Wednesday night was going to be Writing Night, and I had it all planned. My wife and daughter would be hosting bunco night downstairs, thereby allowing me to retreat to our “bonus room” – the large room above our garage that serves as a home office and arts and crafts studio – to, finally, get back to working on my European travel journal writing project. I have been avoiding the work as it causes me some anxiety thinking about confronting the blank page that I must fill with clever and witty phrases. I frequently doubt my ability to write well, so I don’t, and that only adds to my sense of panic and dread. What good is a writer who doesn’t write? I had gotten to a point on Wednesday that I was finally excited at the prospect of writing again, but my dog had other ideas.
I love my dog, Autumn Islay (pronounced “I-luh;” it’s Scottish. You can follow her on Instagram, of course, at autumnislay). We celebrated her first birthday earlier this month, and this first year with her in our lives has been wonderful. She is a source of pet-owning comfort and love for all of us, something we haven’t before experienced as a family.
Aside from a goldfish and two guinea pigs, she is our first family pet. The goldfish wasn’t a pet as much as a chore. It was my responsibility to clean the tank each week to keep the little critter from being overcome by its own filth. While it was obviously appreciative of being fed, it wasn’t capable of expressing affection. Its unblinking eyes did not convey warmth, and cuddling on the couch was out of the question. The guinea pigs had a similar ocular limitation, but they could be petted and held. They could not, however, be in the same cage together. Cocoa Spots and Thistle Down may have been siblings, but those girls did not have a strong sororal bond. Thistle would bristle and lash out whenever she shared a space with Cocoa, so, to prevent further violence, we put up a wall to divide their spacious living quarters into two small pigger apartments. Thistle thrived once she stopped raging against her sister, but Cocoa had a tough life. She loved her sister and wanted to be with her, but that couldn’t happen. As a result, she would anxiously gnaw on the wire frame of her cage. This caused her top teeth to break, which is a big problem for a guinea pig. Rodent teeth grow continuously, and without those top teeth to rub against, Cocoa’s bottom teeth grew too large. We had to take her to the vet occasionally to get her teeth ground down. The stress of it all was the likely source of what we diagnosed as a stroke that she suffered. She ended up blind in one eye, but her demeanor changed. While normal guinea pigs have the air of someone living in a state of constant fear, no doubt based on the genetic knowledge that they reside near the bottom of the food chain, our buck-toothed, half-blind, mentally impaired Cocoa seemed simply amazed most of the time, like a newborn. Cocoa died prematurely as a result of the difficulty she had eating and, I imagine, her angst about her sister’s disdain.
I learned Wednesday evening that Cocoa was not our only pet with anxiety. As the bunco guests began to arrive, I retreated with Autumn into the bonus room and closed the door. I hoped she would lay at my feet while I clickety-clacked away at my keyboard, but she had other concerns. She knew her girls – my wife and daughter – were downstairs, and they were with strangers. This created an unbearable tension for our one-year -old labradoodle, and for the next two hours she scratched at the door, paced the room, and begged me to let her out. I did what I could to reassure her, speaking in gentle tones, and trying to pet away her concerns, but she was inconsolable. As I sat at my desk, she sat at my feet, looking into my eyes and pleading with me. She whimpered, yelped, and barked her frustrations to me. I knew she would be o.k., but she did not share my belief, and it broke my heart a little. I’d been here before.
More than ten years ago, I was putting my daughter to bed when she told me, in no uncertain terms, that she needed to see her grandmother. Grandma lives on the other side of town, and it was bedtime. This was not a rational request. There was no reason my daughter needed to see her grandma, but as I persisted in denying her request, it became clear that this was not about reason. This was a desperate need based on my daughter’s feeling that she might die if she did not see her grandmother at that moment. I didn’t know what to do, and I told her no and reassured her it would be o.k. She begged, pleaded, and demanded, and, still, I said no. I didn’t know it then, but this was anxiety, and it scared me.
I’ve learned a lot about anxiety since then. My daughter continues to struggle with it, but she has gotten help, and it’s much more manageable these days. It is a part of who she is, but it doesn’t define her. She is among the most creative, generous, and loving – not to mention funny – people I know, but that pot of anxiety is always simmering on the back burner. Anxiety sucks.
The bunco party came to an end, and Autumn Islay was happily reunited with her girl, my daughter. Autumn is going to become a therapy dog, helping others manage their sometimes crazy feelings. My daughter will work with her on the training and certification. Together, they will make a difference in other people’s lives, based in part on their shared understanding of the pain that our brains can put us through.
My anxiety about delving back into my pile of notes about traveling through Europe is nowhere near as debilitating as what my girls have experienced, but I gain strength from their courage.
P.S., I may have caused Autumn to have another panic attack Thursday night. I was cheering, that is shouting, so vociferously as I watched my Oakland Raiders win a last second victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, she ran from the room and hid under my wife’s desk. When I’m watching the Raiders, I’m not my rational, mild-mannered self. Sorry about that, Autumn. Since the Raiders aren’t playing on this football Sunday, I should be able to spend some time writing about Switzerland. I promise not to yell, so feel free to sit at my feet while I clickety-clack away.