Every month, there is a disability blog carnival. Every month I start a blog for it and don’t finish it by deadline. This month’s carnival topic, “Identity,” is particularly close to my heart, so I’m forcing myself to squeeze out this post on time.
My identity, for years, has been inextricably bound to being a service dog partner. In fact, my avatar is ServiceDogPartner for most sites that require them.
How does this identity play out in everyday life?
A telling, one-word answer is “We.” Any activity, especially if it involved leaving home, required, or was enriched by, the participation of my service dog; therefore, we were a we/us, not an I/me:
- “We’re going to the doctor tomorrow.”
- “We went for a walk.”
- “We picked apples in the back yard.”
- “The manager gave us a hard time about entering the shop.”
In fact, the first big “Aha moment” I had about what a difference a service dog could make in my life was when Jersey, my first SD, and I went to the grocery store without human help, for the first time in years.
Of course, I had trained Jersey, devoting all my energy to the endeavor for many months, in the hope that she would make me more independent, less restricted, but I don’t think I actually believed my own pep talks to myself until that day at the grocery store. What a revelation.
Jersey went everywhere with me. She reduced my isolation. She helped me participate in activities around my home that I otherwise couldn’t have done. For example, I was able to garden because she carted the tools and plants out to the yard and offered bracing and walking assistance when I became too exhausted. At the store, she carried my money, pills, water, and grocery list in her pack, as well as small groceries. When we got home from the store, she carried the bags from the van to the house, and from the door to the fridge. In little ways, every day, she helped me save energy that I could use on writing or talking to friends or just resting.
That was at a time when I was less disabled than I am now, and with a service dog who knew half the skills Gadget did. Jersey changed my life, but Gadget revolutionized it.
How can I even put into words what Gadget meant to me, how inextricably he was entwined in my life, how he was a part of my body, mind, and soul? It’s a struggle I have every day now, as the anniversary of his death descends on me, and my grief at his loss feels overwhelming. I grope for language that can convey who he was/we were. My unexpressed grief is like a magnet attracting hard, metallic shards of sorrow, anger, confusion, and fear; it grows larger and heavier, digging into my heart and weakening me.
Where do I begin?
This is the crux of the issue in so many ways: Where did I begin and Gadget leave off, or Gadget begin and I end? How do I continue without him, without this part of myself? Without him, who am I?
Maybe accepting my inadequacy to truly convey what Gadget was for me is the essential first step in beginning to define it, or at least hint at it:
- Gadget was always with me, even in my dreams. This was true with Jersey, too, after we’d become a working team. Just as, after I became disabled, in my dreams I also had MCS and CFIDS, there came a point where Jersey was by my side in my dreams. When Jersey retired and Gadget took over, he entered my dream world even more quickly than Jersey had. Even in my subconscious, he was an extension of me. As I’ve written in previous posts, after he died, he haunted my sleep.
- Gadget was my hands. He turned lights on and off. He opened and shut doors. He picked up things I dropped.
- Gadget was my legs. He brought me water. He brought me the phone. He helped me transfer.
- Gadget was my voice. He carried messages to Betsy from me. He understood and followed signed requests. He let my PCAs know I was awake and needed their assistance.
- Gadget was my memory. He alerted me (sometimes woke me) if the oven timer was going off or if someone was at the door and I’d otherwise sleep through the appointment.
- Gadget was my safety. He knew how to run to my landlord’s house with a message if I was stranded. He helped keep me warm when I was without heat during the week-long ice storm power outage. He stood by me, barking and growling, if a strange person entered my home unannounced.
- Gadget was my strength. He helped me stand up and walk when I was too weak or dizzy. He helped pull my manual wheelchair if I couldn’t use my powerchair. He carried or carted things that were too heavy for me.
That tells you what he was to me, but not who he was.
- He reveled in his strength and speed. He liked to slam the doors shut. He loved to run, to wade in the water, to go on long walks off-leash, always checking in to make sure I was following, or doubling back to me before sprinting off again.
- He kept me company. He was warm and soft and loving. He would plant the top of his head against my chest so I could scratch behind his ears. He put his head on my leg in the car.
- He was calm, grounded, wise, and still. He let things roll off his back. He was patient and relaxed. Not much got to him. He was a dude.
- He loved to train and to learn. He loved an intellectual challenge. He liked to figure things out. He made mental leaps that left me breathless and my lesson plans obsolete in moments.
- He was trusting and knew how to relax. When invited onto the bed, he’d drape himself over me, or push me out of the way with extended legs. He let himself be poked, prodded, manipulated, squeezed by me, my PCAs, and countless veterinarians.
- He was funny and sassy. He was his own dog. He wasn’t above sneaking around to get his way. He’d let himself outside when he wasn’t supposed to, or leave my room to visit with his favorite of my PCAs when he was supposed to be in my room with the door shut. This is what happens if you give a smart dog the tools to obtain his own freedom and independence.
- He was my best friend and my comfort. I loved the way he felt, the way he smelled. My hands knew every inch of him, every bump on his skin. My eyes knew every spot or stripe of his coat.
- He was my traveling companion. He was home.
I needed these parts of him just as much as the others, because his separateness, his unique personality and doghood, was part of our relationship and thus our partnership.
After Gadget died, I’d turn to look for him to help me in the ways I’d been accustomed — to open doors, to carry messages to Betsy, to bring me the phone. I felt as if a piece of my body had been severed, as if I was reaching out my hand to open the door and discovering I had no arm. I felt such deep pain, loss, and confusion when I realized again and again that he was not there that it felt like emotional phantom limb pain: the parts of my body and mind that lived in Gadget had died, and now I was no longer whole, but the pain of what had been there lived on.
Now, without a service dog — a non-partner — who am I? Where have those pieces of myself, and the pain of the shadow parts, gone?
In some ways, the pain has dulled. I don’t feel there has been much actual healing, more of a sense of physical and emotional numbness, the exposed nerves on ice. I have mostly adapted to not having the assistance I did before, mostly forgotten what it was like for life to be easier. I think this is a typical part of living with disability — we become habituated to our limitations and therefore don’t realize just how much pain, exhaustion, isolation, or limitation we are dealing with, until something (a medication, a piece of medical equipment, a personal assistant) eases the difficulty. Then we think, “My god, why didn’t I get this help years ago?”
Having Barnum in my life muddies the picture. He is my dog. He provides companionship. But he is not (yet?) a service dog.
He takes away energy, uses my strength, taxes my limbs. I am giving, giving, giving and getting nothing back, physically. Emotionally, it’s a cocktail: I am exhausted, frustrated, and mentally and emotionally overworked most of the time, yet he also makes me laugh, makes me feel loved, provides companionship, gives my life goals and direction.
Nonetheless, training a successor without a current SD in place keeps me in limbo. He is not yet a service dog. He cannot even be called a service-dog-in-training, because he does not yet have the obedience or public access skills or the beginnings of the service skills necessary to earn that title. Still, almost all my time and energy feed the hope and belief that some day he will be my service dog.
I hate existing in states of betweenness, living on hope or the promise of future gains. It was one of the promises I made to myself when I first became disabled by chronic illness: I would not devote my life to cure, not spend all my mental, physical, emotional, or financial resources on experimental treatments that might someday have the potential to reduce my illness somewhat — or not. I do get treatment. I do seek improved health and function. But, for fifteen years, I have refused to sacrifice my life now — which is real and true — for an ephemeral maybe of the future. I’ve seen too many people put their lives on hold until they get better, only to come to the crushing realization five, ten, fifteen years down the line that they are still sick or disabled, no better off for their grasping after a cure, just older, and without the skills or assistance they could have used their energy on to have a richer life with disability.
Yet, here I am, doing much the same. In my heart, I am and always will be a service dog partner. Even though I have no canine assistant now, my life revolves around cultivating one, even knowing that there is always the chance we might fail. Barnum could develop a physical injury or illness or a temperament issue, or suffer a training catastrophe, that would render him unfit to work as a service dog. We could become a great SD team and then have him get sick, traumatized, or die before his time. Even if he does turn into an excellent SD, living out a long, healthy, happy working life, the fact remains that I am sacrificing a great deal now, every day, for that future.
I have arrived at the answer to my question: Who am I without a service dog?
I am a person who is willing to lay almost everything on the line, including one of my fundamental beliefs about the best way for me to live with disability, in order to become an active service dog partner again.