Meeting fear with love

dog

My puppy, Luna, is fearful.

New places, tight spaces, fireworks, thunderstorms, and basement storefronts all trigger a big “nope” reaction in her. Her most significant fear is being left—specifically by me. Whether she’s in her kennel or loose in the apartment, Luna totally freaks out when I leave her. She wails (sorry, neighbors). If a friend and I take her on a walk and I leave her outside with the friend while I pop inside a café to grab coffees, she cries for me—even if she knows the friend and can see me through the window the entire time.

So, I avoid leaving her alone. When I must, I make sure she has creature comforts readily available: a stuffed dog with a battery-powered heartbeat (yes, really), a bone, a blanket, and sometimes even DogTV playing on my laptop. I am not interested in letting her cry it out or punishing her for barking (like with a bark collar); I know how that treatment affects the developing mammalian brain and nervous system, and it’s not positive. It’s obvious that she’s already been traumatized by such treatment or similar (in the shelter alone—who knows what she experienced before she was picked up by Animal Control). My current approach is to do everything I can to show her that she’s loved and that I will always come back to her. Most days, I wonder if I’m making any headway at all.

a small dog jumping on a woman

Honestly, I wonder the same thing about myself, about working through my own fears. I’ll think I’ve healed a particular attachment “injury,” and then I’ll bump up against something or someone, and it’ll be an open wound again, fresh and bleeding. What am I even doing? I’ll think. Is this ever going to get any better? Am I ever going to get any better? 

Over and over again, I say to my saintly therapist: “I feel like I need to fix myself before I should be allowed to be in close relationships, and I worry that I’ll never be able to fix myself sufficiently.”

She says: “I don’t think you need to be fixed. I think you need compassion.”

I say: “My traumatized parts are liabilities. They hurt me and others.”

She says: “Your traumatized parts are trying to keep you safe. They are hurting and need love.”

I say: “Maybe I’m just too weak. Am I narcissistic? God, I’m so ungrateful. What is wrong with me?”

She says: “You are resilient and deeply caring.”

I say: “I’m a monster.”

She says: “You are not a monster.”

I say: “Maybe my needs are too much?”

She says: “You have never needed anything outside of the realm of natural and normal. You deserve to have your needs met.”

dog and woman

Even though I struggle to believe her, I know she’s right. I trust her hard-earned (and also probably cosmically bestowed) wisdom. And—there’s a part of me, too, that is just as wise. I witness my own wisdom when Luna’s needs are weighing on me—when she’s watching me pee, or jumping on me while I’m brushing my teeth, or whining through the apartment door as I walk the garbage to the trash chute in the hallway. I might feel exasperated or annoyed, and I might occasionally snap at her in a harsh tone, but most of the time, my voice gets soft. “Baby,” I tell her. “I’m right here. You’re okay. I love you.” Her neediness does not make her less worthy of love, less lovable, or less loved by me. 

The wisdom in those truths is profound. I look forward to the day that I am able to access that wisdom more easily and say with confidence that my neediness does not make me less worthy of love, less loveable, or less loved by myself.

On our evening walk today, I noticed something significant: for the first time, Luna walked across grates without hesitation. For months, she refused to walk across them for any reason, transferring her weight to her hind legs, insisting she walk around them. In recent weeks, she’s been willing to walk over them if absolutely necessary, but it was something she did quickly and inconsistently. Today, though, she walked over those grates like she’d been doing it her whole life.

It gives me hope.

a dog walking

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