Probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to accept is just how little control I have over who I am and what happens in my life. As a child, I believed with all my heart that anything was possible, that if I wanted something badly enough and worked hard enough, my dreams would eventually come true. I thought I’d be able to transform myself into whatever I wanted to be. Those innocent but naïve delusions had no choice but to gradually deflate over time, losing their buoyancy little by little until they finally landed on the ground like tired, sad balloons. Though I continued to valiantly try and make my dreams come true, I found that one obstacle after another kept popping up in front of me like stubborn whack-a-moles determined to get the best of me. Not only weren’t my dreams coming true but I had to struggle to accomplish even the simplest of goals.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve learned to see myself as a “Laberrier” after determining that my temperament was part Labrador Retriever and part Jack Russell Terrier. As Labradors love to be of service, you can throw a ball as many times as you want and the Lab will bring it back every single time even if his paws start to bleed. Terriers are incredible multi-taskers but, more than anything, they want to be in control and, as a consequence, they’ll do whatever they can to make sure that life goes the way that they want it to go! In the very same way that Labs and Terriers are incapable of ever giving up on their individual pursuits, I can’t quit trying to make my dreams come true even when it’s clear that they’re not going to.
This inability to quit was never more apparent than in the role that I played in my family’s dynamic. Being part of a family where my father loved alcohol, other women and knock-down-drag-outs with my mom, I couldn’t stop myself from trying to make things better. I believed that if I worked hard enough and was smart enough that, one day, I’d find a way to make us all have a happily-ever-after ending. I was well into my adulthood before I finally realized just how childish and naïve those hopes for happiness were. Unfortunately, even after I knew that I wasn’t ever going to be able to save my parents, I couldn’t quit trying! Though I knew it was futile, I had to keep trying. This desperate need to save my parents spilled over into all my other relationships and, since it fit in so well with my temperament of service and control, it became the theme of my life.
For as far back as I can remember, my brother, sister and I orbited around my parents like planets circling the sun. My mother was a human black hole that could suck in anyone who unwittingly got too close to her gravitational pull. She was perpetually agitated or upset about something and, because her mood always ran hot, it didn’t take much to make her blow. In the blink of an eye, she’d fly into a rage, mostly over my dad’s bad behavior. As a consequence, every single conversation that my mom ever had with anyone (with friends, the grocer, my teachers, my friend’s parents!) revolved around my dad and included the intimate, X-rated details of their run-ins.
It wasn’t that what my mom had to say about my dad wasn’t true because it definitely was: my dad seemed determined to provide my mom with a never-ending supply of transgressions that fueled her fury. My family never experienced a single day of peace. A seemingly good start to the day could quickly disintegrate into a violent free-for-all with dishes being broken and blows being thrown without any clear reason why. It took only the slightest provocation to make my parents flare into a hell storm and, unfortunately, us kids were caught in the middle.
My mom always liked me to hang out with her so she could have someone to complain to about my dad. She expected me to commiserate and I never let her down. Over time, I became her personal Dear Abby and she shared everything with me from her sex life with my dad to the sleazy details surrounding my dad’s affairs with other women. As far as my mom was concerned, I was a receptacle for her to empty her feelings into, relieving herself until she was revitalized and ready to jump back into the fray with my dad. My mom lived her life as if the world revolved around her and, consequently, she demanded lots of sympathy and compassion (though she never offered any sympathy or compassion to anyone.) If one of her friends or a family members were experiencing some hard times, she’d ruthlessly pass judgement, telling them that they were ones who’d caused their own problems. She believed that she could fix everyone else’s life but obviously didn’t have a clue how to fix her own.
Taking care of my mom’s emotional needs set me up to be the kind of person who could only be comfortable being the giver in a relationship. As I’d never learned how to receive (much less ask for what I wanted or needed), every relationship I had as an adult was extremely unbalanced. Just as I’d done with my mom, I gave and gave and gave. As a result, I frequently felt used and became ever more furious at myself for not being able to stand up for myself or to simply say “no.” I was disgusted by how I constantly bent over backwards for everyone. I was terrified of not being loved if I didn’t do everything everyone asked me to but there’s such a thing as being too giving. The craziest thing was, though I gave and gave, I always walked away feeling as if I hadn’t given enough!
It’s hard to believe that I made it to my forties before my life finally crashed and burned. In a very short period of time, I felt my back go up against the wall and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to continue living the life that I’d been living. Once that realization hit, there was no going back. The end of my life as I knew it was triggered by a revelation that came to me while I was in the hospital having a hysterectomy. Unfortunately, the entire time I was in the hospital, not one friend or family member was really there for me. Though a few friends and family members stopped by for a quick hello, no one stayed to care for me. I was left to deal with everything completely on my own for three long days. My mom stayed just long enough to find out that I’d survived the surgery: then she was off to play poker for three days at Hollywood Park! My daughters were too wrapped up in their teenage lives for more than a cursory visit. I don’t know what was going on with my sister. It didn’t help that the woman sharing the room with me had a family that waited on her hand and foot: they never left her alone for a second (someone even stayed with her through the night.)
With my misery being exacerbated by the morphine drip, I became increasingly more distraught: I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone and unloved in my life! I was falling apart inside even as I struggled to keep it together on the outside. But, the final insult was yet to come: that happened on the day I was to be discharged. Everything had been prearranged: I’d simply page my one daughter when I was ready to go and she’d come pick me up. But, as morning turned into afternoon, with no word from her despite the fact that I’d been paging her for hours, I was verging on hysteria (remember, this was in 2000 before everyone had cell phones.) Since I hadn’t brought my wallet to the hospital, I had no money or credit cards. I was so upset that, if I’d had any money, I’d have called a cab and limped out of the hospital on my own.
Increasingly terrified that I was going to get stuck at the hospital, I started calling anyone I could think of who might be able to give me a ride. I couldn’t reach anyone: not my daughters, my mother, my sister or even my ex-husband. I was about ready to flip out when I finally heard from my other daughter. Of course, she wasn’t the least bit happy about having to come and get me. The whole time she was waiting with me for the nurse to come and wheel me out, she paced my room like a tiger in a cage, becoming increasingly agitated and angry. Over and over she asked me, “Where in the Hell are they? What’s taking so long? Mom, I’ve got things to do!”
With the combination of morphine and emotion, I felt myself going into some kind of out-of-body experience: I felt as if I was floating above myself where I could watch everything that was going on. The thought that kept occurring to me over and over again was: “Who’s this woman that no one cares about?” Unfortunately, I was that woman. In that moment, my world flip-flopped and everything as I knew went upside down. The shame I felt was instantaneous and unbearable. How could my life have ended up like this: completely alone and unloved? The only person that I could think to blame was myself. What in the world had I done to deserve this? Had I somehow taught the people in my life to think that I didn’t need them? Had I been fooling myself all these years that the people I loved really loved me in return? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. All I knew was that I was the worst kind of loser: a loser who’d thought she was a winner. I’d have done anything in that moment if I could have just disappeared, to run away somewhere far, far away where I might escape this horrible shame.
As soon as I recovered from my hysterectomy, I put things in motion and, within two years of my surgery, I’d sold both my home and my veterinary practice. I secretly kept the shame burning inside of me, allowing it to motivate me so I wouldn’t let myself to chicken out on my plan to escape.
When clients would ask me why I was selling such a successful veterinary practice, telling me over and over again how much they were going to miss me when I was gone, I simply explained that I’d spent twenty-two years watching animals and their owners suffer and I’d decided I needed a break. This was, in fact, true. But, the primary reason I so desperately needed to escape was so that I could be alone, to tend to my wounds in private so that, maybe one day, I’d be able to finally heal and move on.
While I was selling my home and veterinary clinic, I did a lot of looking around for a specific place where I could go when I left California and I was lucky enough to come across “The Option Institute” in Salisbury, Connecticut. The Option Institute was a facility that helped families who had children with autism. From the pictures I’d seen, it looked like one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. I quickly made plans to go there and be a volunteer. Not only would I get the space and time I needed to heal, I’d also have an opportunity to look at other options for myself other than that of being a veterinarian. Though I was leaving California because of how badly I’d been hurt, without the pain, I’d have never left and started a brand new life.
I didn’t know it at the time but, in my new life, I was going to rediscover a dream that I’d had to abandon many years ago. Way before I’d ever thought of being a veterinarian,I’d wanted nothing more than to be a singer-songwriter in the image of my idol, Joni Mitchell. Luckily, I spent my first three years of college in the music-filled city of Austin, Texas. Music was a big deal in Austin and everyone wanted to be a songwriter. In pursuit of that dream, I taught myself guitar and started writing songs.
Once I decided to become a veterinarian, my energies naturally shifted towards doing whatever I might need to do to get myself into and through vet school. Once I was got into vet school, three years of my life were instantly gobbled up as vet school was year round in those days. After graduation, I went right to work as a veterinarian and, within a year, I got married and became the elated mother of twin daughters. Any dream that I’d had of becoming a singer-songwriter had unfortunately been shoved to the back of the line. By the time I sold my home and veterinary clinic twenty-two years later, so much time had passed that I couldn’t even begin to admit to myself (much less anyone else) that I might have a secret place inside of me that still wanted to be a singer/songwriter. The whole idea, in fact, seemed too preposterous to even think about.
Yet, certain things are simply meant to be! In the years after walking away from my veterinary career, I took one tentative step then another towards my old dream of being a singer/songwriter. I started studying voice, guitar, and songwriting in earnest: completing my transformation from a secure and successful veterinarian to a humble, unskilled, wanna-be. I was starting from scratch with minimal ability and an undetermined talent. Like a weak, flightless butterfly as it first emerges from the cocoon, I had no idea what I was turning into. Though my wings were still useless and I was as of yet a long way from flying, I couldn’t help but celebrate the fact that I was finally free of my cocoon The thing that sustained me the most was the thought that, if I could work as hard as I had to become a veterinarian, maybe some day I’d actually be able to stand on a stage and touch the hearts of an audience.
One thing that surprised me with my quest to be a singer/songwriter was how I still hadn’t learned when it came to my family and friends. You’d think, after experiencing how little my friends and family had been there to support me while I was in the hospital, I’d have been better prepared for their lack of support when it came to my hopes of being a singer-songwriter. The Labrador inside of me simply couldn’t control its optimism! Despite the many times that Lab had been disappointed, it still remained hopeful that this time would be different. I’ve heard that’s actually one definition of insanity! My first taste of what was to come took place on a weekend when I’d decided to travel from San Francisco (where I was living and studying music) to my mom’s home in southern California. This was to be an especially exciting visit 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 argued with myself as to whether it was time for me to try and play a few songs for my mother and brother while I was visiting. I knew it was a risky proposition as neither my mom nor my brother had thought it was a good idea for me to sell my veterinary clinic: they’d thought I’d made a horrible mistake throwing away such an established and lucrative career.
Another consideration that had me worried concerned the nature of our relationship: like most of my relationships, the unspoken rule with my mother and brother was that I play the role of supportive listener. My mother and brother loved talking about the issues and problems going on in their lives but they weren’t especially interested in what was going on in mine. I was concerned that it was going to be really hard for them to sit still and listen to me while I played them a few of my songs.
On Sunday morning (three days into my visit), I was feeling a bit depressed as neither my mom nor my brother had asked a single question about what was going on with me or my musical studies. I realized that, if I was ever going to play them a few of my songs, I’d have to be the one to broach the subject. After breakfast, I tried breaking the ice by telling my mom and brother about some of my music teachers and the different assignments they’d had me doing. When they didn’t ask me to elaborate, I realized that I was going to have to put my neck squarely on the chopping block. Holding my breath, I asked them flat out if I could play them two of my songs. I breathed out with relief when they said “okay” but I couldn’t ignore that they weren’t overly enthusiastic.
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 sat in an adjacent wing chair. I performed one song and was shocked that they actually sat quietly all the way through! My mom even went so far as to say she’d liked it. Thrilled, I told them that I had one more song to play. I started playing and had just reached the second verse when my mom, like some kind of jack-in-the-box, jumped up and took off into the kitchen. I tried desperately to keep track of where I was as I heard the garbage disposal come on and my mom cussing over the noise of the disposal.
I found out later that, while my mom was lying on the couch, she’d suddenly remembered that the kitchen sink was clogged and, being the impulsive person that she is, she wasn’t able to wait the two minutes until I finished my song: she simply had to get up that very instant and deal with it. Now, having completely forgotten about me, she was in the kitchen yelling about how someone had thrown something that they shouldn’t have down the drain.
The passion of my performance faltered as I listened to the racket going on in the kitchen. But, as my brother was still in his chair, I forged ahead. A moment later, though, to my great dismay, my brother slowly rose from his chair and, with an unhappy scowl on his face, went into the kitchen to see what he could do.
Well, now, I was playing to an empty room! There was no “Wait a minute, Julie, we’ll be right back,” they just left. If I’d been a more secure person, I might have vocalized my upset by saying, “Hey, what’s going on?” or maybe I could have gone into the kitchen myself until the all-important clog was resolved and then go back to finish my song. How I wish I would have done one of those things. But, feeling as if there was a fist wrapped around my heart, I tragically picked up my guitar and music stand and put them away. All I could think was: “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” I didn’t know how I could have been so stupid! I should have known better than to try to get support from my mother and brother: if they hadn’t been supportive in the past, why in the world had I thought they’d be supportive now?
What completely boggled my mind was how my mother and brother didn’t even know that I was upset! Though I’d packed up my stuff and left the house without saying a word, they thought nothing of it. My daughters (who I’d confided in) ended up telling them that they’d hurt my feelings. My mother and brother did apologize to me but I completely humiliated myself by breaking down and crying when they did. Being the ridiculous optimist that I am, I foolishly hoped that this might be a turning point for us, that they’d finally understand just how much it meant for me to have their support.
Yet, nothing changed at all between my mother, brother and I: there’s been no expression of interest whatsoever in my music or anything else going on in my life. What I took that to mean was that they must not care very much about me. I couldn’t help but think back to how little interest my mom had shown me as a child. Whenever I’d tried to talk to her about something that was going on in my life, she’d simply speak over me or quickly steer the topic back to what she wanted to talk about. As far as my brother was concerned, not only had he not shown interest in my music but he never asked me about my work or goals. In the thirty-six years that my daughters had been alive, I don’t think he’s ever asked about them or, more recently, my two grandsons. I just couldn’t understand it: I couldn’t imagine not asking him about his kids, his wife or his work.
What’s a person to do when faced with that level of indifference, especially when it’s from someone as important as a mother or brother? I didn’t know what to do or say so, once again, I tucked away my hurt feelings and continued feeling sorry for myself.
It’s hard for me to ever say anything bad about my brother as my big brother’s nothing like my mom (who occupies a special category all unto herself.) Though my brother hasn’t ever been very interested in me, at least he’s never been critical or unkind. My big brother is actually my hero and he has been ever since I was a little girl. I’ve admired him and looked up to him as if he was a God among men. Everything he did seemed honorable and, at times, miraculous: like when he hiked down to the bottom of a meteorite crater in Arizona or won a fifty-mile walk/run competition or became the first person in our family to go to college and, finally, becoming an attorney. All I’ve ever wanted was for him to show some of that same admiration for me.
Resigned and close to giving up completely, I was totally blown away when I experienced a life-changing epiphany when I learned to see my mom and brother as certain breeds of dog! Once I did that, everything about how they’d ever treated me made perfect sense!
As I discovered, my mom was 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 themselves. 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 that was of any value to her at this point in her life was financial security. In the past, my dad had been the focus of my mom’s life but, when he passed away in 2001, her concerns switched to money. My mom had sensed (correctly so) that my career as a singer-songwriter was never going to be lucrative so, the only position that she could take was that of trying to discourage me. As a Schipperke, it was her duty to make me see the error of my ways.
As my brother had always been an ardent crusader who’d pledge his heart to one worthy cause after another, he was the perfect German Shepherd. Shepherds are natural born leaders who possess a laser-like focus that never falters: 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 just how hard it would be for him to encourage my music career since, in his eyes, it was simply a hopeless pipe dream. He wasn’t one to get behind something that was a lost cause.
As I became more proficient in picturing my mom as a Schipperke and my brother as a German Shepherd, the world view where I’d believed that other people didn’t care about me as much I cared about them had now completely changed. The more I accepted that every single one of us is a genetic being born to be who we are as a result of our DNA (including my mother, brother and myself), I was able to accept that all of our actions and behavior are mostly beyond our control. I now understood that the way my mother and brother treated me had absolutely nothing at all to do with me or how they felt about me. I’d been taking their actions to mean something about me when, in actuality, my mother and brother were simply being the individuals they were born to be as dictated by their DNA. Just as I wouldn’t take a Chihuahua’s aggressiveness personally, there was no reason for me to take other people’s actions and behavior personally. Seeing other people in this way made it possible for me to not be so hurt by the things that they might do or say. Ultimately, if I decided that being around someone caused me more pain than I was willing to handle, then I’d simply limit my exposure to that individual in the same way that I’d limit the amount of time I spend around a biting dog.
An unexpected benefit of seeing my mom and brother as dogs was that I no longer felt responsible for my mother and brother’s behavior. In the past, I’d always believed that their behavior was the result of something that I’d done wrong or that I simply wasn’t worth of their support and love. Now, I understood that I wasn’t to blame for the way they behaved: in fact, they weren’t to blame for the way they behaved because everyone’s behavior is dictated by DNA. The truth is: none of us has control over our behavior. Though it may possible to change ourselves in certain small ways, for the most part, we’re stuck with the temperaments that we’re born with end of story.
Understanding this has allowed me to see something that I hadn’t been able to see before: that my mother and brother had never meant to intentionally hurt me: they were simply being the genetic beings that they were born to be. Just as a Lab is born to be a Lab and a Poodle is born to be a Poodle, my mother and brother were born to be the individuals that they find themselves to be. Knowing that my mother and brother’s behavior is completely separate from the love they have for me has been completely liberating. I understand that they can love me and still behave in a way that feel unloving. These days, if they happen to do something that hurts me, I try to keep in mind that it’s simply a reflection of their DNA and their temperament and their DNA and not something they’re doing intentionally to hurt me.
This doesn’t mean that people are exempt from being responsible for the way they act and behave: though DNA is an incredibly important force in our lives, at the same time, we’re not mindless robots.
During the period of time that I was coming to terms with the fact that we’re all genetic beings, I was also trying to make sense of my own temperament and behavior. It became quite clear to me that it had been my response to my mother and brother’s behavior that had caused me so much pain. What hurt me was my interpretation of their behavior. I’d decided that they either didn’t love me or that there had to be something wrong with me for them to treat me the way they had. I couldn’t see back then that their behavior had nothing to do with me or their love for me: they were simply being themselves.
Oddly, in all my years of being a veterinarian, I’d never once thought that I was unlovable or that there was something wrong with me when a dog growled at me or tried to bite me. I instinctively knew that a dog’s behavior (good or bad) is completely a reflection of its temperament: that if a dog growls or tries to bite, it’s simply responding to its predicament with fear or aggression. Of course, I’m never happy when a dog tries to bite me but I’ve also never blamed the dog or myself: the dog’s behavior is not personal.
It’s important to understand that there’s an important distinction between being hurt by someone we don’t know and someone who’s close to us (such as family, friends or even our own dog.) I have no doubt that I’d be extremely upset and disappointed if my own dog tried to bite me! This is in spite of the fact that I’m never bothered when someone else’s dog tries to bite me. Someone else’s dog could have a million reasons why it’s afraid and doesn’t want me to touch it.
Now, it’s quite a different story when someone close to us hurts us. That’s why I was could be so easily devastated when my mother and brother didn’t support me in the way that I’d wanted them to support me. I wouldn’t nearly have been so devastated if someone I didn’t know had walked out on me while I was playing my guitar. I might have thought them to be rude but it wouldn’t have broken my heart. Having a close personal connection with someone is always going to make any wounding feel that much more unexpected 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 of 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 when it comes to conflict.
That’s not the case with conflict between friends. If friction between two friends becomes too intense, it’s likely that one or both individuals will question the wisdom of sustaining the relationship.
That’s what happened between Dee and I. Dee was the best friend of thirty years that I spoke about at length in Chapter One. Looking back, I think it’s crazy that a thirty-year friendship could be brought to its knees over such a ridiculous point of contention as my voice.
Never would I have imagined that becoming a singer-songwriter would create so much upheaval in so many of my relationships. As far as I’d known, Dee had always seemed to be very empathetic towards my musical aspirations. She was a singer herself (even performing at my first wedding.) Dee was one of the few people with who’d heard all of the various ups and downs that I’d experienced while traveling my bumpy road to being a singer-songwriter.
San Francisco is where that bumpy road began.
During the four years that I lived in San Francisco, I wrote nearly two hundred songs as the result of various teacher assignments and 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 researching different producers and studios in Nashville, I settled upon a wonderful producer named Kim Copeland and entered the recording studio for the very 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 sent copies to. I was thrilled to be able to share my songs with her and find out which ones were her favorites.
What transpired, though, completely caught me off guard. Weeks and weeks passed without Dee even mentioning the CDs that I’d sent to her. It felt weird, like I’d carved out a special slice of my soul and entrusted it to her without her being so kind as to even acknowledge it. Being the insecure artist that I was, I didn’t have the guts to ask her about the CDs for fear she was going to say something negative: I wasn’t simply worried about her response to the CDs, I was worried about everyone’s response to the CDs. But, eventually, I simply had to know what she thought about the CDs but, when I asked, she merely said that she hadn’t had a chance to listen to them yet.
I didn’t know it at the time but this was the beginning of the end as far as our relationship was concerned. All I could remember was wondering how Dee would have felt (considering that she’d always wanted to be a novelist) if she’d sent me her first novel and I’d not even bothered to read it.
At long last, Dee sent me an email saying that she’d finally gotten around to listening to my CDs. Yet, continuing with her weirdly subdued and non-committal attitude, she said nothing more. I was definitely getting a really bad feeling about what her silence might mean. I couldn’t believe that I’d poured my heart and soul into those CDs and she didn’t have it in her to say one nice thing about them. I kept thinking that I might have to put up with this kind of behavior from my family but that I sure didn’t need 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 told her how discouraged I’d been feeling lately, afraid that all my dreams of being a successful singer-songwriter were in vain. Bam! Wouldn’t you just know it? At one my lowest moments, Dee took aim, unloaded both barrels and blew me away!
She started out by saying that she’d been wanting to tell me some things about my songs. Naively, I thought, “Oh goody, she’s finally going to say something nice about my CDs and tell me not to lose faith in myself.” Instead, she completely blindsided me. With a disgusting tone of superiority in her voice as if she were some kind of judge grading me in a competition, she said that my lyrics were good, my melodies acceptable, but she felt that I would have been be much better off using someone else to sing my songs.
Whoa, my brain slammed to a stop like I’d run full speed into a brick wall. I couldn’t believe the words that had come out of her mouth, especially considering that she knew perfectly well how much performing meant to me. My entire quest as a singer-songwriter had been to make a meaningful connection with an audience. Now, after spending months in the studio belaboring every little detail of every song, here she was telling me I should have made the CDs with a different singer!
What hurt the most was knowing that Dee knew just how sensitive I was when it came to my voice: that I’d struggled for years to feel good about it. She knew that when I’d first started singing, I’d been so afraid of anyone hearing me, that I’d hidden myself inside a walk-in closet so that I could practice my lessons where no one could hear me. Dee also knew about all the years of vocal instruction that I’d taken, how I’d experimented with a multitude of teachers and techniques in order to learn the best possible way to deliver the message of my songs. In other words, Dee knew my most tender of spots and, in spite of that (or possibly because of that!), she was saying out loud the most hurtful thing that she could have possibly ever said to me.
Once my brain recovered from the shock, I tried to offer Dee a way out (in my typical people-pleasing way) by asking her if she might possibly be feeling a disconnect with my voice since we were such different types of singers. Dee was more of a classical and jazzy type of singer while I was a no-frills, storytelling folk singer. But, she’d have none of it! She stubbornly stuck to her guns, saying again and again that someone else could have sang my songs better. The whole time she was talking, a voice inside my head kept asking, “Is this the way someone treats her best friend?” She clearly either wanted to hurt me or didn’t care that she was hurting me.
Realizing that people don’t ever change, I flashed back to all stories Dee had told me over the years about how she was forever waging war with one person or another: it might be family (like Donald in Chapter One), co-workers, neighbors or friends. Somehow, as a result of the Pollyannaish attitude of the Labrador inside of me, I’d just never thought that she’d wage war with me! Of course, Dee and I had experienced some rocky patches in our relationship but they’d never seemed more than minor bumps in the road of a long-term relationship. I’d always accepted that Dee’s temperament could be a bit volatile and combative: a combination of snappy Chihuahua and brooding Rottweiler (what I now call a Rottiehuahua.) We’d probably never had any do-or-die confrontations in the past on account of the Lab in of me that hated conflict and was only able to see the good in everyone.
Though I’d loved Dee as my best friend of thirty years, I sensed that the time may have come for me to decide if this was the kind of relationship that I wanted at this point in my life. But, before I could make a decision on something so final, I’d have to see if I couldn’t work things out with her.
Once I let Dee know how hurt I was, she did say that she was sorry. But, before her apology had had a chance to sink in, she immediately resumed her negative comments. What she was really saying was, “I’m sorry but…” She started blaming my vocal instructors, saying that they’d been the ones to ruin my voice! Ouch! I wasn’t about to get into a debate about the worthiness of my instructors! The bottom line was this: even if I had the worst voice in the world, a best friend would try to make me feel better, not worse!
Perhaps it was the culmination of all that I’d been through, from selling my home and clinic to striking out on my own. Maybe I was simply getting too old to put up with someone treating me like crap. Whatever the reason was, something inside of me became quite clear that, if this was what Dee called being a friend, I didn’t want or need that kind of friendship thank you very much. A friend builds you up, catches you when you fall and gets your back: that no longer described my relationship with Dee.
Still, it was hard to let our friendship go. I kept having second thoughts as a result of the sappy Labrador inside of me that wanted to stay friends no matter how much pain was involved. I know now just how hard it must be for a dog to run away from an abusive owner because, just like me, the dog keeps thinking that things will get better if it just hangs in there long enough!
What actually helped me in my struggle to end things with Dee was being able to think of her as a Rottiehuahua. Thinking of Dee as a Rottiehuahua allowed me to accept her as she was, helping to understand why she’s so tightly wound. Dee’s predisposition to being destructive towards herself and others made perfect sense considering that both Rottweilers and Chihuahuas want to be left alone. In fact, they’ll do whatever it takes to get others to back off and go away.
Sadly, when Dee succeeded in finally getting someone out her life, she’d always go through a long period of being confused, angry and lonely. Even to this day, when I think of Dee possibly being lonely or depressed, the Lab in me goes a bit crazy, wanting to reach out to her. The part of me that’s a Labrador would love nothing more than to apologize to Dee and to try and start over from scratch. That’s just how it is for us Labs: we hate giving up and letting go.
The same crisis of incompatibility that happened between Dee and I also occurs with people and dogs. As a vet, I’ve seen countless owners who’ve had dogs that were either biters or, in some other way, made their owner’s life miserable. It’s hard to believe but 4.7 million people are bitten every year in the U. S., one in five requiring medical attention (more than 880,000). As many as 34,000 people must go through painful reconstructive surgery as a result of a dog bite. Tragically, thirty to forty people are killed each year by dogs. I can’t imagine a more dreadful way to die than being mauled by a dog (and possibly your own dog at that.) Just as I deserved a friend who treated me better than Dee, pet owners deserve a dog that’s safe and loving.
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, if we find ourselves in an incompatible relationship (be it with a dog or another person), there are only four possible options:
- Chose to live with the relationship as it is. Despite the fact that people don’t change much, the only hope with this option is that people sometimes mellow with age. Aging will often soften attitudes to the point that previously incompatible individuals are able to get along.
- Renegotiate or redefine the terms of the relationship. This involves lowering our expectations and making a solid attempt to accept one another’s temperament as it is with no expectation of change. Negotiation necessitates that both parties work until a mutually agreeable arrangement is found. Negotiation always takes two, it’s never a one-person process. Redefining a relationship can be a one-sided affair in which one of the individuals makes a change in how they look at the relationship such that the can accept it as it is (an example of how this happened with my is given below.)
- 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 don’t interact as frequently and, when they do, it’s much more superficial (which is why it works so well.)
- End the relationship.
I chose to end my relationship with Dee but, of course, I didn’t want to do that with my brother or my mother. Sad to say, though, there have been a few times when I’d thought that I might have to end my relationship with my mom.
One such time took place when I was in the middle of trying to start up my own veterinary practice in Camarillo, California. I’d ended up in California after graduating vet school since that’s where my mom’s family lived and my mom felt that she was in need of her family’s support. About a year before I graduated, my dad left my mom for another woman and my mom absolutely went crazy: not only did she try to commit suicide by taking an overdose of pills but, one night, she went on a tirade, punching my dad and the other woman in addition to threatening them with a gun. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt but I was terrified that it was only a matter of time before something horrible happened.
When I was growing up, my mom had a mantra that she’d recite whenever she got mad at my dad. Similar to Dorothy’s proclamation in The Wizard of Oz, my mom’s version of “there’s no place like home” was “I shouldn’t have left California” (to marry your dad!) After marrying my dad, my mom was completely cut off from her family when he moved them to Texas. I actually think that’s exactly what my dad had in mind because, in Texas, he wouldn’t have to answer to my mom’s family in California or his own family in North Dakota. What he didn’t want to have to answer for was his bad behavior involving women, gambling, and alcohol. In light of my mom’s old mantra and my dad’s recent affair, I told my mom I’d take her to California where she could hopefully leave Texas and my dad behind.
We left Texas (Dallas) on our journey to southern California in late August of 1980. I’d acquired a lot of animals in vet school. Sixteen cats were in the back of my blue 1974 Station Wagon (with its snazzy wood panels) while Loupy, my Shepobie (half Doberman and half German Shepherd) sat up front with me. There was also a cage with two finches in it propped between Loupy and me. As I led the way, my mom followed in her Lincoln Continental (an absolute boat of a car.) It was a hellacious trip with my Italian mom riding on my butt all the way to California, honking like a maniac whenever she needed me to pull over at the next stop (since there weren’t any cell phones back then.)
When we finally made it to Woodland Hills, California, my mother and I shared a house for a year and a half until I got married (for the first time) in January of 1982. It was quite the shock living with my mom after being away from home for over ten years. In addition to trying to get used to a life that didn’t revolve around school (I’d been in college for eight straight years!), I had to contend with my mom who seemed to have gone completely wild. Along with some new friends she’d met, my mom spent most of her evenings going out to clubs where she naturally danced and drank and took up with a never-ending string of men. This wasn’t at all how I was used to seeing my mom.
After I got married, the next thing I wanted to do was open my own veterinary clinic. At last, I’d be able to do things my way. I found the perfect location in a medical complex just four blocks from my home in Camarillo and, as I didn’t have enough money saved for a down payment, my mom assured me that she’d loan me the money. Unfortunately, there was an unexpected snag in that my mom’s money was in a Certificate of Deposit that wouldn’t come due for another six months. If she took it out early, there’d be all kinds of penalties. So, my mom told me to ask my dad for the money and that she’d pay him back as soon as her CD came due. I explained all of this to my dad and he said he’d be glad to loan me the money but that he’d need to be paid back as soon as my mom got the money from her Certificate of Deposit. My dad and I should have known better than to trust my mom!
When my mom’s CD came due, she vindictively decided that she wasn’t going to pay my dad back after all! She said that my dad actually owed her money for all the hell he’d put her through! To make matters worse, my dad suddenly encountered a financial setback that made him just that much more desperate to be repaid. He started calling me twice a day from Texas where he lived, flipping back and forth between begging me and cursing me for putting him in such a tight spot. My mom, of course, didn’t care in the least about how much this was hurting me as well as damaging the relationship I had with my dad. She was actually quite giddy at having him over a barrel for a change. No matter how much I begged her to repay my dad, all she’d say was: “He’ll be fine. It’s not going to hurt him to sweat a bit.”
In the end, I had to find a psychologist (a wonderful woman named Sharlene Stahl) who could help me find a backbone: I had to give my mom an ultimatum. With Sharlene’s help, I found the courage to tell my mom that, until she repaid my dad, she was no longer welcome in my home. At first, she was completely unfazed, confident that I wouldn’t be able to hold my ground. Time after time, she’d show up at my house acting as if nothing had happened. It took every ounce of strength inside of me to tell her “Sorry, you’re not welcome” and then slowly shut the door in her face. Stubborn as a mule, my mom held out for two weeks as I shakily stood my ground but, finally, she agreed to pay my dad the money she owed him.
Similar run-ins and stand offs have occurred over the years, forcing me to wonder if I shouldn’t simply give up on having a relationship with my mom. Somehow, just in the nick of time, we’ve always managed to find some middle ground. Unfortunately, I was still shaken for months after we’d go head to head and, as a consequence, a certain amount of bitterness and resentment always seemed to linger, tainting my feelings for her.
These days, my relationship with my mom has been greatly benefited by the fact that I now live in a different state from her (two thousand lovely miles of physical space!) When I muster up the courage to visit my mom, I make sure the length of my visit is short and I do a lot of emotional prepping beforehand so that I won’t get too caught off guard by her outbursts.
No matter how I try to color it, my relationship with my mom has been an ongoing source of regret and heartache for me. If I’m not careful, I can turn into the worst possible version of myself when I’m around her. It’s as if there’s an incendiary device inside of me that quietly ticks and ticks, waiting for my mom to come up with just the right amount of rudeness and negativity to finally make me explode. Unexpectedly, I’ll catch myself wanting to get upset with my mom in a way that I never do with anyone else and I’m always so shocked and ashamed at myself.
Before I can even call my mom on the phone, I must take a moment or two to prepare myself emotionally. With years of practice under my belt, I can now create an emotional bubble around myself that shields me from most of her negativity: something like John Travolta in “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” At times, I’ll google various subjects on my laptop or flip through a newspaper or magazine while I’m on the phone with my mom. This keeps me distracted and keeps me from overreacting to anything she might say. The reason these tactics work so well is has to do with the fact that nothing is required of me when I’m talking to my mom: my mom loves to chatter non-stop as she laments about this or that. She really doesn’t really want my input at all. This was a big source of pain and frustration for me in the past because I knew that nothing in my life was of any interest to my mom. Now, I have finally made peace with the fact that this is simply how it is when someone has a Schipperke for a mom.
I do try to remember that my mom is the only mom that I’m ever going to have and, because of that, I want to be grateful for the life she’s given me. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’m going to be the best daughter that I can to my mom, even if it requires that I maintain a physical and emotional space from her. I know that I’m always going to be teetering atop a wobbly tightrope whenever it comes to my mom, that I’m going to have to fight to keep my balance. Even if my mom and I can’t ever be close, I do want to be polite to her and to treat her with the respect that a mother deserves.
When it comes to the occasional difficult relationship that I experience outside of my family, I’ve decided (now that I’m older) that love isn’t a numbers game and, consequently, I don’t need a multitude of friends to be happy. All I require at this point in my life is a few really good friends. I know that I don’t ever want to be involved with someone who would intentionally hurt me or try to take advantage of me. I’ve experienced both of those scenarios in the past and I’d rather be alone than to go through that again.
Just as is true of the people in our lives, we should never keep a dog in our home if there’s any indication that the dog is potentially dangerous. There are simply too many lovable dogs in the world to ever take a chance on a dog that might hurt or kill someone.
In truth, there’s only one individual that we can never walk away from. In the next chapter, we’ll take a look at what we need to do so that we can finally find a way to accept and make peace with the most important individual in our lives: ourselves. Woof!