Monday, March 18, 2013

Love Me, Love My Pet

As I write this blog, Hadley, my almost six year old piebald miniature dachshund lies on my lap. I tell you this so that you’ll know I have a definite bias – I love animals. I think they provide an added dimension to our lives, as well as having particular meaning for each of us. For myself, there are times I don’t know how I would have survived the years after my husband’s death without Hadley. She brought me great comfort, her joyous energy providing a welcome relief from my own heaviness.

I also believe that animals represent the childlike, vulnerable, dependent part of ourselves and that what we feel about animals and how we relate to them, often provides a clue as to how we and/or our parents felt about that part of us. 

Mark came in one day and announced he was planning to give his bull dog, Rodney, away. I was immediately alarmed, but tried to keep my concern at bay, as I waited for his explanation.

“I’m just not home enough. I don’t have the time. He ties me down. I should be out there dating, taking care of business.”

“What brought this decision up for you?” I ask, still trying to stay neutral. “It seems rather sudden,” I add, searching my mind for a possible explanation, wondering if something in our recent sessions might have led to Mark’s decision.

“I just told you, I don’t have time for him.”

“You seem angry,” I say quizzically. 

“Why do you always question everything? Remember, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

“Now you seem angry with me.”

“I’m not angry, just exasperated. We go over and over the same things. I’m sick of all this talking, sick of dealing with my childhood. I want to be able to get on with my life!”

Suddenly I feel sad and our last session comes flooding back to me. Mark was the one who was sad then, sad as he realized how much he had been a neglected child, how his parents ignored him as they went on with their busy lives. Now Mark is repeating their behavior in the present, doing to Rodney what his parents did to him and leaving me to feel his sadness. 

“Mark,” I begin, “You know that I don’t tend to give advice, but this time I’m going to suggest that you don’t rush to give Rodney away. Last time we met, you talked about how lonely you were as a little boy, how much your parents were occupied with their business and traveling all over the world, how much you craved their attention. That was a painful for you. You often prefer to act like your parents, as though you don’t need anyone, as if you don’t care about anything. But last time you could feel your sadness and that was hard for you. And now you want to get rid of Rodney, just like you felt your parents got rid of you.  Maybe it would be better to sit with Rodney’s vulnerable, needy feelings, just as you need to sit with your own.”

Mark is thoughtful. “I don’t know. I don’t know if what you said it true. But I suppose I should think about it a bit more, sit on it as you said, rather immediately getting rid of him. And as I just said that I felt sad, so maybe you are right. I definitely need to think about it more.”

Sometimes a patient’s evolving feelings about her pet demonstrates the changes going on inside her. Patti, a relatively recent, depressed widow, is an example. Unlike me, Patti felt more annoyed by Fifi, her four year old poodle, than comforted. “She’s only a dog,” she would say. Although I bristled internally, I understood her reaction to reflect her anger at her husband’s death and her unwillingness to accept the reality of his absence. She was angry that all she had left was Fifi. She was angry that she was expected to survive with only a dog as a companion. Although I never addressed her feelings about Fifi directly, as she accepted the reality of her husband’s death and mourned his loss, she began to report enjoying taking Fifi on her walks and having her sit next to her while her read or crocheted or watched TV.

Sometimes a cigar may just be a cigar, but an animal is always more than just a pet. 


Unknown said...

I've found this to be so true, myself. My dogs remind me to express the fun, childlike part of myself. If I've been working on the computer too long, my dog, Lucy, will literally stand on two legs put her paws on my arms making them pull off the keyboard. I'll catch myself becoming irritated and then laughing. It's like she's telling me enough of the work - STOP IT and take us for a walk!

Love the pictures of Hadley! :)

Amanda Christine Cox said...

So sweet. My therapist disclosed about his cat today, saying that he was getting old and didn't have much time left. This was because I have 3 cats, have fostered 16, and still mourn the loss of my favourite one. I nurture my cats like I would want to be nurtured I guess. I'm very forgiving with them and know that their "bad" behaviour is caused by anxiety and discomfort. I told P this because one peed in my bed, and he asked me if I punished the cat. I said "No, it would just make them more anxious". That told me a lot about my own upbringing...

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

You're obviously nurturing your cats the way you wished you would have been nurtured. And you're doing a great job of taking care of both them and you.

I'm glad your therapist is a lover of cats as well.