THIS ( RESPONSIBLE) LIFE
IT’S been three years since we met. She was 11 weeks old, with one gold paw and three white ones. An adorable, mixed- breed puppy. But it wasn’t love at first sight. I was too nervous for that.
I had been mentally ill since my late teens but wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 29. It didn’t seem possible that what was happening to me was a disease. My father had succumbed to manic depression. I wasn’t like that, I thought.
I tried to make myself feel better and in doing so made my problems inconceivably worse. I used illicit drugs and lost years of my life. Instead of having career goals or a family, I spent my 30s miserable and irresponsible.
I was lucky: I got treatment. I went into hospital dozens of times. I had electro- shock therapy, which helped, and numerous medications, which didn’t. In the end, I’d had enough. I left hospital and never went back.
Things got worse. My emotions were raw and I felt like a fraud, but now had no way of softening the pain. Helpless as a baby, I had no idea how to care for anyone or anything. My sister had the answer: I needed a dog. I haunted the local pet shop and pondered the puppies. Can I do this?’’ I thought. Do I deserve one of these lives?’’
It was about time I took some responsibility, for myself and for another living creature. My new dog didn’t know this. But when I took her home, I knew I was taking a huge step forward in my recovery.
Things were seldom easy. This puppy gleefully showed me how only 3kg of dog can destroy almost anything. No one could ring me because she chewed through three phone cords. Select areas of carpet were permanently tattooed with her puddles.
In the early months, I often wanted to grab her pretty paws and wrap them around her neck. I was utterly intolerant of discomfort or pain and this small, lively dog challenged me in ways I didn’t like at all.
When would she learn to pee outside? When would she stop chewing everything to bits? When could I use the vacuum without her crazy barking?
To my shame, I entertained thoughts of giving her up. But something slowly changed in me. I learned how to communicate with this wilful animal and, in return, she showed me how to live in the moment, and how to be alive. She made me a better person. She also made me love her.
My life has not gone back to the chaos and misery of the past, and it never will. Life without a dog is unimaginable, despite the shaky start.
Our dogs ennoble us. Their affection and loyalty enable us to believe ourselves capable of better lives. They help us in tangible ways every bit as important as guide dogs for the blind. My recovery would have been impossible without my dog.
Of course, I remind myself sometimes, she eats possum guts. She rolls in poo. But she is precious because she is such a normal dog. She chews toys and chases balls. She follows me like an imprinted goose.
Dogs want each other, according to anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. But there are millions of dogs that appear to want us. There is a connection between us that crosses our species.
Every night, my dog jumps on the bed and pushes her snout under my hand. It’s code for
stroke me’’ and I’m happy to oblige. I let her burrow under the covers and she sleeps in the airless dark.