Living with pastry and revolving doors

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Sometimes life feels like a long dressing-gown cord trailing out behind me, catching in all the sharp and pokey lost places. Each tug reminds me of a treacherous mistake and causes pin-prick tears to form in my horizon-blind eyes.

Other times, it’s a revolving door – pushing me forward, always at my back but never letting me out. Round and round until the tedium makes me nauseous and familiar territory fades into worn contempt.

And then there are the days when it bites and roars, chasing me into a future I barely have time to identify. I stumble into each challenge and then on to the next. I layer the stress in my life like a fine pastry and then gorge on it until my bed becomes the next hurdle, no longer a source of peace or rest.

Always, it is a separate thing. Insurmountable. Non-negotiable. Immovable.

I am flotsam on its wild waves.

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Believing in Dad

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I am a brave explorer, holding fast to pencilled maps,

Made in faith when I was still glistening.

(Daddy told me I could do anything, because I was his.)

 

Now hopeless time falls from me in angry tides;

My body changes more with passing skills;

And dusty guilt is smeared upon mistaken hands.

He never told me it would hurt so much to get this far!

 

When the people in the letterbox called him home,

He lay there unafraid at last,

Cold and un-mysterious.

Radio 4 played in the background

As they broke his door and felt his stagnant pulse.

And he never got to tell me how all alone it ends.

 

Now the hurt feels bitter hard and salty shine,

And my maps are inconsolable and dark,

But my feet are dream-tipped still in his believing stars.

(Dad told me I could do anything, because I was his.)

A wonderful and terrible halfway note

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The wonderful and terrible thing about dissociation is the effect it has on your memory.

On any given day, I am in battle with unwelcome scenes from my past. Even the most innocuous memory can morph into something that lives next door to a monster in my mind. Everything is connected.

So, I consciously try to forget as much as possible, and my mind happily goes along with the plan.

Sometimes I’ll stumble across a gap, a whistling smooth-sided chasm that blows up my skirts and makes skittering noises. Come in, it says. Investigate that strange smell. Here, into the corner; into the shadow; under the eaves. That’s where the really interesting stuff lives.

I shudder and skip past. In my wake, I deploy cerebellum-pixies to reinforce the defenses and put up signs: NOTHING TO SEE HERE.

I wipe the faces of the people I meet from an internal Etch-a-Sketch before they have fully left my sight. If I store their images in memory, I have a tendency to focus on them later. Their faces are dredged like bloated remains from inky wet depths. Every negative thought I had during our conversation, every regret or mis-spoken word returns to me and I have a moon-like face floating in front of me to cringe from as I re—live each conversation over and over.

Music is particularly evocative. I’ve learnt to allow myself to skip across a song, like a stone across a pond. If lyrics start to unearth scaly reptilian thoughts from a chapter in my life where I was small, then I pull a switch in my head and focus on the tune. I remember the video that accompanied the track or I make my own video in my head out of favourite film scenes in my huge Hollywood store.

I choose. I change. I control.

Photographs are tricky. I haven’t yet been able to find a way to look at photos without remembering what it had been like to live that moment. It’s a poor memory, a snapshot out of context sometimes, but I can smell the sea salt and feel the scratchy jumper. I feel the hope and I feel the pain from knowing I’m not being the person I could be.

Some photos are ok. I’ve been able to rescue a couple and put them on display in my house. When I look at them my brain only gets as far as the glass. When it tries to dig past that barrier and get to the meat of the image, to burrow into it and taste the metallic bite of it? I have two legs and I use them. I turn away.

Today I woke with a hollow feeling. 

I looked at my dog and felt empty. His hopeful tail wag couldn’t raise a smile. I felt like all hope had been syphoned from me in the night, and part of me was angry at the mutt – he’s supposed to be protecting me from all that goes bump.

Inside, I was an empty warehouse in an overgrown lot. Only echoes moved within me, and in the bushes were rats of opportunity and unforgiveness.

I am under-medicated at the moment because I’m having trouble coping with my Lithium at the dose I need. After all these years my body is starting to rebel. The latest anti-depressant also didn’t last long before side-effects invaded the battlefield.

Last night I started a new regime of Sodium Valproate to bolster the small dose of Lithium that continues to provide some small relief. I am hopeful, I guess. But first there are the side effects, and then there is the wait. It is forever until I will be on a dose that does the deed. And in that forever moment of waiting, will I be able to push past the grasping, shouting memories? Will I be able to chase them away from the deadlier black spaces inside me?

Anyway. Back to this morning. I had to walk the dog. Even if the world was going to end at 2pm this afternoon, I had to take him to do his business, sniff for signs of cats, catalogue all the dog poo and wet patches and pull, pull, pull because around the corner might be a juicy steak, a tennis ball, or a pal to play with. Usually his optimism is endearing and infectious. But this morning I couldn’t see past the storm that was dragging my insides across rough and broken ground.

As we trudged along I found a note in the pocket of my coat. It was clearly my handwriting, but I couldn’t remember when I had written it. I’m in the habit of making notes on scraps of paper and I hadn’t worn the coat in quite a while.

This is what it says:

“Am I trying to create my moment? Or gently nudge away from the in-crowd, the popular majority who can live the lives I read about in my Enid Blyton books when I was young?

No. It’s just that I’m trying to do something difficult.

As usual. (That’s a negative pattern of thought – stop it!)

Today was about showing the universe some willing. I am meeting it halfway. Not just waiting at home for a call. I got into the car and made a pilgrimage. Not to any of the places I visited really, but to a part of myself that has decided not to give up.”

I don’t need to remember when it was written in order to respect the hope and faith of the writer. So. I have decided not to give up. I am meeting the universe halfway yet again.

I took Muttley to the fields and we looked for rabbits in the blissful Land of Now.

 

Through the Looking-dog

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I’m seeing myself through my dog’s eyes. Sometimes it is just a revelation of the importance of kindness and the unimportance of aesthetics. Sometimes it is profound.

Over the past few weeks I have had a couple of dissociative swings, which leave me hunched and still, silent and inexpressive. My mouth does not break upward for even the cutest face or funniest film.

Mutt has found it hard – much harder than I thought he might. I had lofty ideas that he would nuzzle up to me, tenderly leading me back toward the world. Instead he turned away from me and acted like a spurned child. Miffed and a little accusatory.

While I was stuck behind my darkened glass, watching the world on the other side, I watched my little Mutt.

The sight of his woebegotten slouch in mimicry of my own shot a pang of guilt into me. I realised that he was a Looking-dog, mirroring my horrible illness.

Each time I returned to myself, Muttable sensed the change and shook himself from tail to ears. 

He does this regularly. If he is stressed or tense, overly excited or worried, he throws off the mood like it was so many droplets of water. His tail starts wagging and he trots off in search of the next loving hand or exciting adventure.

I wondered whether one of these days he would just give up on me.

So, I vowed to look at things a little differently.

I wondered whether I could shake my mood off – or whether I could get through the Looking-dog to the other side.

Some of it is beyond my control. My face looks stuck and cold because my heart is frozen in a paroxysm of fear – fear about the world, its leaders, its germs and geology, my family, the air, the plants and trees. It is endless and I wish in those times that I could press a button and disappear into the void.

But I can still move my arms and legs. It’s harder than usual – everything feels like varying densities of treacle pushing against me – but I’m not entirely without motion.

No matter how small the spark, I believe that we always have a pilot light of free will within us. Sometimes when the world is darkest, that’s when we feel it: warm and fluttering and asking to be asked. Like a bouncing loving dog, it wants to love us and to lead us toward ourselves again.

The last time I felt the heavy waves drop around me – my depression following like a tide lapping gently at my skin and bones – I grabbed dog and lead.

We went for a walk. Then we went for another one.

I began to calibrate my mood through my reflection in Muttley. If I saw him looking worried, I gave him a cuddle and a game of tug. If he withdrew from me, I took him for a walk or played fetch in the garden.

I may not have been smiling or talking, but I was connecting. He was my early warning system, and my lighthouse home. And soon – sooner than normal – my face came back, my voice came back, I came back.

I wish I had learned this years ago.

“Oo’s a loverly boy, then?”

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I’ve always prided myself on being the kind of person who could ruthlessly make the right decisions in a post apocalyptic wilderness. I would be the one who could cold-bloodedly pull the trigger, killing the weakest of our group so the rest could escape. I would make sure that the dead remain dead by calmly approaching (not too close) and putting another bullet/spear/butter knife in their brain.

So what has happened to me?

I’ve become enslaved to Muttley’s big brown eyes and waggly tail. (Actually as a point of interest I’ve become convinced that his bum is the wriggly article and his tail just hangs on for dear life.)

At bed time, for example, we’re standing in the kitchen as I prepare to sweep imperiously out of the room, close the door behind me and climb the stairs to my gloriously empty double bed.

I make the big mistake. Eye contact. He lowers his head submissively and his tail twitches pathetically. Hopefully. As I watch, his tail picks up speed – self-aware as tails are, it knows I’m watching it – and I feel my chest swell and a smile break over my face.

A blink later and I’m persuading my enormous monkey-dog to budge up, budge over, move yer paw, no not that paw!

I’m also engaged in baby talk (something that was literally verboten when my daughter was growing up). I stride off happily down alleyways and footpaths, yanking muttles after me saying “We’re gonna have to get that wittle tum tum feeling better aren’t we? Yes we are! Poor old tummy-kins!” Out of the corner of my eye I see curtains twitch and people hastily change direction to avoid the nutter.

This morning, once the wet pawsy-wawsies have been chased, caught and rubbed vigorously on a towel, I organised breakfast. His, not mine. The survival of Muttley is assured in any post-apocalyptic scenario. Me? Not so much.

Don’t think I’m a pushover though. I can make him stop and sit to within an inch of danger, and I am the Queen and Mistress Total of all food in the house (which is strictly withheld from Lord Licky unless it comes in kibble-form). The sofa is my territory, consistently defended from wet-nosed interlopers except when I issue an invitation for poochy-woochy to come and cuddle mummy.

Ew.

I feel emotionally torn between the huge responsibility of being a good person for him, and pangs of jealousy and pique as he pays attention to everyone but me when we are out.

He would run off with anyone else in an instant. Bum waggling madly, showing them all his tricks. I would be left gazing after him forlornly, dumped by a Cockadoodle-didn’t.

This envy drives some of my decisions. I want him to think I’m wonderful, so much better than anyone else.

I remember feeling the same way about my daughter when she was very small. I was jealous that she loved her deadbeat dad so much and would drop every emotion in her little body if he would only pay her some attention. I think I over-compensated, trying to be more understanding, more forgiving, more fun, more anything. It wasn’t a successful tactic. In fact the only thing that finally worked was time and age. Now she is an adult, I finally feel that I don’t need to compete with her dad.

Wow, Muttley. I should pay you by the hour. A furry counsellor with bad breath.

In addition to these emotional revelations and connections while we mooch down byways and across puddles, I feel waves of anger while on our walk. There are big signs at the recreation ground: “Keep dogs on lead”. Clearly the dog owners near me can’t read, because I’m always having to give Muttley a quick al fresco therapy session as he wonders why THEY can run free but he can’t. ‘Is it me?’ He gazes up at me, brown eyes quivering.

And a quick, totally arbitrary and un-rigorous assessment of the owners tells me it’s the rich ones that think they can just flout the rules. “I have total control over my Tarquinius at all times,” they bleat in my imagination.

And what about the signs reminding dog owners to pick up the poo? Is it so difficult to keep bags in your coat pocket? Is it such a hardship to walk an extra 20 yards to the bin? What do you think is going to happen as you leave your bag of poo by the roadside or – hold me back! – tie it to a tree branch?! Do you think some serf is going to follow on behind, cleaning up after you

Mutt-tastic is prone to picking up giardia, which is a parasite carried in dog poo. I have to run point at every green patch to identify offending lumps of kryptonite and steer him away, yanking his head collar while yelping “No! No! No!”. At the end, my dizzy pooch staggers gratefully onto the pavement.

How dare those offensive and offending owners be so self-absorbed? I’d like to take my lovely Mr-scruffly-poo round to their house and leave a little party bag in their garden.

Double-oh-muttley: License to maim

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It’s deceptive, isn’t it? That air of harmless cuteness my dog is vibing in the photo.

Last week, El Horror leaped. The lead was loosely in my left hand at the time. As it unspooled, the loop caught on my ring finger.

I’m now typing with nine fingers while sporting a funky purple plastic splint on my very own spiral fracture.

Muttley is unrepentant. Unconcerned. He nuzzles my throbbing finger as if to say: “Why doesn’t this work? It’s my favourite toy! Make it work!”

We are still unable to walk down the street without the idiot pulling me along. As long as we are both clear about who is in control of the pace, then we can remain friends. He is the good-natured super-dog who puts up with being attached to my annoying weight.

Somtimes I try to introduce a bit of leash discipline. I stop when he pulls and he calmly circles round to spend a fraction of a second in the sweet spot beside me before trotting ahead again and resuming The Big Pull.

At least he now knows to sit down when he sees another dog. Unfortunately this makes people come closer to comment on his good behaviour. Sigh. Not helping!

When some unsuspecting doglet comes close for a sniff, he can keep up the charming demeanour for a few seconds then POW! The idiot is back. Bouncy bouncy. BOUNCY BOUNCY! I pull him away on two legs, his neck craned round to gaze adoringly at his new best friend.

While my finger heals, my family is helping with my dog walking responsibilities. I’m a little worried that the ol’ Cuddle Monkey has noticed this shift in routine and is planning to overthrow the regime.

I would write more but my finger hurts. He’s staring at me. Time for stroking duty.

Squelchy handfuls and kibble love

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This week, the Dog has reached epic levels of Demanding Diva and Feral Child of Self-Interest. In fact, if he was a show dog, that would be his stage name. 
Gathering squelchy handfuls of chronic diarrhoea has given me unique skills. Too late I have learnt the ancient skill of not manoeuvring the handle holes to provide a Poo Vulnerable conduit to my fingers when attempting double scoops. It was a wise woman who said: better to use two bags than find yourself far from home tweezering old, dry wet wipes carefully from your pocket while Dog capers at the end of lead deciding whether to lunge and topple his Tolerated Mistress. 

In the end, the poo won. The vet agreed that despite the Muppet being woefully underweight, a starvation diet had become necessary. So for the last few days I have felt like a guard at a comfortable concentration camp. I starved him for the first 24 hours. Oh the shock! The sense of betrayal! As the realisation set in, the Hound began to desperately nuzzle, hoping for treats. 

Oh no. No treats allowed, my boy. 

In that case, he slyly replied, there will be no obedience! Ha! 

Of course some goodwill moves were thrown in – the odd sit, and occasional ‘watch me’ – but overall I was left in no doubt that our fledgeling relationship is based entirely on cupboard love. My foolish dreams of woman and hound working together for a better future crumbled into kibble dust. 

During the next 24 hours, there was a little rice. This seemed to make his mood even worse. You expect me to eat THAT?! He now began to skulk and sulk. The new regime was rejected in toto. 

I added some banana and chicken the following day which I fear was seen as a sign of total capitulation on my part as he now seemed quite cocky and full of swagger. 

We are currently in the act of gradually adding kibble to the diet and soon I hope to be able to offer treats for good behaviour. The Diarrhoea Watch begins. 

As regime changes go, I think I am more scarred by the experience than he is. He thinks I am the Mistress of Unnecessary Culinary Torture, and glowers moodily at me whenever I eat something.  

Having to collect his meagre poo over theee days and store it in my daughters old sealed lunch box in the fridge – well I think that just put the icing on the cake. 

The £90 fee for sending it to the lab for tests? Priceless. 

We know who’s in charge of our destiny now, don’t we?

This week I also managed to throw my back out while carelessly and rather unfairly trying to stop the Mutt-in-Chief from hurtling across the road to say hi-hi-hi-hi! to a terrified little Boxer pup. I have to say that if I saw Watson gallumphing toward me, barking at the top of his woof, teeth out in a psychopath’s grin and bear-like paws all akimbo – well, I think I would do a little whiz on the pavement too. 

Still, I can’t help but want to be his friend. 

Even when he gets up from his sofa snooze, stretching languorously and lifting his tail to whoosh a benevolent fart in my general direction. 

And when he decides I’ve been working for far too long, he putters around to my mouse side and rests his head on the mouse pad or my hand while gazing up at me with soulful eyes. 

Ah. 

The Stench and the Sorting Hat

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It’s been a week since my new pal came to live with me.

I’ve been in tears for much of it, convinced I’m a bad person and will never get the knack of it. Like there’s some instinct that dog owners have that means they can cope. An instinct I don’t have.

Before Watson came, I found myself thinking of the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. When Harry put it in his head, he wished and wished that he wouldn’t get put in Slytherin house. I imagined Watson thinking about all the potential owners that had visited him in the shelter and wishing and wishing his new owner was going to be the odd human with the green hair. I hoped he wanted me.

But of course it’s not about me. He’s a fragile creature with a past. He’s full of hopes and anxieties and irrational thoughts.

These seem to be about the potential for cats and birds to take over the world, and his deep felt annoyance that other dogs can’t dance like he can whilst barking joyfully at the end of his lead.

“But you’re not doing it right; I want to play with you!”

Yeah, play as in the Black Terror pouncing on his prey then poking it and sniggering. I know he’s a big softy but if I didn’t and I was the height of a footstool I’d be fair boogered out of my mind to see Watson pogoing towards me.

My grown up daughter has been fantastic, and already she has helped him walk nicer so my back is saved. He is so fast to learn – way faster than me.

Waking in the morning is a joy. To hear his tail start to wag as he realises I’m awake and then to be enveloped in Muppet Monster cuddles and kisses – it beats waking up next to a sweaty man with bad breath hands down.

Although Watson is on a special diet right now and the farts are astonishing. I’m thinking of leaving some HazMat masks at the front gate for the mail man.

As much as I am enjoying spending time with the Hound of the Basketvilles (sic), I keep coming back to the problem. While he barks and lunges at the world, I can’t take him out into it without feeling dread and uncertainty.

I have to be able to take him to work – otherwise he will be on his own for too long each day and it’s not fair to him. I also want to be able to take him on holiday and to woods and fields and valleys and across Middle Earth to Mordor and beyond!

While he barks and lunges like a happy Cujo, I can’t do that.

Worse, my agoraphobia is rearing its head. He makes such a scene. Everyone looks. The owners of the other dogs judge me (well, it feels like they do). It’s my worst nightmare. All I need is to be naked, without my homework and unable to find a loo. Pinch me…?

I am getting better though. For example, I am learning to be quiet to express my displeasure rather than to stomp home in a strop. I don’t know who came home from the shelter sometimes – him or me.

The shelter have been amazing and they are sending one of their trainers out to me in a couple of hours. I think we can do this, you know it? Hope is brimming out of me and filling my muddy boots.

As I write this, Watson is having his breakfast. It sounds like mud filtering through shale into a bottomless sink hole.

I may be falling in love with the smelly Muppet.

Gallumping paws for Miss Hopeless

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The most wonderful dog has found me, and I’m just a few short days from bringing him home from the shelter.

I could go on about his comical yet wise face, his gallumping running style, his joy when seeing…. anything! I could tell you that his sense of humour is already apparent, and fits in beautifully with my off-kilter pun-loving silly mind. I could tell you all these wonderful things.

Instead, I want to tell you how afraid I am that he’s going to be taken away from me.

I have a history of things being taken away from me, things being lost at the last hurdle. Promised things, hopeful things, even deserved things.

I went to a boarding school and learnt that promises are broken, friendships are ammunition, and nothing is fixed. Promised weekends at home evaporate, promised rescue disappears.

If something wrong was done, I got the blame for it. Those little girls told lies that would shame the devil. If I WAS involved, my co-conspirators escaped or gleefully got me in trouble, redrawing lines of allegiance at a dizzying speed. The territory shifted around me yet I was always somehow on the outside.

This was no Bunty adventure. It was a cold, confusing, heart-breaking boot camp.

Years later, fighting with a husband, the emotional memory recurred. Life is unfair. Unjust. And I can’t do anything about it. My reactions are all wrong, learnt in the topsy-turvy world of that school. Push away what you want, draw in what you’re afraid of. Pretend it doesn’t matter. Pretend. Pretend.

So as I think about this gorgeous dog, I find myself trying to step back.

“Don’t get too attached”, my inner too-wise child says gravely. “It might not happen. They’ve probably got it wrong and he’s promised to someone else.”

“Prepare yourself for disappointment,” says my inner beaten woman, lost long ago by the indifference of the medical community. “You don’t deserve something so amazing, and someone’ll notice soon and put things back the way they should be.”

“Stuff goes wrong,” my inner teen chimes in. “You’re going to have to pretend you’re cool and you knew all along.”

I’m making small preparations around the house, trying not to imagine how wonderful it could be to be greeted by that happy face and to watch him gallump around the garden.

I think that even if he gets as far as coming home with me, he won’t love me. How could he love me? I have proven over and over again in my life how difficult and selfish I can be.

I hold this idea in my head whenever I feel like I am slipping into excitement and unwarranted and unsafe hope: I say to myself that it won’t be like my dream; I tell myself that I will still be alone.

Because after all, isn’t that the biggest hope of all?

That his happy face will intrude into my dark and glum little world and I won’t be alone any more.