Probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to accept in life is just how little is within my control. As a child, I truly believed that anything was possible: that not only would every one of my dreams come true but that everyone in the world would love me. Those innocent but naïve delusions slowly deflated over the years like sad balloons succumbing to the forces of gravity. As I tried to make my way through life, I discovered more and more obstacles blocking the way and, not only wasn’t I liked by everyone but I found it hard to accomplish even half of what I’d tried to accomplish. In reality, it appeared that only on the most rare of occasions did I actually control what transpired in my life.
Even as a little girl, I enjoyed helping others. As I was born with a Labrador’s service-driven temperament, I instinctively befriended the underdogs at school and any stray dogs wandering the streets. Having been born into a family that would have greatly benefited from outside intervention, I was presented with the opportunity to earn my PhD in caretaking. Since no one ever came to our rescue, the Lab in me felt obligated to do what it could to help my family be happier. Again, it was naïve but my Labrador’s die-hard optimism egged me on.
As far back as I can remember, my brother, sister and I revolved like planets around the tumultuous relationship of my parents. My mother was forever in a state of distress over my dad. The intensity of her upset was like a black hole that sucked in everyone who fell within her gravitational pull. Each and every conversation she had with friends, the grocer, my teachers included the intimate details of how my dad was driving her crazy.
Everything she said was true. My dad did indeed supply my mom with a multitude of transgressions that served to launch her into ever increasingly wild and unstable orbits. There was never a day of peace. At any moment, a seemingly good start to the day could erupt into a brawl with dishes being broken and blows being thrown. My parents were so completely engulfed in the tornado of their own turmoil that they had nothing left over for us kids.
My mom would permit me to hang out with her but only on the condition that I listened intently to her tireless laments and made efforts to comfort her. I became, quite inappropriately, her eight-year-old Dear Abby. As my mom lacked the ability to give empathy or support herself, I provided those sentiments but never received them.
Years later, when I was in my forties, I reached a juncture where I could no longer deny that I desperately needed support and encouragement. It occurred during a difficult time when I was transitioning away from being a veterinarian of twenty-two years.
Previous to this point, I’d always availed myself to everyone’s beck and call. My life, though, slowly but noticeably drifted out of balance. I devolved into someone who could only feel at ease when doing something for someone else. Of course, I’d been trained to perfection in that capacity by my mom but, there was never a doubt that being of service was fiercely entrenched in my genes, a definitive reflection of the Lab in me. The only (but gargantuan) snag was that being of service had become a completely out-of-control car careening downhill without brakes. I frantically gave and gave and gave but could never bear to take or receive.
In 2002, I sold my home and veterinary clinic and took off on a cross-country journey that I hoped would kick-start the reinvention of myself. I justified my need to walk away from my veterinary career by explaining that after twenty-two years I could no longer stand to watch animals and their owners suffer. This was true but another piece of the pie concerned the fact that I’d given and given to the point I couldn’t give anymore.
I was desperate for something new even if I had no clue what that something new would be. As I’d been considering the idea of working alongside children with autism, my trip across the U.S. would take me to Salisbury, Connecticut where I’d arranged to volunteer at a cutting-edge autism facility.
Yet, there was a dream, a secret dream that I’d tucked away years ago in an out-of-the-way corner of my heart. All this time, I’d thoughtlessly ignored it but it had never been forgotten.
Ever since my days as a student in the music-filled city of Austin, Texas, I’d dreamed of being a singer-songwriter. Throughout my college years, I’d emulated my idol Joni Mitchell by learning guitar and practicing the art of song composition.
Once I graduated vet school, though, I was utterly consumed by the devotion needed to be a veterinarian in addition to a mother of twin daughters. My dream of being a singer-songwriter was inadvertently shoved to the back of the line like a shy, scared kid who’s repeatedly passed over when sides are chosen. By the time I’d sold my veterinary clinic, so many years had passed that I couldn’t admit to myself, much less anyone else, how much I still longed for that dream.
Over the next nine years, step by tentative step, I declared my musical intentions and began studying voice, guitar, and songwriting in earnest. My position in life had depreciated from that of a secure and successful veterinarian to a humble, unskilled, out-of-work wanna-be. I was starting over with no ability and, as of yet, an undetermined talent. For the first time in a long time, I felt fragile, like a helpless butterfly when it emerges wet and vulnerable from its cocoon. True, I was free but as my wings were still useless, I was a long way from flying. My only hope revolved around the assumption that if I worked as hard as I had to become a veterinarian, maybe one day I’d be able to stand on a stage and make a difference in the heart of an audience.
The difficulty that I would experience in obtaining support for my transition from a veterinarian to a singer-songwriter was way beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It was first made apparent when I traveled to Southern California for a family visit from where I was studying music in San Francisco. The trip was to be particularly exciting because my older brother, who I idolized and didn’t get to see much, was also coming to visit from where he lived in Arkansas.
As I drove down from San Francisco, I decided it was time to muster whatever courage it would take so that I might play a few songs for my mom and brother. I knew it’d be risky since neither my mom nor my brother had been at all pleased when I’d sold my veterinary clinic. They both had been convinced that I’d made a terrible mistake tossing away such an established and lucrative career.
There was another consideration that had me worried. In the past, with regards to the relationships I’d had with my mom and brother (and everyone else), I’d always played the role of avid and supportive listener. Since my mother and brother loved to talk, they’d never had to spend much time listening to me or offering me support and encouragement. I was concerned that they’d be irritated and bored if they had to sit and listen to me play.
On Sunday morning, three days into my visit, I was feeling disheartened due to the fact that neither my mom nor my brother had asked a single question about my music studies. I realized, with frustration, that I’d have to be the one to broach the subject. After breakfast, I broke the ice by telling my mom and brother about my various teachers and the different assignments they had me do. I then put my neck squarely on the chopping block by asking if I could play them two of my songs. I was relieved that they consented but discouraged at their noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
Trying to keep a grip on my optimism, I retrieved my music stand along with my Gibson guitar and set myself up across from them in the living room. My mom was stretched out on the couch while my brother was sitting in an adjacent wing chair. I performed one song and was shocked when they actually listened quietly all the way through. My mom even commented that she’d enjoyed it. Thrilled, I told them I had one more song. As I began to play my little heart out, I’d reached the second verse when my mom, like an unexpected jack-in-the-box, bounced up and sprinted into the kitchen. I heard her flip on the garbage disposal and begin cursing a stream of unmentionables.
Apparently, while my mom had been lying on the couch, she’d suddenly remembered that the sink was clogged. Having forgotten about it until that moment, she now was spitting mad as she was sure that someone had been messing around in her kitchen and had obviously thrown a forbidden food down her drain.
My mom might as well be a Ferrari Testerossa as her temper can go from zero to sixty in 5.8 seconds. I wasn’t at all surprised that she couldn’t wait until I finished singing before rushing to fuss with the drain. After all, any concern of my mom’s must be attended to with the appropriate urgency.
The passion of my performance predictably faltered as I listened to the racket in the kitchen. But, as my brother was still in attendance, I tried to forge ahead. A moment later though, to my dismay, my brother rose from his chair and, with a scowl on his face, headed into the kitchen to see what the ruckus was about.
Now, I was playing to an empty room. If I’d been a more secure person, I might have simply vocalized my upset by yelling, “Hey, what’s the deal?” or maybe gone into the kitchen myself and finished the song once the all-important clog was resolved. I wish that I would have done one of those things. Instead, I tragically gathered up my guitar and music stand, packed them away, all the while feeling as if my heart might burn through my chest. I’d stupidly set myself up by trying to snag support from my mom and brother and I was mortified. They’d never given me support before, why had I thought that they’d do it now?
What was amazing was that my mom and brother didn’t even know that I was upset until my daughters, who I’d confided in, told them. Thankfully, they did apologize but I completely embarrassed myself by breaking down and crying when they did. I think I became so emotional because I’d foolishly thought that this might be a turning point for us. That maybe, after all of this, my mother and brother would be able to be more supportive since they now had to realize how much it meant to me.
But that was simply an example of my Labrador’s laughable optimism. Nothing changed. In fact, my mother and brother have yet to express an iota of interest in my music. That has forced me to wonder if they’ve ever had any interest in me at all. I couldn’t help but remember how little interest my mom ever exhibited for anything going on in my life. If I tried to sneak something in, she’d simply speak over me or immediately steer the topic back to whatever it was she wanted to talk about. As far as my brother was concerned, he not only didn’t ask about my music but he never made inquires as to my work, my goals, or anything else. In fact, I don’t believe that in all the thirty-one years that my daughters have been alive, has my brother ever asked about them or, more recently, my two grandsons. I’ve never been able to understand it. I couldn’t imagine not asking my brother about his kids or whatever current thing might be important to him. All I can deduce is that my brother is inordinately captivated by his own circumstances and not very interested in mine.
What’s a person to do when faced with that degree of indifference, especially when it’s from someone as important as a family member? Since I didn’t know what to do or say, I meekly bundled up my bruised feelings and woefully began to lug them around like a back-breaking papoose. They weighted me down day-in and day-out. I was hurt and angry that my mom and brother could use me as a sounding board but wouldn’t grant me the same courtesy.
It’s extremely difficult for me to write or say anything negative about my brother. My big brother’s nothing like my mom, who occupies a category all to herself. Though my brother was obviously disinterested in me, he’d never been critical or unkind. My brother has been my one (and only) hero since the time I was a little girl. I’ve always believed everything he did to be honorable and, even at times, miraculous (hiking down to the bottom of a meteorite crater in Arizona, winning a fifty-mile walk/run competition, going to college, becoming a lawyer). All I’ve ever wanted was for him to feel a little of that same admiration for me. Now, I could see that it was unlikely that I’d ever get what I wanted from him or my mom.
Coming from that level of resignation, I was totally blown away and yet, very pleasantly surprised, when I discovered that everything changed once I began exploring how people were like dogs. I would eventually experience a life-changing epiphany with respect to my mom and brother. All it took was identifying which breed of dog had the correct temperament to explain why my mom and brother behaved as they did.
My mom turned out to be the poster child for the Schipperke breed (as I explained in detail in Chapter One). Schipperkes are impatient, easily agitated and bored with anything that doesn’t concern them. Thinking of my mom as a Schipperke allowed me to understand that she’d never, in a million years, be able to support my music since the only thing of value to her at this point in her life was financial security. My dad had been the only thing of value to her in the past but sadly, he’d passed away in 2001. Once my mom sensed (correctly) that my career as a singer-songwriter would never be lucrative, the only position she could ever permit herself to adopt would be that of discouraging me. It became her Schipperke duty to illuminate the idiotic error of my ways.
My brother, as it turned out, had always been an ardent crusader who inevitably pledged his heart to one worthy cause or another. This made him the perfect German Shepherd. Shepherds are natural born leaders who possess a laser-like focus that never wavers. They insist on order and can’t abide foolishness. By imagining my brother to be a no-nonsense German Shepherd, I was able to understand how hard it would be for him to encourage my music career when, in his eyes, it was only a hopeless pipe dream.
As I became more proficient in picturing my mom as a Schipperke and my brother as a Shepherd, the world view I’d always held began to precariously tilt on its axis. Before long, the shift in my perspective became so remarkable that, for the first time in my life, I was able to see that my mother and brother’s actions had nothing at all to do with me.
In the past, I’d always subconsciously assumed that my mother and brother’s behavior was either a consequence of something I’d done or was due to the fact that I simply wasn’t deserving. Now, I could finally stop holding myself responsible for something I’d never had any control over.
The reality of the situation, though, was much more profound than even that. What I could now see was that my mother and brother actually had no control over their own behavior. The truth (though it’s a hard truth to accept) is that no one has control over their temperament or the behavior it inspires. With great determination, we might be capable of modifying ourselves in some small measure but for the most part, we’re born with a specific temperament and that temperament defines us for the entirety of our lives.
This was a radically new concept for me. Growing up, I’d always believed that people had an almost infinite ability to change and transform themselves. I’d certainly believed that I should be capable of altering and molding myself in whatever way I might see fit. Now, I knew that all those beliefs were an illusion or at best, wishful thinking. Temperament was clearly as powerful and pervasive in humans as it was in dogs.
Understanding this allowed me to see something I’d never been able to see before. Because the temperaments of my mother and brother were genetic and beyond their control, I now understood that their actions had never been meant to be hurtful. Being able to accept that my mother and brother’s behavior was separate and distinct from their love for me was truly liberating. I would now be able to stay strong in the knowledge that they loved me, knowing that if they did do something to hurt me, it was a reflection of their temperament and not an intentional act.
This doesn’t mean that people don’t have a certain amount of input and responsibility for their actions and behavior. We’re not mindless robots. Yet, temperament is an extremely powerful force in our lives and should never be minimized.
During the time that I was struggling to accept these many new and transformative insights, I was also battling to seize ownership of my own temperament and behavior. It had dawned on me that it was my response to the actions of my mother and brother that had really caused me the most pain. What had hurt me the most was my erroneous interpretation that their behavior meant they didn’t love me. That had been my undoing.
Throughout my many years handling dogs as a veterinarian, I’d never interpreted a dog’s behavior to mean that there was something lacking in me personally or as a vet. I’d always understood that when a dog feels the inclination to bite (either protectively or aggressively), it’s because the dog’s temperament is compelling it to do so in a stressful situation. Naturally, I was never thrilled to be on the biting end of a dog’s teeth but all creatures, myself included, can’t help but respond when someone tries to hurt them.
Yet, there’s a dramatic difference between being hurt by someone who’s unfamiliar to us and someone who’s close to us such as family, friends or even our own dog. There’s no doubt that I’d be extremely taken aback if my own dog, Priscilla, ever tried to bite me. This is in spite of the fact that I’m only minimally bothered when someone else’s dog tries to bite me. It’s simply more painful when someone close to us hurts us. That’s the reason I was so devastated when my mother and brother couldn’t support me. I wouldn’t have nearly been so impacted if someone I didn’t know had walked out on me while I was playing. I might have considered them to be rude but it would never have broken my heart. Having a close personal connection will always make any wounding feel that much more unwarranted and painful.
Family offers the most intimate connection with another human being that the majority of us will ever experience. Family is essential to the human condition because it forces us to stay connected in spite dire differences and intense incompatibilities that would normally drive unrelated individuals apart. Family creates a cohesive unit that provides a buffer to the unpredictable and sometimes dangerous nature of the outside world. Due to our lifelong commitment to one another, family is invariably granted extra leeway and a much wider berth whenever it comes to internal conflict.
That’s not the case with conflict between friends. If friction between two friends becomes too intense, it’s highly likely that one or both individuals will question the wisdom of maintaining the relationship.
That’s what happened between Dee and I. Dee was the best friend of thirty years whom I spoke about in Chapter One. It would end up seeming completely bizarre to me that a thirty-year friendship would be brought to its knees by an insane point of contention: my voice.
Never, in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined that becoming a singer-songwriter would cause so much upheaval in so many of my relationships. As far as I’d known, Dee had always seemed t be very empathetic towards my musical aspirations. She was a singer herself and had even performed at my first wedding. Dee was also one of the few people privy to all the myriad ups and downs that I would encounter along my bumpy road to being a singer-songwriter.
San Francisco is where the bumpy road began.
During the four years that I lived there, I wrote nearly two hundred songs as a result of various teacher assignments and the songs that I invariably penned as a consequence of my own inspiration. When I relocated to Nashville in 2007, I made plans to record fifty of those songs and divide them into four separate compact discs, each with its own particular theme: love (The Heart Needs A Home), sorrow (It Takes A Lot of Tears), self-actualization (Fly Free) and a disc titled People Are Like Dogs.
After I researched several different producers and studios in Nashville, I selected a wonderful producer (Kim Copeland) and entered the recording studio for the first time. It took nearly a year to finish the project but when I finally had the completed CDs in hand, Dee was one the first persons I couldn’t wait to send copies to. I was thrilled to be able to share my songs with her and discover which ones might her favorites.
What transpired, though, utterly caught me off guard. Weeks and weeks elapsed without Dee once mentioning the CDs I’d sent her. It felt weird, like I’d carved out a special slice of my soul and entrusted it to her without her ever acknowledging it. I did eventually muster enough courage to ask her what she’d thought of the CDs (one more example of my overly passive nature). She tepidly replied that she’d not gotten around to listening to them.
I couldn’t know it at the time but this was the beginning of the end. All that I could think in that moment was how Dee might have felt (considering she’d always aspired to be a novelist) if she’d sent me her first novel and I’d exhibited no interest in reading it.
At long last, Dee sent me an email informing me that she’d listened to the CDs. Yet, she remained oddly subdued and non-committal. I had a rotten feeling as to what her silence might mean. It confused me to think that I’d poured my heart into those CDs and she couldn’t find it within herself to say a single nice thing about them. I kept thinking that I might have to put up with this kind of behavior from my family but I sure didn’t want to put up with it from someone who was supposed to be my best friend.
One evening, when Dee and I were talking on the phone, I shared with her how miserable I’d been feeling lately afraid that my dreams of being a successful singer-songwriter might in vain. Bam! Wouldn’t you know it. Right at my lowest moment, Dee was getting ready to unload both barrels and blow me away.
Initially, she’d simply said that she had a few things she’d been wanting to share with me about my songs. I thought, “Oh goody, at last she’s going to say something nice and encourage me not to lose faith in myself.” Instead, she blindsided me. With a weird tone of superiority in her voice as if she were a judge grading me in a competition, she declared that my lyrics were good, my melodies acceptable, but felt quite strongly that I’d be much better off if someone else sang my songs.
Whoa, my brain slammed to a stop as if bogged down in mud. I couldn’t believe she’d say such a thing when she knew how much performing meant to me. My entire quest as a singer-songwriter had been to make a meaningful connection with an audience. Now that I’d spent months in the studio belaboring every detail of every song and had the completed CDs in hand, there wasn’t a chance in hell that I’d redo them with a different singer.
What hurt the most was knowing that Dee had full knowledge of how sensitive I was about my voice and how I’d struggled for years to feel good about it. She knew how when I’d first started singing, I’d been so terrified of anyone actually hearing me, that I’d sequester myself inside a walk-in closet at home so I could practice my lessons out of earshot. Dee also knew about the years of vocal instruction I’d taken, how I’d experimented with a multitude of teachers and techniques so as to learn the best way to deliver the message of my songs. In other words, it was clear that Dee absolutely knew my most tender of spots and in spite of that (or maybe because of that), she’d said the most hurtful thing that she could have ever said to me.
Once my brain managed to kick back into gear, I tried to offer Dee an out (in my typical people-pleasing way) by asking if she might be feeling a disconnect with my voice because we were such different types of singers. Dee was more of a classical and jazzy singer while I was a no-frills, storytelling folk singer. She would have none of it. It seemed as if she didn’t want to compromise. My mind kept whirling round and round as it repeatedly asked, “Is this the way someone treats her best friend?” All I could grasp was that my best friend was shooting me down and her emotional bullets hurt like hell.
Over my lifetime, I’ve become more and more aware that people really don’t change much. Throughout the years that I’d known Dee, she’d always relished sharing the grisly details of the battles she’d waged with various family members, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. Somehow, with my Lab’s Pollyannaish attitude, I’d never guessed that it would happen to us. Of course, Dee and I had experienced some rocky patches in our relationship but they’d never seemed to be more than minor bumps in the road of a long-term relationship.
I’d never had any difficulty accepting that Dee was in possession of a volatile and combative spirit. She’d simply reminded me of something between a snappy Chihuahua and a brooding Rottweiler, what I now call a Rottiehuahua. Even though Dee was far from mellow, we’d never had any serious conflict before this point due to the fact that the Lab in me despised confrontation and could only see the best in everyone.
Now, though I’d dearly loved Dee as a friend for thirty years, I knew the time had arrived for me to love myself more. Before I brought our relationship to a close, we partook of several miserable conversations in which we tried futilely to salvage our relationship.
Initially, Dee had actually said she was sorry. But, before she could even take a breath, she dove right back into the ever-widening ocean between us with a barrage of negative comments. She seemed particularly determined to denigrate my vocal instructors, saying that they were the ones who had ruined my voice. The last thing I wanted to do was to debate the worthiness of my teachers or my voice. The fact was, even if I’d had the worst voice in the world, a good friend would try to make me feel better, not worse.
I was struck by the image of our relationship as a beloved necklace that had become impossibly tangled. To unknot it would require breaking it.
Perhaps it was the culmination of all I’d been through, from selling the clinic to striking out on my own. Maybe I was simply getting too old to put up with someone treating me like this. Whatever the reason, the snarled situation between us compelled me to stand up for myself in a way that I’d never done before. When Dee quit caring about my feelings, she’d quit being my friend as far as I was concerned. A friend builds you up, catches you when you fall and covers your back. That no longer described Dee.
Still, it was heartbreaking to have to administer the final coup de grace to our friendship. I ended up struggling with multiple second thoughts due to the sappy Lab in me that couldn’t stop being loyal even when it had become detrimental. I now possess firsthand knowledge that it’s just as agonizing for a Lab to wrench itself free from a beloved one as it is to gnaw a foot from an unyielding trap.
Thankfully, I was assisted in my recovery from the break-up with Dee by my ability to think of her as a Rottiehuahua. That, in and of itself, allowed me to accept her. It explained why she’d always been so tightly wound and easily agitated. Dee’s inclination to be destructive, not only to others but to herself, made sense in light of the fact that both Rotties and Chihuahuas tend to leave upset feelings in their wake. As they prefer to be left alone, they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that others back off or go away.
Unfortunately, when Dee would finally succeed in ejecting someone out of her life, she’d always be left feeling angry, abused and alone. Even now, when I think of Dee feeling alone and miserable, the Lab in me goes nuts wishing it could reach out to her. The part of me that’s a Lab would love nothing more than to apologize to Dee and start over. That’s how it is for us Labs. We abhor giving up or letting go.
Yet, having survived a baptism by fire with Dee, I know that any effort I make to be friends with her would never be worth the price I’d have to pay. At this point in my life, I’d rather be alone than to settle for someone who could hurt me and not even blink.
The same crisis of incompatibility that snowballed between Dee and I also shows up between dogs and people. As a vet, I’ve witnessed countless people who have had dogs that were either persistent biters or, in one way or another, made life miserable for their owners. It may be difficult to believe but four and a half million people are bitten by dogs every year in the U. S. with one in five requiring medical attention (more than 880,000). Heartbreakingly, thirty or more people are killed by dogs every year. I can’t imagine a more dreadful way to die than to be mauled by a dog (and possibly your own dog at that).
At the same time that all these neurotic and aggressive dogs are injuring and killing people, thousands of sweet, lovable dogs are put to sleep each day because there’s no one to adopt them. Just as I deserve a better friend than
Dee, pet owners deserve a dog that’s a safe and loving contribution to their life.
\What you see is what you get. That’s the only way to think of temperament. Temperament is what it is: constant, consistent and unchanging. So, when we find ourselves in the middle of an incompatible relationship (be it with a dog or another person) where we’re banging heads with a temperament that’s not complementary to our own, there are only a few options possible:
1. Renegotiate the terms of the relationship. This nvolves lowering our expectations and making a solid attempt to accept one another’s temperament. Negotiation necessitates that both parties be willing to compromise until a mutually agreeable arrangement is found. Negotiation always takes two, it’s never a one-person process.
2. If a mutually agreeable arrangement can’t be found, there are three options:
a. Live with things the way they are. Since people don’t change much, the only hope here revolves around the fact that people sometimes mellow with age. Aging will soften attitudes such that previously incompatible individuals are able to reach some common ground.
b. Create space in the relationship. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” says it all: “good fences make good neighbors.” Space can be extremely effective when an individual wishes to stay in a relationship but needs a way to minimize the reactivity of the interaction. Space can be either physical or emotional but it often takes both to do the trick. This option typically results in a relationship where the participants interact less frequently but more superficially (which is why it works so well).
c. End the relationship.
I chose to end my relationship with Dee but I didn’t want to do that with my brother and hoped I could avoid doing that with my mom. As an adult, I’d been faced with several instances where I’d almost been forced to end my relationship with her.
One episode occurred while I was attempting to start my own veterinary practice in Camarillo, California. I’d ended up in California after attending vet school at Texas A & M because my mom’s family lived there. Regrettably, right before I graduated, my dad left my mom for another woman and, as might be expected where my mom is concerned, all hell broke loose.
My mom not only tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of pills but she went on a rampage, going after my dad and the woman with a gun (where she got a gun I have no idea). Luckily, no one was hurt but my mom did manage to get into an actual fistfight with the woman on more than one occasion (remember, this is Texas). It was clear that it was only a matter of time before something tragic happened.
My mom had a bitter mantra that she’d recite almost daily when I was growing up. Similar to Dorothy’s touching proclamation in The Wizard of Oz, my mom’s wicked version of “there’s no place like home” was “I should have never f-ing left California when I married your dad.” My mom felt horribly isolated and cut off from the support of her family when she’d moved to Texas with my dad. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what my dad had in mind when he settled there. In Texas, he didn’t have to answer to my mom’s family in California or his own family in North Dakota for his frequent bouts of bad behavior involving women, gambling, and alcohol. In light of my mom’s nonstop mantra and my dad’s most recent affair, I promised my mom that I’d take her to California as soon as I graduated vet school.
We left Dallas, Texas on our journey to southern California in late August of 1980. It was a long, long trip. As I’d accumulated a passel of animals during my stint as a veterinary student, there were sixteen cats in the back of my 1974 Chevrolet light blue station wagon (with its snazzy wood panels on the side). Loupy, my slobbering Shepobie (Doberman mixed with German Shepherd) sat up front with me along with my two finches in a birdcage. As I led the way, my mom followed in a Lincoln Continental, her veritable boat of a car.
When we arrived in Woodland Hills, California, we shared a house together for a year and a half until I got married for the first time in 1982. It was quite a shock cohabitating with my mom after being away from home for ten years. She essentially went wild (wilder) after the split with my dad, drinking and dating multiple men even as she tried to reconcile with my dad in Texas.
Once I got married, I was ready to open my own veterinary clinic. I’d found the perfect location in a medical complex just four blocks from my home. Though I lacked enough savings for the down payment, my mom agreed to loan me the money. The only snag had to do with the fact that her money was tied up in a Certificate of Deposit that wouldn’t come due for six months. My mom suggested that I ask my dad for the money and that she’d pay him back as soon as her CD came due. I explained this to my dad and he said that’d be fine. We both should have known better.
As we should’ve anticipated, my mom refused to pay my dad back when her CD came due. She flippantly declared that he owed her the money for all the hell he’d put her through. Coincidentally, my dad encountered some financial complications at this time which increased his desperation to be repaid. He’d call me sometimes twice a day, alternating between begging and cursing my mom and I for putting him in this position. My mom, of course, couldn’t have cared less how much this was hurting me or damaging the relationship I had with my dad. She was over the moon at having him over a barrel for a change.
In the end, I was forced to search for a psychologist (a wonderful woman named Sharlene Stahl) who helped me to find a backbone and stand up to my mom. With Sharlene’s help, I prepared my ultimatum and informed my mom that she’d no longer welcome at my home until she repaid my dad. Initially, she was unfazed, confident that I’d never be able to hold my ground. Repeatedly, she’d show up at my house, forcing me to recruit every ounce of my flagging will so that I could once again shut the door in her face (it was much more difficult than it sounds). It took two interminable weeks before she begrudgingly refunded my dad’s money.
Several similar sagas have transpired through the years where I would find myself once again at the brink of no return with my mom. Somehow, a resolution would always be procured at the last possible moment though it would often takes months for me to recover. Sadly, a certain amount of residual resentment always lingered, tainting my feelings for her.
These days, the relationship with my mom has been greatly benefited by the fact that we live in different states (two thousand miles of physical space). When I do visit her, I consciously keep the length of my visit short enough to minimize confrontations.
No matter how I size it up, though, the relationship my mom has been a lifelong source of unhappiness for me. It’s as if I’m inexplicably transformed into the worst possible version of myself anytime I’m around her, as if there’s an incendiary device living inside of me. It ticks and ticks, waiting for the right combination of frustration and outrage to explode. I find myself able to get upset with my mom in a way that I’ve never done with anyone else and it never fails to fill me with shame.
Before I’m able to even speak with my mom on the phone, I must employ precautionary measures. With
years of practice, I’ve become quite proficient at defensive visualization, a skill that provides me with just enough emotional space to avert a meltdown.
One of my favorite fantasies is imagining myself to be the female version of John Travolta in the movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” in which I’m protected by an impervious perimeter. At other times, I’ll picture myself to be entirely enveloped in an impenetrable fat suit where a hefty layer of blubber safeguards me. If needed, I can emotionally distract myself by browsing on my laptop or perusing a newspaper or magazine.
The reason these tactics work so well is because nothing is required of me at my end of the line. My mom mindlessly chatters non-stop and doesn’t really need or want my commentary. This used to be a source of frustration for me in the past because nothing I could ever say about myself was of interest to my mom. Now, I’ve come to accept that this is simply how it is when someone has a Schipperke for a mom. With that in mind, I’m able to put the phone down, walk away to do this or that, knowing that when I return my mom won’t have missed a beat or me. If I ever get lazy and fail to arm myself with one or more of these strategies, the likelihood that I’ll be triggered by something my mom says goes up exponentially.
Since my mom is the only mom I’ll ever have and because I’m thankful for the life she’s given me, I’ve made a solemn vow to be the best daughter that I can, even if it’s conducted across a vast physical and emotional space. I know that for the rest of my life I’ll teeter atop a wobbly tightrope whenever it comes to my mom, desperately attempting to balance my efforts to be polite and treat her with respect against the overwhelming desire I have to escape the negativity she wears like a second skin.
Though it will likely be an ongoing struggle trying to manage the tangled web that my family weaves, I feel more relaxed about being able to manage conflicted friendships. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I don’t need a multitude of friends to be happy, that love isn’t a numbers game. Now, all I require is a few truly good friends and I’m completely content. I definitely wouldn’t want to ever compromise myself by becoming so needy for a friend that I’d partake of someone who would either take advantage of me or be unkind to me. I’ve experienced both of those scenarios in the past and I’ve no desire to repeat them.
When it comes to dealing with difficult relationships between people and dogs, though there may be regrets, there should never be any doubts if it becomes apparent that a dog is not a good fit for a particular person or family. This is especially the case if there is any concern at all about safety. No dog should ever be permitted to pose a danger to a person. There are far too many lovable dogs in the world to ever tolerate one that’s dangerous.
Temperament genetically dictates who we are. It’s so incredibly powerful and pervasive that it will persistently define us for the entirety of our lives. As frustrating as it may be, it’s simply one of many things in life to which we have little or no control.
Predictably, there are temperaments that will naturally complement one another while others will clash. When temperaments butt heads, there’s always a chance for harmony if both individuals are willing to work together and compromise. If compromise isn’t possible, there are only three choices: continue to tolerate the relationship as it is, create physical and emotional space as a buffer or walk away.
There’s only one individual from which we can never walk away. In the next chapter, we’ll examine what’s involved when we attempt to accept and make peace with the most important person in our lives: ourselves.