THIS ( RE­SPON­SI­BLE) LIFE

DEB­BIE LUSTIG

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

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