Day 144 With Dora

Social anxiety has never been fun, per se. It’s quite a handful, and I can’t predict its rhythm. The last 16 days, however, have been awful.

Sixteen days ago, I was at the grocery store, with Dora in her vest, sitting on a bench, talking to my brother, who I met by chance. The Flutenist was getting our car, and I was minding my own business. Some random stranger, an old man with white hair a brown duster and- I kid you not- some sort of badge on his buttoned white shirt, says to me “Pretty dog you have there.”

Never mind that he’s a stranger. Never mind that he cut off my conversation midsentence. Never mind that he doesn’t look like law enforcement but is actually wearing a brass badge.

As a disabled person, strangers now expect to be able to interrupt me at any time in order to talk about my dog. On a date with my husband? Who cares?! Reading a book in a park? Not important! Trying to juggle six other things at a cash register? Not their problem.

Whatever. So he compliments Dora, I say “thank you,” and my mind starts loading up the relevant info. Her breed. Her name. Her age. She’s a rescue. Etc.

“Be careful with that collar. One good lunge and you’ll rip her throats out.” Drops mic. Turns and loads his groceries into his car in one of the handicapped parking spots. Drives away.

Dora wears a prong collar when she walks. It is properly sized, has rubber tips, and we have walked well over 100 miles since she got it. We both know each other’s walking speeds, distractions, expectations, needs, etc. 95% of the time, she stays right with me. 5% of the time there is a gust of wind or a new dog or a running child, and Dora gets excited, but she has never once hurt herself with this collar. I have not hurt her either. 

Dora chooses to stand politely next to me because she doesn’t want to be poked in the neck. I appreciate her not requiring the use of both arms and all the muscles in my torso in order to walk her. It is working for us. Neither of us is in danger.

What is wrong with this retired Texas Ranger wannabe?! Why does he like going up to disabled people and talking about their dogs dying in graphic language? Doesn’t he know that our dogs start to feel like an extension of ourselves? That after a few months together, we are closer to them than to any humans we know. Every good day, bad day, sick day, adventurous day- Dora is with me each step of the way. And I am with her when she is sick or scared, excited or happy. We are a team.

I love her.


Long story short: I’m scared to go in public now, because of this one selfish jerk who cares more about himself and his ego than reality. He didn’t ask any questions; he didn’t want to know about how Dora and I interact; he was just certain that he knew best, even though he knew next to nothing. All he could possibly have known about us is this:

  1. Dora is a medium sized black dog in an orange service dog vest, striped flat collar, and prong collar.
  2. I am an adult woman who is apparently not deaf, since I acknowledged hearing him.
  3. Dora was sitting politely at my feet without pulling at all.
  4. I was polite enough to drop everything and interact with him despite him rudely interrupting my visit with my brother.

That’s it. That’s all that he could know about us.

😩😡

And now, I get panic attacks in public, just by walking into stores. Why?! Wasn’t it already hard enough for me? Did I really need more burdens?! And most importantly: why can’t I just ignore him and move on when I know that’s what I need to do?!

Day 125 With Dora


It’s a bit of up and down at this point. Here’s an overview of the highs and lows:

Highs

  • Basic life tasks are getting easier. Lately, I have been able to go to the UPS store and the gas station by myself. I have also both made calls to schedule appointments or talk to people and received incoming calls without panic attacks. I didn’t need someone to come with me, and I didn’t go into the other room to hide from my ringing phone. Progress.
  • Dora is a natural with some tasks. She instinctively responds to both my crying and my stressed hyperventilating by coming to me, nuzzling her face under my hands (which I cup over my face), and licking me. This disrupts the emotion enough to keep it from escalating into something severe: for example, uninterrupted crying may grow into self loathing, which can produce despair and then suicidal ideation. Having a companion here to tell me that it’s ok (if I’m stressed) or that I am loved (if I’m depressed) is very helpful. It’s ok that Dora can’t speak.
  • I am growing a bit more stable overall. I know it may not be obvious to others, because I’m still being stressed by things, but it seems like the number of stressors I respond to is going down, at least. I feel more capable than I used to.

Lows

    • We have reached the psychiatric task phase of training, and it is hard. Imagine teaching your dog to sit: you can see them sit on their own, say “sit,” and praise their spots off. Eventually, you say “sit” and they do. Now imagine trying to teach your dog to notice that you can’t move or talk anymore, and you want them to come to you and interact with you until you start petting them. For me, it’s been challenging so far.
    • This training is also emotionally draining. I have to walk a very fine line between pretending to have my worst symptoms for training Dora and accidentally triggering my worst symptoms in the process. I pretended to have an overloaded shutdown experience for the lead trainer a week ago, and I wasn’t able to focus my eyes on anything or walk with full balance for at least an hour afterwards, because I actually produced the shutdown state. Hopefully I’ll get better at only producing the physical symptoms in the future.

    Days 110 & 111 With Dora 

    Things are starting to go well. Yesterday, I was able to run two errands without The Flutenist along, for the first time in years. I had Dora with me and she filled the confidence boosting role. Now, keep in mind that these are things I am physically able to do, have done by myself before, and completely understand. I was just scared. Scared of going alone, of being outside, of being visible to others, of doing something stupid, etc. What did we do?

    We took recycling to the collection dumpsters and ill-fitting clothes to a thrift store. That’s it.


    I can’t really tell you why having her with me made it better/possible, but I cried yesterday because it was so sad that I hadn’t been able to do these things alone for such a long time. Often, when I make breakthroughs, the revelation of a new and healthier path is followed by me grieving over all the years I spent on my old, self-harming one. 😔

    I also suggested a course of action AND took action on it within the same day.

    And I made a phone call without needing 15-45 minutes to psych myself up for it this morning.

    It’s… it’s really good. I’m actually starting to hope for things to be better.I haven’t had hope in along time. 😏 I don’t think there’s an emoji for sad smiles… one that means “Yes I know how bad that sounded and it really is that bad but all I can do is smile about how bad my life is because if I don’t I will break and I need to keep going.” 

    Maybe one day.

    (Note: Dora is still in training, but in my state, she is allowed to wear a vest and start practicing with public access at this time. The law is written this way so that dogs can be socialized to new experiences, people, environments, sights, smells, sounds, etc. before their handler takes custody of them. This allows trainers to work through any fear, disruptiveness, or other issues with a service dog trainee and for disabled people to receive dogs that are used to behaving well in restaurants, concerts, stores, parks, gas stations, public events, etc.)

    Day 103 With Dora 


    We’re outside. Relaxing. Dora has a chance to learn about the neighborhood where she lives, and I’m just enjoying the weather. 

    I also mowed the yard today. And walked Dora out to a driveway where construction workers are prepping it for fresh cement. And talked to my next door neighbor- met her new dog, told her that I have a psychiatric disability and that Dora is in training to be my service dog.

    Look at me go! It’s amazing what I can handle when I don’t need to face it alone.

    I still have meltdowns semi-regularly, maybe once a week I think “I don’t know what I’m doing I can’t do this I’m ruining my dog why do I have to do all the training someone help me please,” but honestly, that pretty much only happens when I’m not doing well anyway. (Hungry, tired, cold, stressed, sad, lonely, etc.) 

    It makes the pressure burst, and since the last straw was dog training, I initially process all the stress as coming from dog training. 😑 We’ll get there. Eventually.

    Day 97 With Dora 


    The flowers I planted in the fall are coming up. That’s nice. Only the crocuses are blooming at this point; the other bulbs we planted are only making thin stalks right now, so they’re not ready for pictures. While we’re sort of talking about my social anxiety, I will say that Dora has been amazing for me. I go outside every single day (several times); we talk to people in our training classes and when we’re on outings;  and I’m getting much more comfortable using public spaces. It’s good.
    *sigh* I wanted to tell you guys about how public access socialization has been going, but Dora really, really wants to go outside, and we still have training homework for this week. Well, TLDR: it’s been bumpy but mostly good. Dora did better in the grocery store than at the concert. She’s good.

    I have to go. Hang in there.

    Day 47 With Dora

    I took her out for a walk to exercise and potty. It was fine, but I started thinking about my grandmother, whom I saw this weekend. I don’t like visiting her for a few reasons:

    1. She’s a hoarder, and she keeps buying me items that I often do not want and forcing me to take them. I have watched the living space in her house dwindle through my lifetime, and I really, really don’t want to live like that.
    2. Many of these items are 1950s housewife essentials, and I’m not a vintage fan nor a traditional gender roles supporter, so I don’t want them. (Last item is some weird oversized chalice type bowl for holding tiny fruits.)
    3. She keeps asking me questions like “Do I know my neighbors yet?” when most people around here are pretty private. There aren’t welcome wagons. We might wave (usually dog people who like Dora), but almost no one talks to each other. And I’m an introvert, so I prefer to have a few deep relationships instead of many shallow ones. And I have social anxiety flare ups. So no. Still not imposing on my neighbors.
    4. She showed up at my house uninvited in August to ‘see if she could find it,’ and then told me that ‘she would come back sometime and spend more time here.’ Meanwhile, I was frozen on my porch like a deer in the headlights, angry with myself for having chosen that specific moment to take the trash can to the curb.


    On the walk, Dora found an abandoned Air Kong toy, which she rescued. We finished our business at hand, I slipped down a wet hill and fell (which ending up being funny, rather than stressful or painful), and we headed home. As we approached the driveway, I saw it: a car slowly turning around in the cul de sac and heading our way.

    I panicked. Gave Dora the command to come inside. Climbed the porch stair. Fumbled with my key. *engine noises as it grows closer to my driveway*

    If it’s her, I won’t be able to pretend that I’m not here. She will know that I’m inside and that I’m not answering the door. Or my phone. Come oncomeon…

    Unlocked the door. Call Dora inside. She’s looking at the world or sniffing the air or talking to a unicorn for all I know. But she’s not listening. “Dora! Dora! Inside! Dora! Inside!”

    I pull. She comes. Inside. Take keys. Shut door. Deadbolt. Breathe.

    That car passed my house while I was outside fumbling around and trying to get Dora to come in. I knew it then, but it didn’t register.

    Now I’m inside and the door is locked, and that’s not my grandmother, but I still want to close all the blinds and curtains again, like I did back in August. (Every day for at least a week. Maybe two. I just didn’t feel safe here.)

    But we should eat soon, and I need to breathe. 
    I don’t like panic attacks.

    So I Got an Emotional Support Dog

    My husband and I talked about the options for treating my depression and social anxiety. Honestly, at this point, I’m so terrified of antidepressants after losing several years worth of memory that I’m… shall we say very unlikely to go back on them. In addition, because I’ve always had depression, it is hard for me to answer the “Is this dose working for you?” questions. The best I can manage is usually ‘Well, I want to die a bit less than normal, and I feel a bit more convinced that putting effort into a given task will produce results…’ so I say “Yes.” Of course, I may still feel like -horrible thoughts about myself that I will not retype because I don’t want to strengthen them any further-, but I’m still breathing, so of course I feel awful and am drowning in despair. That’s just what life is.

    Right, so, moving on.

    Counseling does and doesn’t help. Right now, I don’t believe that it will be helpful, because progress in nearly every area of my life consists of the following:

    1. Accept that this situation is terrifying, that it has gone badly in the past, and that these feelings do affect the way you approach the current situation.
    2. Choose to risk everything and believe that just once it is possible for things to go well (or at least better).
    3. Pay attention to how you feel while facing the situation and make adjustments as necessary.
    4. Sit still and process the outcome. If things went well, make a point to think through that and try to remember the situation. 
    5. Repeat ad nauseum, until the stimulus is no longer threatening.
    6. Identify new fear-inducing stimulus and return to step one.

    At this point, it’s just confidence and practice that I need. Courage to take the first step and willingness to struggle and fail as needed in order to improve.

    So, why a dog? Well, there are some direct benefits to this treatment method:

    • Daily exercise: Improves my health and fitness, added endorphins, exposure to sunlight.
    • Daily low intensity socialization: Dog people are likely to talk to me about my dog while we walk. This is better than talking to only one person per day.
    • Stress relief: She is calm, so I become calm. Also, I have continuity throughout my day, which takes the edge off of transitions and unexpected tasks (like incoming phone calls- which I currently don’t answer because they scare me).
    • Laughter: Smiling and laughter both affect the brain a bit, and this should help to decrease the severity of my depressive responses. I hope.
    • Companionship: I can’t really explain why sitting alone for long periods of time is bad for me, why I have been escaping reality into a world where I have friends, or why having a furry friend with me through the highs and lows could help me feel better. I think I have spent enough time in profound isolation that I’m still unable to feel any emotions regarding my loneliness. Except on rare days when I cry without warning. I probably feel it then, but I can’t be sure.


    Dora has been sticking close to me since we brought her home, and I am terrified of her. Not rationally, of course- if I think about it, I receive feedback like this: “She is gentle. She listens well. She loves company. She is so laid back!” But on an emotional level, I’m afraid that she won’t be the right dog or that I will screw this up some how or that she will hate me or that the universe won’t let me have this good thing or that my life will somehow revert back to deep dark pain because I need to hurt all the time or I can’t be allowed to keep living. And I’m crying now. Emotionally numb, in this moment, like a lid on top of a boiling pot, bouncing a bit as the steam escapes but still containing the activity within.

    One day, I want to feel things again. To have a stimulus occur and then to know that I am sad or happy or whatever. Not to experience the stimulus, and then stop and analyze the situation to determine what my emotional reaction is likely to be, and then to discover a day later that there was a feeling inside that feeling, and then to find another one, and another one. Like a matryoshka doll of pain, fear, and repressed memories.

    I want to just see something beautiful and laugh and smile and feel a warm glow in my heart. I want to be hurt by someone and to know it then, right as their words or actions dissipate into the air. It’s hard to live in this disjointed way- only enjoying or mourning long after the event has passed.

    Anyway, hopefully Dora will help me to go outside into public space more often, without feeling like an eyesore. Hopefully, we will meet many new people without me feeling like I’m wasting their time. Hopefully, I will find a way to connect to this world, instead of watching helplessly as it moves along without me.