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We have had the greatest privilege to rescue four dogs and two cats over the last fifteen years. Before they came to live with us, the stories of their lives varied; some experienced more extreme neglect and cruelty than others. But I never would have predicted the profound part my rescue animals have played in my own journey of integrating my trauma.
All pets need patience, but a rescue animal perhaps needs even more.
To some extent, all six of our animals have had various levels of trauma. I have spent many hours lying on floors, cuddled up in corners, patiently waiting outside a crate, thinking of ways to ease their suffering. It always felt second nature to me and such a privilege to be trusted to care for them.
Yet…why has it been so difficult to show that same patience, gentleness, and nurturing to myself and to ease my own suffering from trauma?
I fiercely protect my creatures from others and explain their stories to those who don’t understand my reactive or cowering dog. I praise their incredible acts of bravery as they attempt to make friends with dogs and humans. I lavish them with love when they succeed, and I tend to their brokenness when things don’t go so well.
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Why did I struggle to share my story when I am reactive, why did I devalue my suffering, why did I not celebrate my achievements and tend my brokenness?
As the years have gone by, all of our animals have shown bravery and have encouraged me to engage in my healing.
Two of our dogs stand out for the different gifts they have given me in helping me share my brokenness and accept my difficulties, and here is why:
Alma was rescued from Spain last year. Her background is sketchy, but when she arrived, you could barely touch her. The slightest noise made her want to flee, and she was terrified of her own shadow.
Her response to life was based on fear and survival. As I sat each night on the cold kitchen floor with her, coaxing her with food and gentleness, I would whisper to her, ‘this is no way to live’ and remind her that she is safe now.
The irony was not lost on me. As someone who lives with childhood trauma, I too often found myself in a place of survival, with fear from my past dominating my current moment. Most days, I stared at the world like a deer caught in headlights, waiting for the next memory of my past to remind me why not to trust the present.
It has taken me many years to unlearn that behaviour, along with a mixture of therapies (with EMDR being the most effective for memories) and re-learning trust to know that survival is not living.
As I coax Alma into “living,” I am watching a dog who was once afraid of her shadow learn to relax, to run with joy with her new friend Lukie. She is my constant daily reminder to rise above survival and embrace living.
Dido was rescued while we lived in Canada. She was so mistreated before she came to us. For weeks after Dido arrived in our care, she would cower whenever she saw my husband. She would lie in my arms, shaking and fearful.
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But each day, we would show her love and gentleness, and each day she would grow in confidence, becoming less fearful.
Dido died last year at the grand age of fourteen. But the dog she became taught me so much about learning to trust.
Dido, by the end of her life, was the happiest creature. She smiled broadly (truly, Dogs smile). She greeted everyone with joy, she loved hard and deep, and she found immense pleasure in life. She let every molecule of love seep deep into her heart and allowed that love to heal her wounds.
Related: Grieving the Loss of a Pet
Now, the scars were still there, but miraculously she channeled the hurt and learnt to have a good judgment of other humans and dogs. Yes, she loved deeply, but she also knew when she wasn’t sure of someone and carefully kept her distance. She trusted her instincts, and it worked. She rarely needed to be nasty with anyone, but she had it in her if she needed to.
Somehow Dido learnt and taught me to let the love heal me but also know my boundaries.
As trauma warriors, it can be easy to have a mixture of extreme boundaries, where we keep the guards up constantly and the ones where we allow the wrong people.
It has been hard for me to realize that my instincts are often right and to trust them. It doesn’t mean I have to bark or snarl, but gently remove myself from harmful situations – and that is OK. It is also good to know if I need to snarl and be assertive, that is OK too.
Dido learnt to trust but have boundaries, and I live into that as much as I can each day.
Trauma integration is a beautiful thing; Dido was living proof of that, and so am I.
The successes we have had with our rescue creatures all have one thing in common: love. Each one has found different levels of success integrating their trauma, but each one benefits from being loved unconditionally even in their brokenness and, at times, frustrating behaviour.
What has helped me in recovery, what makes me thrive, what makes me live into hope and wellness, is also love–allowing others to love me unconditionally.
The most important part, though, was when I started to love myself.
By putting myself first, this was when I flourished and grew, when the trauma stopped owning me, and I could get on with living, not surviving.
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