And all it took was a dog to complete the equation.
Last Saturday around 4 p.m., I was driving home from an artists’ meeting in Minneapolis. While turning onto Osceola Street in Saint Paul, I was flagged down by a guy standing in the middle of the road. I pulled over and reluctantly got out to see what was up.
“I found a dog,” he said. “Looks like a stray—it’s all shaky and seems frightened and hungry. I can’t take it home—could you?”
My condo’s rules disallowed dogs and I wasn’t even sure I had the resources to take care of one, even temporarily.
The guy seemed exasperated, so I agreed. He gave me his name, phone number, and I went to his car to check it out.
The dog was a mixed terrier, trembling down to its little paws, staring sadly at us from the driver’s seat. I scooped it up, put it in my car and drove home.
There are at least two “me’s.” One I’d love to bottle and bring out for special occasions—which, as far as I’m concerned would be most of the time.
The other I’d like to take out back and put a bullet in his head.
The latter first appeared in 1987. It’s the dyspeptic, dysthymic, antisocial, “let’s just look on the bleak side” me—the former, a playful, curious and expansive man who enjoys life and interacting with people.
The disorienting thing was how abruptly Mr. Bleak appeared in my life.
The first night, I panicked.
Couldn’t find food the dog could eat, since it seemed hungry. All I had was leftover oatmeal, which I scooped into a bowl. It was scarfed up in seconds.
When I took the dog outside to pee, it ran off again. Picking up the dog to bring it inside, it yelped in pain. What was wrong with this dog? It trembled and limped over to a water bowl I’d left for it in the kitchen.
I made it a bed on my living room sofa, but it preferred to pace, ’round and ’round the halls … looking so sad. What could I do?
Once I’d figured out it was female, I named her Lola, for Osceola Street, where I’d discovered her.
Osceola Lola. See?
My mother’s descent into clinical depression occurred shortly after her mother died in 1981. The change was gradual: withdrawal from family activities, calling in sick to her job as a public health nurse (which wasn’t often) and staying in bed, crying.
I remember those times. Dad brought home takeout, realizing that Mom probably hadn’t planned an evening meal. The three of us—minus Mom—ate at the dinner table in stony silence.
I noticed my own depressive shift in 1986 after breaking up with Sally, a woman I’d met at the office where I then worked. I had my own apartment and overcame the loneliness of living alone by throwing dinner parties for coworkers.
But after the break, I became irritably impatient with everything—friends, work, the Family Project, day-to-day errands. My appetite fluctuated; I started spending more time alone, feeling sad and oversleeping—or, enduring soul-crushing insomnia.
In December 1987, I dragged myself to a St. Louis Park psychiatrist, who made a diagnosis of dysthymia only after I’d first gotten a full medical checkup. I was prescribed Trazodone for sleep and Zoloft during the day.
By 1988, my mood had lifted and I’d started work on what was to become the longest-running writing project of my life: a feature-length screenplay about the early life of English actress Ellen Terry.
The guy that pulled off that feat—that person I recognize as the Best Me. Not the snarling, brooding and insufferable monster I’d known the year before—the same monster that was threatening to rear its head again during the 2013 holidays.
Lola stayed with me through Monday night. A friend brought her some dog food and a spare leash.
On Sunday morning I discovered she’d vomited on the sofa. Late Monday morning, while I was working in my office, she peed on the hallway floor. On walks, I could tell she was incontinent and probably older than she appeared. Her trembling seemed less about nervousness, and possibly a sort of neurological disorder.
Since I couldn’t keep her, and I didn’t want her sent to the pound, or even the local humane society, I arranged to have a pet rescue organization place her in a temporary foster home, at least until her owner could be found.
Before the volunteer arrived Monday night, Lola dozed on the sofa next to me while I stroked her furry head. It was then I realized, intuitively, that she was dying.
She knew it.
And now I knew it.
For those who’ve never experienced a depressive episode (with my dysthymia, it’s called a “double-dip depression”), allow me to illustrate.
Say you’re driving a dependable car, one that handles well on the highway, purring as you speed down the road. You’ve got no cars behind you and few up ahead. Clear sailing, all the way.
Imagine racing on at 70 mph when suddenly you see more cars up ahead, so you jam on the brakes—only to discover they don’t work. You feel it—the snap of adrenaline surging through your body, that hot, face-flushed panic. Now imagine you’re powerless to do anything—crank the wheel, swerve off the road—anything to prevent a collision.
That’s kind of what the onset of a depressive episode feels like.
So. You insufferable goddamned monster. You’ve stolen my best potential, the moments I’ll never get back as the Best Me, the expansive, generous and playful guy. And even worse, because you slipped into my life so early, you took away many wonderful, potentially long-term relationships.
Past girlfriends became confused and dismayed at your bear-like, surly and bitter moods. While they may’ve gotten a glimpse of Best Me (Sally said what attracted her was my quick wit—something at which Insufferable Me is All Thumbs), they couldn’t see past that to a life with a mostly unpleasant person.
I don’t blame them.
I burst into tears.
Then, Tuesday night as I was getting into bed, someone phoned saying they had the number of Lola’s owner. I called and spoke with an elderly woman, Barbara, who revealed the dog’s actual name is Betty.
Betty, it seems, is over ten years old and had been acquired from a puppy farm. She’d given birth numerous times and had run of the house with her owner. That Saturday she’d somehow wriggled through a fenced-in yard and made her escape.
It was somewhat jarring to hear Betty’s story, mostly because it didn’t square with the Lola I’d gotten to know over the last three days. That dog didn’t seem to feel much pain. “Run, Lola, run!” I urged her when we went on walks.
And run she did; I struggled to keep up with her, laughing the whole time. People on the street stopped to pet and admire her. She slept more soundly by Monday than she did pacing the floor the night I first brought her home.
I started to put the pieces together—at least in my imagination—about what Betty/Lola’s great escape meant. Betty was inside Lola, like a metastasizing, malignant tumor. It was all the pain, the isolation, the mistreatment and multiple births, cold nights without food, the tremors and aches inside her body.
Betty escaped to meet me as Lola—to face down my Betty, the insufferable one with all its awful history. The neglected one who had so many life adventures and was willing to gamble for just one more adventure. The one who needed consolation and love.
That other me.
The Best Me.
Perhaps we’re all like this; I don’t know. Everyone has a shadow, a dark, sad spot they’d prefer the world didn’t see.
But maybe the best course of action is to move through that shadow—to wriggle through the fenced-in boundaries of our own lives to meet that other person, place or thing that leads us to joy and connectedness.
—And that maybe leads to our very best selves?