I’m going to work to commit every Thursday evening to writing about self-care – what it is, how you can achieve it, and how we can become better together. As this series progresses, feel free to chime in with your thoughts, questions and concerns. Read part 1 here. View part 2. View part 3. View part 4. You are now viewing part 5.
I’d written about Sala. In fact, I’d even shared a photo of her from when she first embraced my then-three year old daughter.
Years after that blog post, Sala became not only an integral part of our family, she became the glue that held me together.
When Sala and Sushi weren’t getting along, Ed and I realized that we needed to create boundaries for them – ways for them to learn, be active, and perform. They were breeds used to doing lots of work, after all. So, we trained them. Exceptionally well, at that.
Thus, our therapy dog was born. Trained to provide companionship and affection for their master, the therapy dog role was one that Sala was born for. Rottweilers get a terrible rap – they might be the hood dog of choice thanks to their size and guard dog habits, but they’re among the most lovable and goofy pets there ever was, and it showed in her training.
Whenever I got sad or felt down, Sala would come and force her snout into my lap. She’d learned how to sit, lay down, play dead, give paw, high five, and give hugs – yes, she’d hop up on her hind legs, walk over to you and give you a hug – all on command. Her eagerness to learn even inspired Sushi, who was just a little too standoffish to fully engage the therapy dog role.
As someone with admitted safety and security concerns, walking Sala also felt fantastic, because people would clear the sidewalk when they saw us coming. Potential street harassers would cross the street, because when you see a blue-eyed rottweiler coming, you immediately think “Cujo” or some other dog-from-hell and do what? Move. I felt not only safe with Sala, I felt like I had a companion. I felt like I had someone looking out for my safety as well as my mental well being. And while, of course you can get that from a friend, having that furry little friend throw their paw into your hand when you whisper “gimme paw” has amazing benefits on your mood when you need it most. If I told Ed ‘gimme paw,’ he’d clown me so hard. Not the same. At all.
But somewhere along the line, something went wrong. Both dogs became ill, possibly from something they ate while outside, perhaps a bad batch of dog food, we’ll never know. Sushi recovered and completely bounced back. Before we knew it, she was eating and drinking and bouncing around the house like nothing had ever happened. It gave us hope for Sala, that she was just come out of it and be fine.
Except, she wasn’t.
Sala eventually became so ill that she couldn’t stand, lost the vision in both eyes, and began having seizures in what felt like hourly intervals. We had to carry her down our four flights of stairs to take her to pee, and had to carry her back up because she’d lost control of her limbs. It’s so hard to type the next words, that it’s taken me ten minutes to get them out. We eventually took her to the vet, and had to have her put down.
Sala was Eddy’s dog – his very first, a gift I’d gotten him when we were first dating. But once we’d moved to New York, Sala’s presence took on a new meaning for me. I relied on her much more than I thought, and it took losing her to realize that.
Grief is oftentimes the unexpected, but natural response to loss of any kind. The stages of grief – shock, denial, concern, despair, depression, and recovery – are, I’ve learned, the same for any sense of loss. The loss of a relationship, a loved one (one could argue that the loss of a relationship is the loss of a loved one), a meaningful association or affiliation, whatever it may be… when you lose it, the stages of grief will always be the same.
Lots of very well-educated people have written in many profound ways about grief and how to understand the stages, but that’s not what I’m writing about. If anything, I’m most interested in preparing for grief when it comes, and avoiding the natural habit of resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms when an unmanageable bout of grief hits… because this is something that caught me off guard, completely.
What I’ve learned, is that when you live as an emotional eater, and grief hits, your best tool in the fight against bad habits is self-awareness. It won’t always stop you from buying the bad food, or opening the package, or taking that first bite, but self-awareness is powerful enough to help you realize in the process of that bad episode that this is what your bad habits bring you to. This is that place you’ve been trying to avoid. This is that place that makes you feel horribly about yourself, your situation, your grief, and sends you into an awful cycle of shame and emotional eating all over again. It is brutal.
Self-awareness is all about acknowledging when you find yourself in the midst of that cycle, and being aware of what it feels like to be there, no matter whether you’re standing in the aisle of the store clutching a bag of something sweet, or you’re halfway through the bag, already. Self-awareness is about recognizing that this is you, in the middle of a bad habit, harming yourself. Self-awareness is understanding the specifics of that cycle – why do I cling to sweets/salty/fatty foods the way I do? what does it do to my brain when I over-consume it? what kinds of foods trigger this? – so that you can arm yourself in the fight against relying on emotional eating to get through grief.
If emotional eating is the sad and frustrating response to using food to escape your emotions, and grief is an overwhelming surge of painful emotions, the goal should be to have a plan of action for how to handle both the desire to dive into food as well as the emotions themselves. Don’t be afraid to let out a good cry – I’m talking snot, sobbing, and wet blouses – because the sadness of it all is overwhelming. Oftentimes, giving ourselves the space to cry is the most necessary form of addressing those emotions there is. Sometimes, it’s what your body is waiting for.
When we left Sala at the vet that day, our family cried together. We spent the day together, teary eyed, a little snotty, sitting on the floor huddled up together. We looked at pictures of her, we shared our favorite memories of her, and we lamented the fact that she was gone. But soon, Eddy would have to go on to work, and Mini-me to her school work, because life – for us, at least – goes on. It’d be me that would be left in the house, feeling lost without her therapy dog.
And lost, I was. I spent days laying in bed, melancholy, downtrodden. And it felt like bad things were happening one after the other, right down to one of my idols passing away, the late Dr. Maya Angelou. I wasn’t paying bills, I wasn’t cooking, I wasn’t really blogging, I wasn’t even leaving the house, let alone leaving the bed. I barely wanted to get up to get any water, or even hug Eddy when he came home from work. One day in particular, I dropped Mini-me off at my Mother-in-law’s house and promptly went to the grocery store. I stood in the snack aisle and stared at the chips. For a while.
And, I wish I could tell you that I made some valiant effort to turn around and go to the produce aisle, but I can’t. I bought those chips. I bought them, walked them home, sat on my couch with them… alone… and proceeded to eat as many of them as I could, dazed and confused.
Except, I couldn’t eat many of them at all. They were so greasy, that I felt completely sick to my stomach a third of the way in. That sickness made me feel like I wanted to vomit, and that was what made me stop. It snapped me out of whatever daze I was in, and I proceeded to cry. I cried, I sobbed, and I snotted up my couch cushions. I angrily tore the bag of chips apart, Hulk-style, before pouring them in the toilet.
I laid there on the couch for an hour or so more, before I sat up and reached for my phone, where I keep the audio book form of my favorite book for detailing the specifics of emotional eating. I immediately navigated to the part of the book that talks about how hard it is to break the habit of emotional eating – even for people, like me, who hadn’t had an episodic break like that in years – because I knew, even then, that it was time.
It was time to be about the business of not only reminding myself of the never ending struggles of emotional eating, but also the business of forgiveness. I needed to forgive myself for what I’d done, so that I could go on with better understanding how to ensure it’d never happen again.
Next week: Forgiveness, Healing, and Learning