The Calm In The Storm

Stormlight, Storm bright,
Storm gets me through the night,
wish I may, wish I might
get this fucking process right.

That’s the version I find myself thinking more often than not lately. It used to be a sweet thing — a mantra of sorts, a love poem to the perfect partner. It still is; I whisper it with various versions of the last line as I rub her head, gazing into striking blue eyes that make the sky look dull in comparison.  I can’t seem to settle on a way to end it, a fitting metaphor for all of this — the formula is right, the beginning, the pieces, but something seems off every time I try getting it to fall into place.  She, I hasten to type, is incredible. I’m so lucky to have found her; she’s the best thing that could have happened to me, she’s better than one in a million, I still look at her sometimes and find myself wondering how such a perfect creature exists.  She’s stretched out beside me now on my bed, eyes closed, limbs strewn about haphazard to make the most endearing picture possible.

She’s noticed my gaze and, as I type this, has her head lifted, tilted slightly, and those striking eyes are focused on mine. I love how easily she holds eye contact: she’s been comfortable and bold about it from the first day I met her, the day I really started down this whole crazy path that has me — an introvert with hangups about her writing ability and an oft-ignored love of privacy — starting a blog, of all things.  It wasn’t long ago; I met Stormlight on February 3, 2018,  in York, Maine. It was an icy afternoon and I wasn’t particularly hopeful, having found myself doubtful from an internet description of whether this dog I was to meet had much chance of being The One. I broke my own rule there about not making real judgements from internet descriptions, something I conveniently ignored while doing so.  Someone at this animal rescue group, though, was convinced from my application that I had to meet this dog — a young adult they called Scarlett — and so, one day when I had time and had been able to coordinate a ride with my dad, I was there.

I don’t want to talk about meeting her, deciding she was right, because I sound like a bit of an idiot in that story. To keep it brief, I was suspicious and was so careful not to make myself see something that wasn’t there, some magic spark of chemistry and Disney-style fireworks just for us, that I almost missed the reality of an easy, perfect connection.  A dog who was calm, sweet, loving, more interested in me than the other new faces or her own foster mom; a dog who would lay down as people bustled about doing pickup at the doggy daycare we were using a corner of to meet; a dog who kept a quiet eye on me from the first few minutes on and moved when I moved, came when I reached or clicked, and decided that I was her person for some reason I still don’t understand. Everyone else saw it; I took at least two hours to be sure. She was too good to be true, I think, but I’m still waiting and there hasn’t been another shoe dropping yet.  She seemed to have decided quickly that I was her job in some way, or perhaps just that she liked me, or that I needed her; whatever the actual reasoning, I eventually let myself see the truth and from the moment I did felt like my heart might stop without her. I knew when we went outside, me needing to have some time with just her to figure it out for sure, and we played in the snow, we walked and explored and I tossed a few snowballs just a few feet (within her range on the leash) and she immediately chased them, happy to indulge in my favorite game. She stopped dead and circled back instantly when I fell, hissing in pain as my bad knee gave out, my foot having slipped on an unexpectedly solid patch of half-frozen snow. She stayed closer after that and checked back on me periodically, as if making sure I was still okay. I sat on a rock at the edge of the property, looking out on the highway that the driveway connected to. She explored the snow for a few minutes, and then came up to me and shoved her snout under my arm.  She settled, sitting contentedly beside me, with my arm around her–it was all I could have dreamed of, but that’s not why I knew.

I knew because somehow, in that moment, I realized she made me feel stable. My life was in turmoil: a new diagnosis and painful reality of post-traumatic stress disorder went poorly with a pre-existing cocktail of complex conditions and I felt like not only my life but my own self was crumbling, falling apart and away as everything unraveled before my eyes. Sitting out there with a quiet golden dog who was up for any adventure but chose to lean against me and watch cars on the highway…I felt stable, and I never wanted to be without her again.

Some part of me knew that I was looking for a service dog, in hindsight, but I didn’t acknowledge it actively at the time. I often feel like I’m cheating for taking advantage of systems and options in place specifically for people like me; I think it’s part of having grown up a kid with ADHD and hearing years of jabs, behind my back and to my face both, about how I was cheating or getting special advantages.  In the later years of my pre-college schooling, I was able to explain (often rather tersely) that it was not an advantage but rather a leveling of the field for my “different” brain chemistry, just like wearing glasses because I was nearsighted.  I know that I internalized a lot of the teasing, the bullying, the jibes and jabs and jokes and all of it–and skipping ahead to now, I still find part of me watching judgmentally as I try desperately to stand up for myself. Really? — it seems to say, clearly not buying it. Do you need that? Do you deserve it? And try though I might, I still haven’t been able to silence that voice completely.

So no, when I found Stormlight, I didn’t (actively) realize I had been looking for (and found) the perfect service dog candidate; I had finally accepted my need for a dog and allowed my doctor to help me make that possible with the proper documentation for an ESA (“emotional support animal”). I’d corrected or ignored her every time she dropped the term service dog, assuming at first that she didn’t know the difference (I even helpfully defined them and explained the difference for her once — we laughed about that a lot when I figured it all out). It was only after finding Stormlight that it hit me.

I didn’t come to this realization with thoughtful introspection or a conversation in the safety and comfort of my apartment, or my parents’ house — nothing so sensible. No, for me, it happened when I was a humiliated mess of pain and trauma crouched on the floor of a Petsmart store. My chronic pain was bad, and had spiked; to make things worse, I’d found myself triggered, badly, by something I’d grabbed without thinking for my cart and then looked at, frozen, head already throbbing and balance feeling shaky.  I had my eyes closed, trying to deal with the feelings of an ice-pick slamming repeatedly behind my eyeballs and the accompanying waves of nausea. It’s not the first time this has happened in public, but it was one of the worst. I hate when someone well-intentioned and misguided touches my shoulder or my arm; when my head’s that bad, being touched makes the nausea so very bad that it’s hard not to throw up. I hate that  as my eyes stay closed, trying to manage the pain, I can’t see when people approach; I hate how dizzy I am, and how hard it can be to stay standing, and my resulting habit of having to sit or crouch at the side of an aisle in whatever store I’m in. This particular time, all I could think of was that I wanted Storm there.  I knew that it would be better if only I could have her — I found myself justifying it (“feeling stable” being too vague for my nitpicking mind) by thinking about how I could teach her to nudge me or something when someone approached, to brace and help me stand when I was shaky; I realized that even her presence would make my crouching seem less odd, because a quick glance might look like I was just down there on my dog’s level to pat her or something.  As I fell apart on the floor at Petsmart, I realized that I was wishing for a service dog. I remembered how my psychiatrist had casually slipped the term into her letter for my landlord until I made her take it out; how she’d dropped it verbally a few times, how I knew from a beloved, brilliant, trusted family friend that she was extremely experienced and smart and capable, that she worked with veterans with PTSD frequently…that she must, must know the difference between an ESA and an SD…and that maybe she’d been leading me to this the whole time.  She later confirmed that she’d been hoping I would pick it up, and had been leaving it for me to bring up when I was ready — we both knew there was no way I would’ve accepted that from the beginning, as it had taken me some time and internal struggle to let myself accept how badly I needed even an ESA.

That’s when this all started. It started with me longing for the stability I felt around this dog I barely knew and thinking about ways she could have made it different; it started with me completely ignorant of what I was getting into, seeing only the wonderful things that could happen for once. We’re only a few months into this crazy mission and knowing even what I know now, I’m not sure I would have chosen to go down this path if I’d had all the right information–and for once, I find myself so very grateful for my ignorance.

It turns out that owner-training your service dog is even harder than I thought; that there’s a huge rate of failure, that there are very few experienced trainers who can help and even fewer who will help when you already have your dog, it’s a rescue, you’re a mess, you never served in the military…we’re sort of the worst combination, really. Except that we’re also the best, because of Stormlight. Even the service dog trainers who have evaluated her see real potential and think we have a shot at this, that we are at least worth trying to help (for all that it keeps not working out — the saga of the trainers, though, is not for this post).  For every skateboard she goes crazy over, there are dozens of ways she’s blossomed in our brief time together; for every moment I despair and wonder why we’re even trying when I’m clearly not the least bit qualified to have even tried to start, well, there are others, so many others, that make me look at her and feel swells of pride and sheer wonder at Storm. We’ve made incredible progress in a short time, I realize, and I’ll brag about it repeatedly in this blog– my girl is worth bragging about.

If I do right by her, maybe she’ll feel the same way about me one day.

Maybe I should finish our poem like this.

Wish I may, wish I might,
Find the strength to live and fight.

2 thoughts on “The Calm In The Storm”

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