I have a German Shepherd who I got when he was 12 weeks old.
He was imported from Germany, came with a passport, and was touted by the breeder as a real “German” German shepherd.
I bought him from a woman who supplies all the dogs for the Illinois state police, and who professes to be a lover of dogs.
She is not a lover of dogs.
When I went to pick up Bruno, I walked into a huge hanger-like room which was ringed by dog cages. Each cage held a big German Shepherd, each of whom barked with rabid intensity. This dog loving woman shouted at them to shut up, which they did—just for a second, before they started their clamoring again.
I should have walked out right then and there, but I didn’t. I had been waiting and waiting to get this dog; he was a special gift to my husband who loves the breed and who has tolerated my Great Dane obsession (somewhat) graciously for many years.
When I got our puppy home I discovered he had worms and was severely dehydrated. He had constant diarrhea for the next week. When I called the place who sold him to us to ask what the deal was, the dog lover screamed at me just like she screamed at her dogs and slammed the phone down.
We would quickly discover our dog had other problems too. He was unable to make eye contact with anyone, he drank so much water that he couldn’t control his bowels, he peed himself each time he went down the stairs or saw a camera, and snapped food from our fingers so ferociously that he drew blood.
He didn’t run to the door when the door bell rang, but slunk away into a corner with his back turned to the room, and he didn’t ask to be let in when we put him outside, he just sat there staring off into space until we called him. When he had his first seizure at three months old and was diagnosed with epilepsy, we were devastated.
This poor little guy had clearly suffered immensely in his brief life.
Our dog trainer and the vet both concluded that our dog had been abused before he came home with us.
My husband and I were appalled. Who abuses a puppy?
We got to work trying to help him in every way we could, and while we’ve made lots of progress, Bruno is still “off.”
We were discussing all this on our daily walk in the woods yesterday, and my husband said, not for the first time, “What could have happened that was so bad before we got him that it would mess him up like this? He was so little, he wouldn’t remember whatever it was anyway.”
“That’s true,” I said and was about to continue when my husband stopped and looked at me.
“But everyone remembers everything,” he said.
Everyone remembers everything.
Of course they do, I thought. Every experience we have, whether it is stored in our conscious or our unconscious mind, changes who we are. And not just experiences from this life, yogis say, but all the experiences from all our lives, trapped within us as samskaras, or impressions which influence our moods, decisions, and personalities.
If anyone should know this, it’s me. I have spent years trying to heal wounds known and unknown. I have run from place to place, man to man, and drug to drug in an effort to mend some hurt that has affixed itself so deep within my soul that it is never visible, it just breathes a sour wind which follows me wherever I go.
Most nights are punctuated with terrifying nightmares and many days are shadowed by depression which slips in an out of my brain like a stealthy mouse that can collapse it’s bones and enter every forbidden room.
I have often thought that if I just knew the enemy I was fighting, I might have the chance to win.
But we know very little of ourselves, and for the most part, the specifics of our enemies will remain obscure. So how do we proceed?
The only path I have discovered that is more powerful than the stockpile of samskaras which fester in my heart is mindfulness. Training myself to sit with whatever wave washes over me, and also training myself to be grateful for the wave, as it ultimately becomes a tool for growth has changed my life entirely.
But it’s no magic bullet. The layers of pain that build up like sediment over this life and beyond are hard to excavate. I think it helps not to underestimate the magnitude of the task.
My dog may never fully heal from whatever was done to him before he came to me. He may never meet guests at the door or look me in the eye. But accepting him for what he is, right now, and not being frustrated by his behavior will go a long way toward making things right. And if I can offer myself the same compassion, perhaps I can tease out the monsters from my brain too.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Jason Rodman