The Time I Returned a Dog
There, I said it. Simultaneously, a weight lifts from my soul while another part of me wants to retreat and take my confession back. Being seen terrifies me, but hiding is just as painful.
It was eight months after Tovi, (aka) my “soul dog,” died, and seven months after I adopted Millie, (aka) the dog I impulsively adopted too soon and hadn’t been able to bond with.
Tovi’s death broke me. Lacking adequate coping skills to process the gravity of my loss, I adopted Millie right away, assuming it would make the pain go away…as if my attachment would just transfer.
In my pseudo-drunken state, I adopted a dog I knew nothing about and who turned out to be more than I was emotionally equipped to handle. If I thought I was broken then, her presence plunged me into a deeper depression. I didn’t want her — I wanted my laid back, sweet dog who I could take everywhere without embarrassingly growling at people back. I desperately wished I could rewind time and choose a different dog. I had one shot and was so angry at myself for making a lifelong decision so carelessly.
Tovi’s “Gotcha Day” was — without a doubt — one of the top three days of my life. Yup, my entire life. Millie’s “Gotcha Day” was not a happy one. On the car ride home, that gut feeling I had before adopting her that shouted, “don’t do it,” came to life, and I knew I had made a terrible mistake. I didn’t want to be “that person” who called the day before I took her home to rescind my pending application, and I certainly wasn’t going to be “that person” that returned a dog. As a people-pleaser, the thought of anyone having negative feelings toward me was unbearable.
I referred to her as my “new dog,” prefacing every conversation with, “I had a dog before her who was the opposite of her…” as if I were apologizing for her behavior and trying to prove to the world that I once had a great dog as I turned the conversation to my past life. I was stuck there.
I am aware of how awful of a person all of this makes me sound, but these were my private thoughts; no one knew I harbored these feelings toward her. I was her protector, her security blanket, her mom — there was not a night I could fall asleep without her body snuggled up against mine. Even though I didn’t want that role, she was my dog, and I did everything to give her the best life possible. I stayed the course from a place of obligation rather than love; a painful rocky course supported by trainers like walking sticks holding up my otherwise fragile self. Still, I struggled to genuinely connect to her — I couldn’t get past my disappointment that she wasn’t the dog I had hoped for.
Many people suggested getting a second dog to help with Millie’s anxiety, so I debated and debated… and debated — at nauseum — for months to the point I lost all objectivity. Because rumination is exhausting, I essentially tossed a coin in my head, hoping to make the agony of indecisiveness go away. I wouldn’t recommend this for any major life decision.
I was still in deep mourning for Tovi, and after the adverse experience I had adopting Millie, I felt a mix of excitement at the prospect of getting it right this time while also knowing in my gut that this wasn’t a good idea. In hindsight, I wanted to replicate the feeling of pure joy I felt bringing Tovi home — isn’t that what “Gotcha Day” is all about?
I met several dogs over the time we contemplated growing our family but never acted on adopting, terrified of making a mistake again. Then one day, I came across a dog who could have been Tovi’s twin — I NEEDED this dog in my life. Like Tovi, Tootsie Roll was a Corgi mix with a Tootsie Roll shaped body, German Shepherd coloring, Golden Retriever velvety soft ears, and a similar temperament. She was the dog I wished I had adopted. My brain was highjacked with emotion, and I stepped into that hazardous region where good things never happen. Despite my hesitations, I adopted her.
It felt like bringing Tovi home again.
It turns out the pure happiness of “Gotcha Day” I yearned for wasn’t replicated. It was colored by second-guessing, self-doubt, and ultimately self-sabotage. After having her for only a day, I psyched myself out. I loved her more than Millie. Yes, a dog I had for twenty-four hours I loved more than the dog I had for seven months, and I began to resent Millie even more. Like it or not, Millie was my dog, and like an imperfect child, I had to learn to love her unconditionally, and having Tootsie Roll complicated that. I knew in my heart I couldn’t do that to Millie.
Before adopting Tootsie Roll, I expressed my reservations to the shelter trainer. I vividly recall her saying, “if it doesn’t work out, bring her back — the worst thing that happens she got a night out of the shelter.” But bringing her back to the shelter, I felt like I was the worst person in the world. I was now “that person,” and I hated myself for it. Only my husband and select neighbors who had seen me with Tootsie Roll knew what I had done. I was too ashamed to tell anyone and hid behind my secret; the silence was paralyzing.
Equally painful, I felt like I lost Tovi all over again.
Feelings of guilt are normal when you make a mistake. Guilt is concrete; we know why we feel guilty, learn from it and act differently in the future or remedy the situation by apologizing, both of which I did. Even so, I remained fixated on what I had done and regretted so many aspects of how I handled it. I wish I had been able to sit in the unknown and give it a chance, but I went into my fight/flight pattern and felt the urgency to act to make the anxiety go away, just like I had done when I adopted Millie…It was a pattern that haunted me.
Shame is very different from guilt, though.
Shame is guilt morphed into the core belief that “I am a mistake,” not simply, “I made a mistake.” I carried shame for months. I wanted to become invisible. I had moments that I wanted to die. The shame triggered dormant traumas from my past, and I sunk into a deeper depression.
Shortly after I returned Tootsie Roll, I sought intense mental health treatment. When the therapist asked what brought me in, I sobbed as I explained the shame I felt over what I had done, coupled with the unbearable grief of losing Tovi and the inability to move forward and form a relationship with my current dog. I don’t think she quite understood how relationships with dogs could be so complicated but, as good therapists do, she summarized my feelings with these life-changing words: “When you look at Millie, you see her as a representation of a poor decision, and that causes you to resent her.” She had put words to what I was feeling, and by uncovering this core issue, I began to see Millie through new eyes. I gained skills around emotional regulation and learned to accept my current circumstances instead of gluing myself to the past. I was becoming unstuck.
It was a slow process, but I grew to love Millie deeply. She will always have her emotional baggage, as will I. I have compassion for her when she regresses, and I feel a proudness in my soul every as I watch her overcome an obstacle from her past. We grew each other — she has indirectly taught me so much about sitting with discomfort without fleeing, flexibility, and staying the course. Today I simply introduce her as “my dog.” She is no longer the “new dog” who lived in Tovi’s shadow.
It took me almost a year after it happened to write this and another year+ to have the courage to share my secret with the world. Owning our truth, whatever it is, can be the greatest antidote to shame — even if it’s one word at a time with tears flowing while you’re telling it. These are the words I wish I had been able to read when I felt alone and ashamed, and they are my gift to anyone who needs to hear them, no matter what the context.
This post is not to imply that it’s acceptable to give up pets “just because.” I am not talking to those people. Without judging, I know that happens all too often, and I know not everyone feels the same attachment to their pet that others do. And I also know there are circumstances beyond one’s control that forces one to make the heartbreaking decision to let a pet go, and we can be quick to judge without knowing that person’s story. In this non-judgment zone, I am not here to condone or approve any of it. That’s not my job. I am here to let you know that it’s OK to forgive yourself when good intentions go wrong.
And as my hands shake and my heart races, I hit “publish.”
This essay has also been published in Medium