A Dog's Life
When my brother told me that the cure for all my ails was a dog, I just blew him off. But then I met Ramona...
My older half-brother, Joey, is just about as different from me as you could possibly imagine.
I was born in Berkeley and raised in San Francisco in the heart of the Castro in the late 80’s. I remember marching in several protests against the Gulf War that started right down the street from us, at Dolores Park, when I was seven. And I remember going to ACT UP rallies with my godfather, Terry, who is HIV positive, and my other godfather, Armistead Maupin, who is a gay icon (and a genius writer, amongst other things).
Joey, on the other hand, was born in Tennessee and is a resolute Republican. While I’ve always been a bit scrawny and sickly looking, Joey is a 6’5’’ Steve McQueen type with blue eyes and square shoulders who was the star quarterback on his high school football team. Needless to say, we didn't always understand eachother.
When we were both little and visiting our mom down in LA, Joey kept referring to black people as “Sammys”—a term I’d never heard before (I just looked it up on urbandictionary.com and surprisingly, I couldn’t find the term there either. But obviously, I know what it meant). Joey once asked my step-dad to take him to West Hollywood so he could see the "queers." Living in Tennessee, it seems, he’d never seen any gays before. Meanehile, when I was as the height of my addiction, I was letting guys blow me for $50 a pop, so I could afford another gram of speed.
I brought Ramona home and began the long, slow process of trying to rehab this twitchy, psycho dog. At the sa
So, to sum it all up, my brother is a Southern, Republican, racist, homophobic, GQ model with a good throwing arm who owns his own business and is worth at least a couple million dollars. And me? I was always in a Sober Living or a rehab or out on the street shooting drugs when my brother would come to visit.
In terms of my alcoholism—well, my brother never seemed to understand it too much. I actually did try to talk to him about it a little but he didn’t really get it at all.
In fact, what he said kinda hurt me.
“Nic,” he said. “Nic, you need to get you a dog.”
Christ, it just seemed so condescending.
Or like he was totally minimizing my problem.
Of course, looking back, I guess his rational was that having to care for another living being would get me to start valuing my own life more.
But at the time, after everything I’d been through with my addiction, it made me feel like he wasn’t taking me seriously at all.
I mean, the answer to my problems was not a dog.
It was so much more complicated than that.
But then something strange happened. Several years passed and I hadn’t seen my brother, nor had I thought about his stupid dog comment in all that time, but I was drinking about a quart of vodka every day and I was lying to everyone, telling ‘em I was sober when I obviously wasn’t. Through a series of crazy unfortunate (or fortunate, I guess) events, I found myself living in Savannah, Georgia, just one state away from my brother—and I also found myself face to face with a very sick, emaciated hound dog who’d crawled out from under a truck and was running into traffic.
Sick and messed up as the dog was, I managed to grab hold of her and get her into my car to take her out to the Humane Society.
Now I’m not sure what the reason is exactly, but somehow, in the South, they seem to have quite a different relationship with their animals than we do here in California—because sick, messed up stray dogs running around Savannah was not a particularly unusual occurrence. In fact, when I brought her in to the Humane Society, they basically told me there was nothing they could do considering the amount of strays that are brought in every day. The only way they would take a look at her was if I agreed to foster her at my house until they could find someone suitable to adopt her.
And so I did.
That is, I agreed to foster her and so they brought her into the back to do some tests on her and that’s when she attacked the Humane Society vet and they told me they were going to have to put her down.
Well, I looked at that little pathetic, sick, messed up hound dog scared out of her mind and wanting to kill that vet lady and I guess I kinda felt like I wanted to kill that vet lady, too. I mean, you gotta be gentle with a stray, wild dog. They’ve been through a lot. You can’t just expect them to get over it like that and be totally normal and well adjusted.
I don’t know, it was like I could really relate to this crazed, homeless dog and I felt like she deserved another chance—maybe the same way I still believed I might deserve another chance.
So I didn’t let them put her to sleep.
Instead, I brought her home and began the long, slow process of trying to rehab this psycho dog—while, at the same time, I guess, trying to rehab myself.
I used to take her (Ramona, I finally named the dog) on walks for hours and hours around Savannah—training her, getting her used to being around people and other dogs. I was reintegrating her back into society and I was doing the same thing for me. I even stopped drinking. And while, granted, a lot of that had to do with me getting into therapy and getting on medication and getting involved in different programs, a lot of it had to do with my relationship with Ramona, too. Hell, she needed me more than anyone else ever had. And I was the only one she could count on. And she kept on attacking almost everyone else besides me (though I’ve gotten bit a few times, too, I have to admit).
But, the thing is, I have to stay well for Ramona. I can’t throw my life away anymore, because I’ll be throwing her life away, too.
She depends on me for everything.
And I guess I depend on her, too.
And we’ll always have that—the two of us together. Even though our world is much bigger now. It’s not just me and Ramona, but me and Ramona and Jette (my wife) and her cat, Cole (who she found as a kitten on the streets of Richmond), and our new bloodhound puppy, Rhett Butler (who I found on the Internet and adopted because he was such a half-baked, sickly runt that no one else wanted him). Now they all depend on me, and I depend on all of them.
But I learned it with Ramona: she taught me accountability.
That is, we taught it to each other. And it’s saved both our lives.
So, yeah, you know, I hate to admit it, but my brother was right.
Which means that maybe there’s a part of us that isn’t that completely different after all.
Of course, that’s not to say I’m making excuses for all the bigoted, conservative crap.
But if we can come together over our dogs—well, at least that’s something.
Because if we are capable of that love, we are capable of all love. For my brother, it’s about learning to love people who are different races or sexual orientations than himself. And for me, it’s about learning how to love myself enough that I don’t have to stick a needle in my arm, or drink a quart of vodka just to get through the day.
Because if we have love for one, we can have love for all.
Nic Sheff is a columnist for The Fix and the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction, the New York Times-bestselling Tweak, and We All Fall Down. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two hound dogs, and a cat. He is currently working on a novel about sisters growing up in a Northern California cult.