Newcomer's Best Friend
In early recovery it was a stray dog named Rosie who taught me everything I needed to know about a healthy relationship.
When I was first trying to get sober, I was so dysfunctional that it was all I could do to drag myself off my dirty futon and stumble five blocks to the 14th Street Workshop Beginners meeting in New York City’s East Village at 12:30 in my pajamas. Showering was a chore that I didn’t always bother myself with. In the meeting I cried and cursed, ranted and raved. After the meeting a group of us would go to Little Poland for lunch and my new friends would buy me an egg salad sandwich and a chocolate milkshake. And that was it for my day. I was unemployable, depressed, and angry. I didn’t know how to take care of myself, much less another living being.
And yet at about a year sober I began to hang around the Tompkins Square dog run watching the dogs frolic and play. I have heard other people talk about having “Baby Fever.” I never pined for a baby, but I did find myself pining for a dog. I had always had dogs growing up, and I longed for that companionship. Relationships with people were so difficult, it seemed, and I felt ill-equipped to love other people, and to let them love me. Perhaps it would be easier to connect with a dog.
I want to stress that getting a dog is a big commitment and should not be entered into lightly. In later years of sobriety I worked in the animal shelter system and saw all too often the sad eyes of dogs dumped at the shelter because people found themselves overwhelmed with caring for them, having underestimated the demands of the relationship. In my case, my track record of caring for myself was dismal, and I couldn’t even keep a house plant alive. What made me think I could care for a dog? I can only say that I felt a “calling” of some sort to provide a good home for a homeless animal. Somehow I instinctively knew that having a canine companion would help me become more functional, as I focused on the dog’s needs. Despite my difficulties showing up for life, I knew I could show up for a dog.
I wanted more than anything for her to have a good life, and I couldn’t provide that if I was using.
I went with a friend to North Shore Animal League shelter one spring day and perused the corridors of cages, dogs barking, desperate for attention. As is the case with many people who come to a shelter to adopt a dog, I wanted to take them all home. But one caught my eye because she was acting so differently from the others. She was a black chow mix with a curly tail, one ear up and one ear down, creating a comical expression, and deep soulful brown eyes. When I introduced myself to her, she was friendly and responsive, but not desperate. I admired her ability to stay serene even in the chaos of a shelter. This animal, I thought, could teach me a thing or two.
And so Rosie came into my life. My day became structured around caring for her needs. Instead of staying up all night and waking up a few minutes before the meeting, I began going to bed at a more reasonable hour and getting up in the morning to take her to the dog run. I became part of the dog run community and made friends there, both human and canine. No matter how depressed or anxious I was, I had to take care of Rosie. I started to feel the beginnings of self-esteem as I provided a good life for my new best friend. When she was smiling and happy, I felt a joy that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Rosie was very good at expressing her needs and taking care of herself. I learned a lot about self-care from her. She ate when she needed nourishment, drank water to hydrate herself, played well with others, rested when she needed to, and was clear about her boundaries with other dogs as well as people.
In addition to learning about self-care, I also learned a lesson about my Higher Power from my dog. I had been stumbling around the Third Step for a while and felt really confused about my relationship with HP. I began to think about how, to some extent, I was Rosie’s Higher Power. I controlled when and what she ate, where she went, when she relieved herself. She wanted to eat chicken bones and other garbage off the street. I wouldn’t allow her to do that, knowing it would be injurious to her health. Instead, I provided proper food and treats to keep her healthy and strong. I began to understand that when I didn’t get what I wanted, my Higher Power always gave me, instead, what I needed. Rosie trusted me to provide for her, and I began to trust that my Higher Power knew what was best for me.
I am sad to say that I violated Rosie’s trust when I relapsed. Rosie had never seen me drunk until about six years into the relationship, when I slipped back into the dark world of drugs and alcohol. I can still remember the look on her face that first night I got drunk. She was scared; my vibe was weird. She began to have a worried look every time I came into the apartment, trying to read my behavior to see if I was okay or inebriated. While I hunkered down in my dreary apartment, shades drawn against the sunlight, sniffing cocaine and peering through the peephole in full-blown tweak mode, she watched my every move with a look of pure fear. I had trouble taking care of her the way I had when sober. Walks became shorter and less frequent; interaction with her friends at the dog run diminished.
Looking into her eyes one morning after a particularly bad run, her fear and worry overwhelmed me. There was no anger there; just love, despite my poor track record of caring for her. I wanted more than anything for her to have a good life, and I couldn’t provide that if I was using. She was heartbroken, and so was I. It was the start of a turning point that brought me back to sobriety.
Thankfully, the last few years of her life saw me sober and once again caring for her as she deserved. She died in 2008, and I was there to tell her I loved her, that she had been a great teacher for me. She died peacefully, with dignity.
Oftentimes now when I’m in a stressful situation, Rosie visits me in my dreams. She is a calming influence on me even in death. I wake up feeling better able to deal with the problem at hand after her visit. I also find myself picturing her face when I pray. I imagine her watching over me, sending me love and good energy.
I love you Rosie, and I miss you.
Sadie Long is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about being married to a relapser.