Three weeks ago I adopted a rescue-pup, Alice, from Texas. She’s adorable, 10 months old, but was severely and heartlessly abused from the get-go. She can’t tell me what she endured, but her terror at the sight of any sort of leash or cord speaks volumes, as does her dissolving at the sound of a raised voice. She shuts down. She turns to jelly. She trembles and piddles and clearly wants to sink away into the Earth, which she tries to do by hunkering as low as possible and looking at nothing.
At some point, Alice and her siblings were dumped in the desert near the Rio Grande, where they starved so severely that she’s forever stunted and her teeth are tiny. At about four months, she and two siblings were found, too weak to flee. Little Alice was the worst off, so skeletal that the rescue vet doubted she’d pull through. But she did. Never will Alice grow into those great big ears and paws of hers, yet somehow her brain was spared; she’s smart! Her love for play survived as well. She prances in the back yard among imaginary friends.
But humans – they’re all Freddy Krueger. Her original Texan owners did not believe in love. They thought they knew best how to “break” a puppy by showing that tiny creature who was boss and just how much power the boss wielded. When the puppies failed to learn by these methods, they were abandoned to die.
And here’s the connection to this blog: it’s no joke that if little Alice were a human being, she’d be a prime candidate for addiction – a way to escape her fear and trauma, just as she tries now by freezing and going glassy-eyed. In those moments, she’s just like a human who, whether consciously or at the gut level, considers the world untrustworthy, loveless, and scary. Not to be present and vulnerable is all she wants she wants, and she wants it desperately.
Friends remark, “Alice is so lucky to have found her way to you!” But I see it the other way ‘round: I’m so lucky to have found Alice. In her sweet nature, I see every spirit wounded through no fault of their own. It’s up to me to help her unlearn what her most foundational experiences taught her: that the world is full of cruelty, and that she’s helpless against it.
Like Alice, I’m still unlearning my own false beliefs about life – unconscious ones that drove me to nearly drink myself to death, desperate for a way out.
Why do alcoholics drink in the first place? To find relief.
Like Alice, we don’t trust life because, no matter what we do, we can’t control it. Initially, we quell that stress with a drink or two to “take the edge off.” And though early on, alcohol works reeeaally well, whatever we’re not dealing with tends to get worse, and before we know it, addiction itself is calling the shots. Now we drink because drinking is just what we do. We dig ourselves deeper and deeper, until we hit bottom.
Maybe things get horrible enough that we consider going to AA, even though we’re way cooler than that.
If we listen in AA, if we open our minds even a little not just to what’s said in meetings, which are a component, but to the Big Book’s text and 12-step instructions, which we read and follow with a competent sponsor, two ASTOUNDING things may happen.
- 1) We realize it’s not the world, but our thinking about the world that is AFU.
- 2) We realize that, try as we might, we can’t change these thought patterns on our own. We need a spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves to break out of the rut neuropathways have dug for us – the ways we keep trying that keep not working.
Here’s the thing. The less conscious we are of a belief, the more it controls us.
And if assumptions we’re unaware of, those landmarks by which we interpret our experience, other people’s actions, and how best to navigate life, are delusional, the world is going to seem like an asshole.
Learning to SEE and QUESTION our delusional assumptions, that’s what the 12 Steps are all about, particularly 4 – 10. There we shine a light on the patterns of a self-centeredness we’ve been way too self-centered to see and the failed coping skills that we thought everybody used.
Only once we’ve arrived at enough humility to admit we don’t know how to live can we turn to god and ask for help. Like Alice, we have cynical reflexes that have slammed the door on values like goodwill, honesty, and trust. But as we unlearn the old ways, we recast reality. There’s actually a whole ‘nother way to live, and with it, a new world opens – one that’s not an asshole, one that doesn’t require that we numb out to “take the edge off.” Rather, it’s so beautiful that we actually want to be awake to it.
The first time I tried taking little Alice for a walk, she flattened herself on the pavement and, as a neighbor approached to greet her, spontaneously peed herself, unable to even look at him. My rehabilitation plan is simply to love her, provide stable structure, and treat her to countless fun experiences until she’s able to trust first me, then others, and finally life itself. Surprisingly, a first sign that she was unlearning helplessness came when she decided to bark at strangers approaching the house. With my love at her back, she’d found the pluck to at least pretend she might defend herself (and me?) from future harm.
Finding our sense of basic dignity, Alice has shown me, can be a first stage of healing. I remember finding mine as newly sober woman with the faint love of god and community of AA behind me. I can’t wait to see Alice shine!
Clockwise from top left: When she’d finally let me hug her; so many smells!; first time she felt safe showing her tummy; what is this huge puddle?; and friends make life sweet (Alice far right).
UPDATE: What two months of love has done — Alice’s first time off leash near the summit of Mount Teneriffe in May: