My Sober Life, Chapter 2

In which various forms of abuse begin a long history of fear-based decisions

For my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a dog. Well, they didn’t give me an actual dog. They gave me a dog bowl, a collar, and a leash. My response was, “I hope this means we’re getting a dog, and these are not for me.” It is the first time I remember making my dad laugh. Like, really laugh. That ability to make someone laugh was a milestone in my life…but that is for another chapter.

So, YES! I was getting a dog! I could get any dog I wanted, but preferably a smaller dog, my mom said. And preferably a beagle, my mom said. And preferably this ad in the paper for beagle puppies I just happened to see today, my mom said.

I made my first “big girl” phone call to the farm and spoke to the farmer asking my questions, such as, when were they born? Are they purebred? Will we get papers? How much are they? The farmer later commented on how grown up I sounded, and golly, if that isn’t what every 13-year-old girl wants: To be treated like a peer.

She was SO tiny!

We go pick out our puppy, we name her Pepper, and I FINALLY had a dog all my own. I loved her dearly and wanted her to sleep with me every night (got a big NO on that). I helped feed her and walk her and pick up after her (sometimes). I taught her to sit, shake, lay and stay. It was everything I’d ever hoped.

The farmer had told us that since beagles like to bark, in order to train them to stop, all we needed to do was yell, “NO!” If that didn’t stop them, we were to take a rolled up paper or magazine and hit her on the nose. “A few times of that, and she’ll stop barking.” 

(It should be noted here: I was alone a lot as a child. My siblings are much older than me, and they were all out of the house by the time I was eight. I was both alone and lonely, and this may be part of the reason I had wanted a dog for so long. But I digress…)

Since I was often alone after being dropped off from school, I became the person of power in the house. I had control over this small, furry creature. The first time she got out of line, I took a rolled up paper, and I hit her in the face. She cried out in pain and fear. I felt the power. I did it again. And again. On numerous occasions. There were times when she did nothing wrong. I just had a bad day or someone was mean to me or my parents weren’t letting me do something, and I took it out on that dog.

I made her mean.

Over the next couple of years, I hurt that dog whenever I felt scared or angry, sad or frustrated. She became skittish and territorial. She would snarl and bare her teeth at you, growling low, then lunging when you pushed her too far. When she would eat, you could not get near her or she might snap at you. She bit me more than once. She bit one of my nieces. She could be the sweetest thing, but it would take no time at all for that switch to flip.

I did that to her. I created that.

But why? Why would I do that to a poor, young puppy who I supposedly loved?

In short, it’s all I knew. When I misbehaved or didn’t listen, I was spanked. If I talked back or had a “smart mouth”, I was hit. If I had the wrong look on my face or didn’t react the way I was “supposed to” or was in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was kicked. For as long as I can remember until about age 15, I was verbally and physically abused as discipline. Fear ruled the house and kept you in line. If you stepped out, it was your red ass. And for the last seven years of it, I was all by myself. The sole focus of the frustration, anger, anxiety and stress.

I’ve been called fat and ugly, lazy and ungrateful. I’m a hedonist and a sinner going straight to hell. I’ve been slapped across the face for being a crybabyI’ve had my shoulder dislocated for not being remorseful enough. I’ve been pulled out of bed by the throat and thrown across the room for pretending to sleep. To this day, when fingers even just barely graze my throat, it takes all of my willpower to not cower in panic. 

Pepper’s favorite nap spot.

As a naive, sheltered young girl, I thought this was how we treated things and people when we were upset. And so I beat the dog.

It is a confusing thing to be punished regardless of what you do. When your punishment relies wholly on the mood of another person, it is completely unpredictable. “You don’t even seem upset.” So the next time, you make sure you seem upset. “You are such a crybaby.” Which is the right way? How am I supposed to be? Just tell me what to be and do, and I will do it. Please. I just don’t want you to hurt me anymore…

I do not write about this to drag the parent that carried out these acts. In point of fact, they long ago apologized for all of these things and more; we reconciled, and I have forgiven. However, in my deepest dives to discover my motivations, it seems fear has always played a prominent role. 

For the better part of the last 38 years, I have been afraid. Afraid of failing. Afraid of succeeding. Afraid of letting people down. Afraid of what people think. Afraid of gaining weight. Afraid of losing weight. Afraid of making the wrong choice. Afraid of risk. Afraid of playing it safe. Afraid of fear itself. I did not grow to trust myself to know what I could do or be because every time I made a decision, it was the wrong one. And I was punished for it.

The more I experience, the more choices I make, the more I become convinced that decisions made from fear are usually the wrong ones. It has taken me so long to find my voice. To use it without fear. To trust myself. To believe in myself. I am still struggling with it, taking two steps forward, a few steps back. But I am listening to that small girl now, and I am holding her hand. Gently guiding her out of the dark corners and letting her know it is safe here. It is safe to be you.

Pepper eventually got bladder cancer, and we had to put her down about 12 years ago. I was devastated. For most of her 13-year life, she had been a great dog. But the damage I did those first couple of years could never be undone. As I held her trembling body those last few moments, I just sobbed, “I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m sorry…” over and over.

I hope she forgave me. I’m working on forgiving myself.

Christmas 1996

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