructor conducted the post-class cooldown. Kate blotted her forehead with one of Equinox’s famous eucalyptus-scented towels. “Where are you off to in such a rush?”
“I have a dog-walking client at eleven.” I looked over my shoulder at the clock on the wall. I had fifteen minutes to shower and pick up one of my regulars, Jude, an adult Havanese on Eighty-Sixth Street.
Kate furrowed her brow. “You walk dogs?” she asked, incredulous.
“Yes.” I snatched my phone and water bottle from their respective holders, not looking at her.
“Like, for a living?”
I bristled. Gotta love the Upper East Side, man. “Yes. Part-time.”
I dashed from the studio, partly out of necessity, mostly from frustration. That exchange is not uncommon where I live. It’s either that or people cock their heads, confused at the idea of, you know, working. I belonged to a luxury gym near Park Avenue, after all. Why did I have to walk dogs?
Because I love it. Because it fills a void inside of me. Because it makes me feel like I matter. And, yes, because I need the money. Coaching and running a small business are lucrative ways to earn a living, but cash flow for both can be, and often is, very volatile. Having a job that allows me to control exactly how much I make and pays every week at the same time is a necessity if I want to pay bills on time.
By the time I get to Jude, I’ve forgotten about Kate’s comment. Nothing matters in those moments. For thirty minutes, I am consumed by this four-legged creature that rushes out the door, her Mom still holding the leash, to greet me.
“Here she is!” Jude’s Mom says. “She gets so excited when she sees you.”
The feeling is mutual.
I grew up privileged and still, when I walk into some of these Uptown apartments to pick up a dog, I feel out of place. Picture every apartment from Gossip Girl. The chandeliers. The cast-iron spiral staircases. The mahogany banisters. The marble.
Another comparison is a now-famous cinematic moment from the movie The Devil Wears Prada. Picture it: Andie Sachs tip-toes into her boss Miranda Priestly’s pricey townhouse. In her sweaty hands, she clutches The Book, a mock-up of Runway magazine’s next issue. She’s not sure where she’s supposed to leave it for Miranda’s review.
And I’m Andie, nervously scouring the perimeter of the expansive kitchen, terrified of walking about too much and tripping off an alarm, looking for poop bags and a leash.
One of my favorite clients, a Labradoodle named Leia, has her own bedroom, complete with a child’s bed and toy chest. Before I drop her off, I enter the room to refill her water bowl. Scanning what I assume was meant to be a pantry converted to a private haven for a dog, I sigh.
In those moments, I feel small and unsophisticated.
I think of my tiny, modest but cozy studio apartment and wonder where exactly I went wrong. But then I come home to Luca, my seventy-pound rescue Pitt/Terrier mix, greeting me at the door — her butt and tail wiggling in unison back and forth — and realize that my home, while small, is filled with love. More importantly, I am loved.
As a single woman with no children and a strained relationship with her remaining family in Boston, I spend much of my time by myself. One of the few upsides of experiencing childhood trauma is that you learn very young how to entertain yourself. You become self-sufficient; in my case, too much so.
This is why, when I was completing my trauma recovery certification, I chose dog-walking as part of my required self-care outline. Coaching women who have suffered complex trauma is a rewarding pursuit, but it’s also extremely triggering. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I’m easily transported back to those times I spent in a near-constant state of panic, flinching whenever I was touched.
After my mother died when I was seven, my family unit broke apart, leaving me to fend for myself most days. As a kid, I felt insignificant, made worse when my family all failed to defend me to my abuser and his family. When you grow up thinking you don’t matter and are flooded with those memories, the best antidote is the unconditional and unwavering affection you can get from a dog.
To those dogs, I matter. I matter very much.
I was re-enacting the same abandonment I’d experienced as a child.
My greatest fear in life was to love someone — or something — and then lose it. It’s why my romantic relationships were always so contained and casual. I was deeply emotionally stunted and developed an anxious-avoidant attachment style as a result. I would pursue no-strings casual or sexual relationships out of fear of loss, then be devastated when those relationships never resulted in anything more. It was a scenario that I consciously engaged in over and over again. I was re-enacting the same abandonment I’d experienced as a child.
It wasn’t until I lost my beloved cat Moon, a seventeen-year-old Siamese, did it all come to a head. On one of his final nights alive, I carried him into my bed, my belly full of dread for what was to come. He lay his head on my arm and looked up at me. “Please don’t leave me,” I whispered to him as I stroked his fur. “I’m not ready.”
He reached up his paw to rest it on my shoulder. It was if he was saying, “You’re ready, my friend.” When he died two days later, on my birthday no less, the soul-aching pain I’d successfully staved for years surged through me. I was devastated in a way I’d never felt. It was guttural and debilitating.
I posted about Moon’s death on Instagram and received a private message from my friend Geo. He told me about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey story structure. There’s often a character — The Elder — that either literally or figuratively accompanies the hero on their path to whatever it is they seek. This character exits the story unexpectedly, often tragically, compelling the protagonist to face whatever was preventing them from achieving their goal. (Think Sally Field’s character in Forrest Gump or Yoda.)
“An Elder exists to lead us on our path, but must go at some point so we can grow further than their lessons, ” Geo said in his message. “That was Moon for you.”
He was right. Moon’s purpose in my life was to provide me with love and companionship. Because of Moon, I learned love isn’t love without the fear of loss. Losing him taught me that, even in my darkest moments, I was stronger than I allowed myself to believe. He saw me through the deaths of my father and sister; numerous dysfunctional entanglements with men; and countless depressive episodes. With that paw on my shoulder that cold night in December, he was saying it was time. Time for him to leave and time for me to live.
When I first saw her picture on Instagram, her eyes round and sad, her mouth curled downward in a frown, my heart lurched. This gorgeous dog had twenty-four hours before she was scheduled to be euthanized. The caption under her picture read, “Won’t someone save Lady GaGa?”
I filled out the application to foster, got my references in order, and submitted the paperwork in less than an hour. After an inspection and interview, the next morning, I headed to the shelter to retrieve Lady Gaga. I knew the minute I looked in her eyes I was about to become a foster fail.
Even though I knew one day far down the road I’d have to say good-bye to her and feel my soul once again ripped from my body, I adopted her just a few weeks later and re-named her Luca.
Having been over-bred for her litters and dumped at a shelter, Luca had experienced her own share of trauma.
One afternoon after her walk, we entered our lobby and rushed toward the elevator, which was about to close. Inside the car was a walker with three dogs on leashes. Luca froze, refusing to board the small enclosed space with so many other pups. The look on her face was one I knew all too well. She was triggered, likely because she was routinely and without her permission forcibly mounted by male dogs trying to impregnate her so her owners could sell her puppies. (Just as with humans, dogs also experience PTSD and their own version of flashbacks.)
Luca rarely leaves my side when we go to the dog run. I watch her pace back and forth, panting from anxiety, and wince. I want to see her make friends and know as much happiness as possible. Her trust issues and fear of abandonment, like mine, run deep. Both of us are more comfortable within the confines of our home. But then I see her boop noses with another dog and let them sniff her, I feel a spark of hope. Not just for her, but for myself.
Among the many pleasures Luca has brought to my life, one is the power of connection. I was a Dog Mom now. No longer could I stay inside or avoid chit-chat. That meant trips to parks and thrice daily excursions around our neighborhood. It involved conversations with strangers and playing in snowdrifts. Luca has opened up my world — and my heart — in ways I’d never thought possible. When she hops on the bed, forces her way under the covers and presses the length of her body against mine, I feel a safety I never knew as a child.
As crazy as it sounds, I believe Moon had a paw in bringing Luca and I together. On the day Moon died, I sat on my bathroom floor where he lay almost lifeless and played Rainbow Connection for him. That was our song. On one of Luca’s first nights with me, she snuggled up beside me, a sign she wanted her back scratched. As I gently ran my nails over her fur, I asked myself if I was ready for the responsibility of owning a dog. Right then, the opening bars of Rainbow Connection streamed from my laptop a few feet away. The TV show I’d been watching used the song to close out an episode.
I opened my phone to show Luca a picture of Moon. “That’s your brother. He was awesome. He wants you to stay here with me. ” Luca’s tail thwapped up and down. It was settled. Whispering in her brown floppy ear, I vowed to tell her I loved her every day. It’s a year and a half later and I’ve made good on that promise.
What once was my deepest fear — getting attached — was now what fed my soul.
When I meet a new dog walking client, I shake their paw and say, “Hello, my friend.” That was how I would greet Moon every morning. I perform this ritual as a reminder that what once was my deepest fear — getting attached — was now what fed my soul.
I know I’ll have to say good-bye to some of these furry balls of love eventually. My stomach pitches just thinking about it. I’ve already had one client, Valentine, move to Brooklyn. After our final walk together, I handed over the leash to his owner for the last time, then knelt to be eye level with him.
“Goodbye, my friend,” I whispered in his ear, my voice catching. Rather than go home and ruminate about the loss, I hopped on the Wag! Walker app, requested another walk, and headed a few blocks east to meet Bally, an adult Golden Retriever. Her owner opened the door to her East End apartment, Bally clad in a pink-hoodie with the word Princess emblazoned on the back. In her ears were two matching barrettes. She looked up at me with her warm brown eyes and I was immediately smitten. I crouched and gave her thick fur a tussle.
“Hello, my friend. Where are you taking me today? Are we going on an adventure?” She’s now one of my regulars. Every walk with her has the potential to smash my hearts into shards, but I don’t care.
That is now a risk I’m more than willing to take.