This is Max. Max is a Service Dog. He’s still in training, and I’m responsible for training him. He’s learning quicker than I expected. He’s been “at work” two days now. He was originally rescued in March, after his abusers decided he was a “bad dog” who wouldn’t listen or behave. He was afraid of everything. Max has come a long way in a short time.
We’ve been training together since the day Max found me and asked what was for lunch in the parking lot of a Love’s truck stop. I fell in love the moment I saw him. I didn’t know then that I needed an actual, legal service dog. I did know I was having mental health struggles and needed a friend who would love me real good while I kept working on remembering how to love myself.
I’ve had to learn a lot about pit bulls in that time, because pit bulls are not terriers. I am myself a Britney Spaniel/Australian Shepherd mix, who just happens to look like a human to the unsuspecting onlooker. I know what to do with an overly eager-to-please dog who loves to be rewarded for jumping hoops correctly. I know what to do with performance-oriented reward-seeking. Max ain’t that kind of dog.
Today, someone I love yelled at me. He said some real hurtful things. Things that have me realizing I’m not welcome in my home. Things that make me wonder why I ever thought I was. He said the hurtful words about ten minutes before I had to be at an evening workshop on Contemplative Writing hosted by the local public library. That was inconvenient timing.
As I exited the scene of explosive familial dysfunction splattered across the living room like a crime scene waiting to be secured and photographed, Max accompanied me to my office. I opened up the laptop. I clicked the Zoom link. I joined the writing workshop. It was 6:00 pm. I was on time. I’d jumped the hoop correctly. Now, for my reward!
Max put his paw on my leg like he needed to go out. I knew he didn’t need to go out, because I’d just taken him outside right before I got yelled at. I pushed his paw away and told him I was working. Another paw. Two paws. In my lap, all at once. 65 pounds of pit bull climbed onto me, as serious as a dragonfly in mating season. I was going to pay attention to him, dang it. He wanted to play. That silly computer I was looking at? Not as important as he was. This was the first time he has ever climbed onto my desk. While I was fighting him off, at that.
Shoot, I thought. Is he ever going to cut it as a service dog? Am I fooling myself? Sometimes he behaves so well. Then sometimes, he’s just such a handful. He won’t listen. He won’t stop. He does not care that I’m in a situation where my presence and attention is required in this very moment. He does not care that the people on this Zoom screen have PhDs and I need to hear what they’re teaching me. There’s no way I can train him to be a service dog, I think in frustration. This is too much, I would sigh, if I were breathing. He licks my face.
Max’s head pops through a magic virtual rainbow and onto the Zoom screen with all the other attendees. I think he’s trying to sniff them? He wants to know who these creatures are inside the computer demanding my energy right now when — don’t they see? — what Max wants here is more important than any of them. He is going to have my full attention whether any of us likes it or not.
I imagine this happening at the job I’m currently interviewing for. What if I were sitting at a meeting with the lead researchers, whose time is precious, carrying on our professional business? Then boom! There’s Max! Right in my face. Just like he’s doing now. This is unacceptable. I push him down off me repeatedly, but he’s only more insistent. God, if only I could afford a real trainer! Then I remember that a real trainer told me I have what it takes to train dogs for a living. I don’t know what that trainer was smoking when he said that, but apparently I need some of it. My dog is physically on top of me during class where I’m supposed to be paying attention. I don’t have what it takes for anything right now.
With my microphone muted, I take Max by the collar and escort him out of my office. I close the door behind me. He has to learn boundaries.
I walk back to my desk and sit down just long enough to feel the weight of my mistake sear into me like the seat I’m in is on fire. I stand back up. I open the door, pet him behind the ear, and go to Max’s backpack. I pull out an esophagus — his favoritest favorite treat in all of the treat kingdom.
“Okay, let’s go to work.” I put his service vest on him and take him back into the office. Then I apologize to my workshop crew that it took ten minutes to get present with them, after I’d just been yelled at and made to question whether I need to find a new place to live because I’m not wanted in the house I pay the mortgage on. I didn’t tell them that part.
“I’m sorry,” I typed. “My dog is trained to disrupt me when I’m dissociating. He’s making it really hard for me to pay attention to the workshop because he’s doing his job a little too well right now.”
I gave Max the esophagus. He had performed his duties admirably.
All my life, I’ve hidden dissociation. The first time I can identify having done it, I was three years old. It’s easy to sweep dissociation aside and pretend it’s not happening, just like whatever is causing it. I can tune in so attentively to one thing, one important thing, or one thing I convince myself is important, that I don’t notice the whole world burning down. Or the blood spatter of harsh words on the wall of my living room. I once gave a Trans 101 presentation to a packed audience at the 2016 Philly Trans Health Conference less than four hours after a surgeon drained my literally-exploded, three-week-old priapism into a plastic bag on the bed of his hotel room. I took the stage that day with hydrocodone rollin’ through my veins. My presentation was received with five-star reviews, a job offer, and extensive commendation. Y’all, I can dissociate like Vincent Van Gogh could paint.
Year after year, no one knew. No one knew the pain I was hiding all those times I stood center stage in the advocacy arena fighting for healthcare and social justice. No one knew I wasn’t feeling my own feelings, or that I was losing my ability to feel empathy for theirs. No one knew the slippery slope I was sliding down toward anger, frustration, rage, and despair. They just saw my career soaring. They saw the acceptance letter into the UW Masters of Public Health program. They saw measurable progress that was happening wherever I got involved. I guess they thought I was happy. I had certainly fooled myself. I thought being in a state of constant dissociation was as “happy” as I could get. I didn’t know any of the people around me were, you know, actually happy with their lives. I wasn’t trying to lie to them. I was just lying to myself so good, I couldn’t tell the truth if I’d wanted to.
Until one day, the truth caught up with me, and I lost everything. The grad school, the limelight, the gigs, the tenuous grip on reality I’d been clinging to. All of it. I lost it all. The people who’d been actually happy moved on with their lives, while I sat in a puddle of my own failure wondering where I’d gone wrong. Each time I tried to repeat the old patterns, or perform like everything was okay, the words that came out of my mouth were all wrong. I had no charisma to hide behind anymore. I’d lost that, too.
Max ain’t that kind of dog.
Now that he’s in my life, I’m incapable of hiding dissociation. He does not care if I’m in an interview on live television with Oprah. If I go all Shonda-Rhimes-before-she-loved-herself and dissociate during that interview, Max will be on top of me like a clown on a unicycle. Ain’t nobody gonna stop that dog from doing the only important thing in this world: Getting me to be present with myself, feel what I’m feeling, and not let the pressures of “work” or social expectations get in the way of that goal.
Max embodies what tens of thousands of people throughout the United States are striking for in their workplaces right now. He puts the brakes on expectations to leave our feelings at the door and show up as half-humans, like the Borg, to serve a force of assimilative destruction that cares only about its own self-promotion at the expense of any and all human lives. He’s not a bad dog. He’s a good dog guiding me through a bad situation. He’s a loyal friend who interrupts whatever is going on, to ask: But it can wait until you’re breathing real slow and deep again, and until you can name your feelings, right? We can play until you can do that. You can’t work until you do that. Come on, now. Be real.
You really can’t work if you can’t feel. Stop pretending you can. Breathe. Play. Now.
Like thousands of out-of-touch employers who dislike being exposed by their workers for treating the backbone of their organizations like worthless, disposable objects instead of real people with a full range of human emotions, I dislike that Max exposes my dissociation. I dislike that what was previously invisible, except insofar as the fruits of my labor eventually demonstrated themselves, I can no longer hide. Now my dissociation is as obvious as a 65-pound pit bull on top of my face.
I guess I’ll have to get with listening to what my heart has been demanding from the picket line.
Thanks, Max. You did good work today.