It’s good to have you back.

Woman kissing a dog on the nose.
It’s good to be back.

I coach agility handlers on the topic of mental management, and often share quotes to help create perspective in their own lives. One of my favorites is “Everything that happens prepares us for our future.  Even the bad stuff,” because of its powerful forward focus message.

Applied to clients, it makes sense. For myself, it has taken two years to raise the courage to share about the moment that changed my life in unfathomable ways.  I used to write almost daily, and it’s been a struggle to write so much as a grocery list in the last 104 weeks since that Sunday in June 2016.  It’s time to let it tumble out, for closure and to put guilt and shame on notice that their shelf life has expired.  I am getting on with the deliciousness of living.

I can recite the details of the moment matter-of-factly, as casually as giving a weather forecast.  “Blue skies now, but there’s a hell of a storm on the horizon.” The sequence of events rolls out of my mouth almost as easily as the one-two-three footsteps of a front cross do from my feet. I’m desensitized to the information in it.  It must have been someone else, but no, it is my story.  So here goes …..

My 3-year old brilliant sheltie, Cruzer, ran at an agility trial in Tolland, CT that weekend, 4 weeks after winning his spot on the AKC World Team. The trial was our first event after Tryouts, a victory lap of sorts. We landed a double qualifying score and came home to blow off some steam and practice as we often did after a show. In the yard, our four dogs ran and played, and so did we. I looked back over my shoulder to see Cruzer. As he came towards me, another of our shelties jumped and hit him sideways, at full force, at the 12th vertebrae. Cruzer crumpled to the ground. One dog zigged, the other dog zagged. It was as simple as that. As stupid as that. As horrible and frightening as you can’t imagine.

Trauma delivers a swift and mighty blow of failure and fear. Intense guilt and grief ripped open my life and personal strength in that one jump. The iPod in my head got stuck on a track that played only the screams from Cruzer, from Bill, from me, as catastrophe struck. Guilt took hold, for allowing the dogs to run. How stupid am I? How bad of an owner am I? I now teach people to flip the track in their brains, yet mine played just one tune. And now, in times of stress, there’s an auto re-play reminder that I wasn’t good enough to keep my dog safe. I’m learning how to adjust the volume, thankfully.

I am convinced the attending physician did not do enough in those first hours to relieve the spinal cord swelling. It’s not an argument or a fight. It’s my belief. I experience guilt for the decision to go to that emergency center because it was the closest one. I live with guilt for not being smart enough to know something of medical protocol for a dog with a spinal cord injury (it doesn’t get taught in basic canine manners class). I’ve since learned there isn’t much that gets done, by owners or vets. I blame myself for picking him up from the ground to carry him because what if that caused further damage?  I’ll never know the answers.

As the show must go on, actors with names like Fits of Anger, Rage, Crying for No Reason and Irrational Actions surface as the stars, appearing when I least expect them to. I experienced a traumatic event, I understand that, and it throws grenades as it wants.  In dog training, we’d call that Single Event Learning. There is the nightmare that no one is doing enough to fix the problem and people are walking away when I need them most. No one is enough for what my boy needs. Not even me.

I have questioned and judged myself heavily since making the World Team in May 2016. I won a spot because we achieved the highest cumulative score of all teams competing in our height group. A fellow Tryouts competitor shared with me her view that my dog was not suited to be a World Team dog. I had won, and yet, she told me I wasn’t worthy enough. I’m sure that handler was disappointed in her own lackluster performance and kicked her feelings of inadequacy down the curb until they hit someone else, namely, me. Seeds of self-doubt were nourished by her spew. A podcast came out shortly after the Team selection event which included the commentators beliefs about the selection process. People who cared about me told me not to listen to the segment as the content would upset me. I avoided it, and the traumatic commentary that I imagined it contained grew. (Edit 6/12/18:  Now that I’m writing again, I plan to write on this topic in the future, and thank the podcast commentator for reaching out to me personally regarding this post). I was told truthfully that Worlds would be crazy loud and the environment insane, and I’d need to get my dog who had shown environmental sensitivities ready for the madness.

What if that handler was right? What if the world agreed with the commentator?  What if mayhem couldn’t become unremarkable for my dog? My deepest fear took hold. What if I wasn’t good enough?

On the day of the accident, Cruzer ran somewhat tentatively, though it was unnoticeable to most. I took a walk with a friend and poured out some of my concerns to her and she responded with amazing empathy, able to do so because of experiences with her own life demons. Perhaps the impact on our performance that day was in response to the noise within the facility or maybe it was due to my heightened perception. The noise in my head swelled to a palpable drum beat and it was a challenge to hear past it. Not good enough. Undeserving. Not fast enough. Fraud. Not strong enough. I’d been looked over many times in my life. Being “World Team,” people would have to notice me, right?

After the accident, the next 6 months were spent rehabbing Cruzer. Despite our best efforts and those of the caregivers on our “team,” things weren’t going as hoped, and functioning of his bladder and bowels didn’t return. He learned to get around on flat surfaces. He couldn’t snuggle with us, he couldn’t chase our other dogs as he loved to do. When the “couldn’ts” outweighed the “coulds,” we let him go. He was as tired as we were. A care provider we’d used responded with swift negativity to our decision. The impact of such a response set back the forward motion we’d made and ripped my gut wide open. Judged again, and found lacking, this time for making the decision to try to heal and let go of the pain.

How this relates to my now, is simple.

I see me. I am not perfect, I’m clearly filled with imperfections, some I embrace (if I think it, I say it) and some (like the 20 imperfect pounds that have enveloped me) could disappear without a tear from me. Listing my flaws is easy, so I focus part of my time on cataloging my attributes. I’m hard working, funny, easily amused, resilient, and I’ve had to come up with the courage to move forward. I am, indeed, fighting to be enough.

People “not” seeing me is their flaw, not mine. And because I am imperfect, I mess up often in how best to release the angst that grabs me. I remind myself regularly that if you’re a 2 out of a 10 on my list, then, that’s the time and energy I can spend on our interactions (or lack, thereof). Time is too precious to spend on the not okay.  It’s okay to be a 1 or a 2 on someone else’s list. It’s their list, they get to decide my value in their life. Only I decide my worth in mine.

Because we love to see our dogs engage with each other, they still play and race together. Do I get a lump in my chest when they rip around at warp speed? Of course. And when I do, I change the picture as quickly as I can to one of joy for seeing them living a life of good times. I choose to not live in fear. I take them on adventures and encourage them to experience things. I “speak dog” a lot better than ever. And the communication I have is pretty darned fine.

We can’t help but see others through our own fear lens. I’m sure that some have felt discomfort as they realize they could be just a pawstep away from being in my shoes. So, they look past, creating a guilt feeling they can absorb into their lives, and re-rising the shame in mine. No one actively wants to think that tragedy can happen to them, no one knows what to say or do, and most people don’t want to be around the imperfect.

Today, I am thankful that I believe people do the best they can, and that very few set out to purposefully hurt someone else. Only the really mean will tell you that you aren’t good enough, the rest of the world is just awkward, or facing issues of their own that they haven’t yet figured an answer for.

This weekend was a personal victory for me. I walked into an agility trial … held in the same building where my dream dog last ran, and competed with my new dog, the dog that helped me rise from what was the despair of losing my life. As I entered the arena I felt the pull of the demons who wanted to grab me and extinguish my new-found soul. Familiar, yet no longer family to my heart.

Since the zig zag of my dogs, my life has changed exponentially. Fifteen months ago, I lost a job that I was very successful at and have not been able to find a new one. Jobs that I was hopeful for have fizzled. The future we planned is gone. My husband and I survived a serious car accident. And that is just the clif-notes version. To some, it seems that disaster has taken up residence in my life, and, I’m pretty sure no one wants to trade places. I joke that these things are “just another day” in my life. And, they are. They are things that happen, they are not definitions of who I am. I get that now.

I’ve started my own business, training mental fortitude and handling to others. It’s small, yet fulfilling. I teach agility at a facility that gave me an opportunity to share my skills with others, and to learn new ones. My hours are my own, my life is mine, an agility field is my office, and any agita I feel is now acknowledged and re-directed at building a new life. I have a small but mighty circle of 10’s around me, people who see me for me.

What I have learned helps me to stay grounded in the present. I’ve (mostly) given up trying to please others so that they will (perhaps) value me. A lifetime of wanting to matter to others instead of to myself is a hard habit to break, but I am trying.

The puppy that I got makes me smile. There is no expectation on him to be amazing (he is), no comparison to any other dog (he is truly one of a kind). His life and mine are tied together as we explore the world like two kids (except that one of us is closer to 60). Cruzer taught me to believe that I could do things, Happy lets me enjoy doing them.

This weekend, Happy made his agility “debut.” We had not a single clean run, and it might be a while before that happens. My goal is progress, not perfection.  Fun, not fear.  Fix-er not fail-er. My heart laughed and was at peace despite the rustiness of my handling. I felt the familiar feel of freedom and happiness that is the prize for running connected. I was happy to look up and see true friends inside and outside the ring sharing in that moment. Supported by a friend who burst into Pharrell’s “Happy” song throughout the weekend, and so amazingly blessed for the honor and opportunity to walk into a ring at all and run a dog that is mine.

Because of a day when one dog zigged and the other one zagged, my values continue to come into alignment.

A fellow competitor took me aside this weekend and said, “It’s good to have you back.  I’ve missed you.”

Me, too.