Should I Choose Service or Self-Care?

By Sadie Long 01/20/15

AA is all about service, but sometimes helping others conflicts with taking care of myself.

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Last weekend, I went to visit my parents in Virginia. They are both getting older and are having some troubling medical issues. I've been trying to go down to see them every few weeks to figure out how I can help. I see it as a gift of sobriety that I am able to show up for them now that they need help, after years of worrying them with my drunken, bipolar escapades. Alcoholics Anonymous is all about service, and it is a blessing to be able to care for them after all they have done for me.

The situation with my parents is stressful, but not nearly as stressful as the bombshell my husband dropped on me over the phone while I was in Virginia.

“I brought a puppy home,” he told me. 

It seems that his nephew, Nick, is in the middle of a manic psychotic break and was living in his car with a new puppy. What do you do when you have lost your job and your place to live, are broke and living in your car? Well, you buy a $1,000 purebred puppy, of course!

I suppose it's all about balance—being of service when we have it to give, but putting ourselves first when we need to.

I was floored. I love dogs, but my gut reaction was a strong, “NO!” My life with my husband is unmanageable enough with his constant relapsing. Our marriage is in jeopardy because of his active addiction. The uncertainty and stress are exhausting and then add to that insanity a hyper, untrained, unneutered puppy. It was just too much. 

Not to mention, we already have a dog, Buddy, an older Beagle mix, who is very unhappy with the puppy entering his world. I feel that Buddy doesn't have many good years left and deserves to age with dignity, not having to deal with a rambunctious puppy chasing him all over the apartment. 

But, as I mentioned, AA is all about service. The Prayer of St. Francis in the “12 and 12” says, “Where there is discord, I may bring harmony...where there is sadness, I may bring joy...for it is better to love than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.”

As crazy as this puppy situation seemed, was it an opportunity to do service? For both my husband's nephew and this poor dog?

After all, when I was in an almost identical situation, people took care of my dog, Rosie, until I got back on my feet. 

As I wrote about in a previous article on The Fix, twenty years ago I fled an abusive relationship in New Mexico with my dog Rosie, my cat, and a puppy I had picked up off the side of the road. We were all crammed in my car with all the belongings I had been able to load it up with. Halfway through Kansas, I had a psychotic break and saw dead cows hanging from telephone poles and thought that the other cars on the interstate were “spying on me.” 

Holed up in a crappy motel on the edge of a cornfield in Kansas with the three animals milling around and pooping all over the rug, I waited for my sister to arrive to escort me back to New York. God bless her, she flew out to Denver and then drove a rental car to my cornfield motel, and we began our journey back to New York; my sister gripping the steering wheel as I threatened to grab it and drive us both into a tree.

But the puppy wouldn't stop crying. Mashed in between bags of clothes and boxes of books, sharing what little space there was in the backseat with Rosie, with a psychotic woman yelling at him to shut up, was not a good home for this puppy. 

When my sister suggested that we drop the puppy off at a shelter on our way back to New York, I knew she was right. Dealing with his needs in the midst of my breakdown was unrealistic. And unfair to him. He deserved a more stable environment. 

And so we brought him to an SPCA in St. Louis. My sister led him into the shelter, while I stayed in the car with Rosie and my poor cat, who was stuffed into a carrier too small for him and kept pooping on himself. It was, all-in-all, a really bad situation for all of us. 

I felt guilty for giving up the puppy, but looking back, I see it was the right thing to do. 

And we did eventually make it back to New York in one piece. Once she had successfully delivered me back to the city, my exhausted, traumatized sister flew back to Virginia with the cat, leaving me with Rosie. 

I had nowhere to stay, other than crashing on people's couches, and many of my friends were afraid of how insane I seemed and didn't want me in their homes for too long. Rosie and I migrated around the city for several weeks, staying in a different place almost every night. 

Although I had given up the puppy, I desperately wanted to keep Rosie. She was my best friend and had been in my life since early sobriety. 

Thankfully, my friend Tanya and her roommate in Williamsburg agreed to let Rosie stay with them for a month while I tried to get my shit together. 

And thanks to their service, when I did stabilize and retrieved my dog from them, Rosie and I had ten more good years together. 

Was this situation with Nick's puppy, Buster, my opportunity to give back what had been freely given to me when I was sick and homeless?

And yet, I have also earned my seat in Al-Anon, and that program is all about self-care. With the unmanageability already present in my life, was it realistic to add a puppy to the mix? Would I really be able to tend to the needs of my own dog, the puppy, and still take care of myself in a relationship that could be very stressful and challenging? 

The truth is, I have helped a lot of animals over the years. All my pets have been adopted from shelters. When I worked at a veterinarian's office, I rescued a dog who had been abandoned at the vet's by a woman who boarded her and then never picked her up. That dog went from living in a cage for several months to finding a forever home on a farm Upstate. My husband and I rescued a cat off the street in a blizzard, had him neutered, and found a great home for him. Not to mention all the animals I helped working as a shelter caseworker for a major Animal Rights organization.

But my gut told me that keeping Nick's puppy in my apartment was unrealistic. I felt so guilty to say no to the situation, and even worse when Nick came to pick up Buster and put him back in that car.

I still shudder when I think about Buster living in the car. But I am starting to realize that I was right to put my needs and my dog's needs ahead of Nick's and his dog's. As I have heard in Al-Anon, we must put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we can help anyone else. 

I'm still learning how to put the oxygen mask on. I simply don't have it to give to a puppy right now.
 Both my Al-Anon and my AA sponsors said I did the right thing. 

“We often feel guilty and selfish when we put ourselves first,” my Al-Anon sponsor told me. And I did. 

At the same time, I was terribly relieved. 

Service or self-care? Sometimes, the two programs seem to conflict. 

I suppose it's all about balance—being of service when we have it to give, like with my parents, but putting ourselves first when we need to. Recognizing when we can be of service, and when we should take care of ourselves. Because if we don't, we may wind up in a worse situation, have a complete meltdown, and need to be rescued by someone else. 

As a compromise, I told Nick that if he decides to give up the puppy (which I think is a smart idea considering his situation), I would help him find a permanent home for Buster.  

I am going to try to focus on where I can realistically be of service: with my mom and dad, and with Buddy. With my sponsees and program friends. And, with my husband, who continues to struggle. 

All these years later, I hope that the puppy I gave up had a good life with a loving family. Buster deserves nothing less. Just not from me.

Sadie Long is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about being on her knees.

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