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 trying to come to terms with the fact that we’re all genetic beings, I was also trying to make sense of my temperament and behavior. In doing so, it had become quite clear to me that my response to my mother and brother’s behavior is what that actually had caused me so much pain. What had hurt me was my interpretation of their behavior: deciding that either they didn’t love me or that there was something wrong with me that made them want to treat me in the way they had. I hadn’t been able to see back then that their behavior had absolutely nothing to do with me or their love for me: they were simply being themselves.
It’s interesting to note that, 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 whenever a dog growled or tried to bite me. I knew that a dog’s behavior (good or bad) was merely a reflection of its genetic makeup: that if a dog growls or bites, it’s simply responding to its predicament with fear or aggression. Of course, I’m not particularly happy when a dog tries to bite me but I’ve never blamed the dog or myself for the dog’s behavior.
It’s important to understand that there’s a very big difference between getting 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 if my own dog tried to bite me! Yet, I’m not bothered when someone else’s dog tries to bite me.
When someone close to us hurts us, the wound goes deep. That’s why I was so easily devastated when my mother and brother didn’t support me in the way that I’d wanted them to support me. It wouldn’t nearly have been nearly so devastating if someone I didn’t know walked out on me when I was singing a song. I might have thought that they were rude but it wouldn’t have broken my heart.
Family offers the most intimate connection with another human being that the majority of us will ever experience. Family is so incredibly important to us humans because it keeps us connected to the people in our family in spite of dire differences and incompatibilities that normally would drive unrelated individuals apart. Family is a cohesive unit that creates a buffer to the unpredictable and sometimes dangerous nature of the outside world. As a result to our lifelong commitment to one another, family members are invariably granted a lot more leeway when it comes to conflict.
That’s not the case with conflict between friends. If the friction between two friends becomes too intense, it’s quite likely that one or both individuals will decide to end the relationship.
That’s actually what happened between Dee and I. Dee was the best friend that I’d spoken about at length in Chapter One. Looking back, I still can’t believe that our thirty-year friendship was brought to its knees over something so ridiculous as my singing voice.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have guessed that being a singer-songwriter would cause so much grief in so many of my relationships. As far as Dee was concerned, she’d always seemed to be quite empathetic about my musical aspirations since she was a singer herself (she’d even performed at my first wedding.) Dee was actually one of the few people that I felt that I could share all the struggles I’d endured on my bumpy road of being a singer-songwriter.
San Francisco is where that bumpy road had begun. During the four years that I’d lived in San Francisco, I’d managed to write nearly two hundred songs due to various teacher assignments and songs that were inspired by what I was going through in my life. When I eventually relocated to Nashville in 2007, I’d 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 checking out lots of different producers and studios in Nashville, I chose a producer I really liked named Kim Copeland and went into a recording studio for the first time. It ended up taking almost a year to finish the project but when I finally had the completed CDs in hand, Dee was one the first persons that I sent copies to. I couldn’t wait to share my songs with her and see which ones turned out to be her favorites.
What transpired, though, completely caught me off guard. After I sent Dee the CDs, weeks and weeks passed without her even mentioning them. It felt extremely weird: like I’d entrusted her with a little piece of my heart and she’d not even acknowledge that I’d sent it to her. Being the insecure artist that I was, I didn’t have the guts to ask her about the CDs. I guess I was afraid she was going to say something negative. It wasn’t just Dee, I was worried about everyone’s response to the CDs. But, after an entire month had gone by, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I mustered the courage to ask her what she’d thought about the CDs. I couldn’t believe it when she told me that she just hadn’t gotten around to listening to them. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but this was the beginning of the end of our relationship. I was incredibly shocked and hurt: I kept wondering how Dee would feel (considering she’d always wanted to be a novelist) if she’d sent me her first novel and I’d not cared about her enough to even read it.
Finally, Dee sent me an email saying that she’d listened to the CDs but she kept up her subdued and non-committal attitude by not saying anything about the CDs, not, “Hey, they were great” or anything! I was definitely getting a bad feeling about the way she was acting and what her weird silence might mean. I was completely confused by her lack of support and encouragement, that I’d poured my heart and soul into those CDs and she couldn’t manage to say one nice thing about them. I kept thinking that I might have to put up with this lack of support 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 night, when Dee and I were talking on the phone, I told her that I was feeling really disheartened that all my dreams of being a successful singer-songwriter might be in vain. Wham, bam: wouldn’t you just know it? At one my very lowest moments, Dee took aim and unloaded both barrels at me!
She started out by saying that she had a few things that she’d been wanting to tell me about my songs. Naively, I thought, “Oh goody, she’s finally going to say something nice about my CDs and encourage me not to lose faith in myself.” Instead, she shot me dead: with this disgusting tone of superiority in her voice like she were some kind of pro judging my performance, she stated that my lyrics were good and my melodies acceptable but, in her opinion, I should have used someone else to sing my songs!
My brain felt like it’d slammed into a brick wall. What a B—-!! What a horrible, horrible thing to say, especially when she knew how much singing and performing meant to me. The whole point of my being a singer-songwriter was to make a connection with a listener or an audience. After I’d spent a year in the studio, belaboring every little detail of every song, she was telling me I shouldn’t have sang my own songs! Ouch!
What hurt the most was knowing how many times I’d told Dee how insecure I was about my voice. She’d known that I’d struggled for years to feel good about it: that when I’d first started singing, I was so afraid of anyone hearing me that I’d practiced my vocal lessons inside a walk-in closet with the door closed so no one could hear me. Dee knew of all the years of vocal instruction that I’d taken, how I’d experimented with a multitude of teachers and techniques so that I might learn the best way to deliver the messages in my songs. Dee knew that my voice was my most tender of spots and yet, in spite of that (or possibly because of that!), she was saying the most incredibly hurtful thing that she could ever say to me.
Once my brain recovered from the initial shock, I tried to give Dee a way out (in my typical people-pleasing way): I asked if she might feel some kind of disconnect with my voice since we were such different types of singers: Dee was a classical, jazzy type of singer while I was a no-frills, storytelling singer. But, she wouldn’t toss me even the tiniest of bones. She stubbornly stuck to her guns, repeating over and over again (such that I wanted to puke!) that someone else could have sang my songs better. I’d just about had it with her by this point and there was one thought that was screaming inside my head: “Is this the way someone treats their best friend?”
I found myself flashing back to some of the stories Dee had told me over the years. It seemed as if she’d always been waging war with someone or another. Most frequently it was family (like Donald in Chapter One) but it could be anyone: co-workers, neighbors, friends. Probably as a result of the Pollyannaish attitude of the Labrador inside of me, I’d never thought she’d ever wage war with me! I’m not saying that Dee and I hadn’t ever gone through a few rocky patches over the years but they’d never seemed to be anything more than bumps in the road of a long-term relationship. I’d simply accepted that Dee had a temperament that could be volatile and combative at times: a combination of snappy Chihuahua and brooding Rottweiler (what I call a Rottiehuahua.) One of the more likely reasons we’d never had any do-or-die confrontations in the past had to do with the Lab in me that hated conflict and was only able to see the good in someone.
Though I’d loved Dee as a friend for thirty years, I wasn’t sure that I was willing to put up with the crap she was dishing out. Yet, before I could ever do something so final as to cut her loose, I knew I’d have to see if I could somehow work things out with her.
I let Dee know just how much what she’d said had hurt me and she did, in fact, say that she was sorry. But, before her apology could even sink in, she continued with the negative comments. Though she’d said she was sorry, apparently what she was saying was, “I’m sorry but…” She started saying that my vocal instructors were to blame, that they’d been the ones to ruin my voice! Good grief! I wasn’t about to get into a debate about the worthiness of my instructors! The problem I had with Dee was this: even if I’d had the worst voice in the world, a best friend would do her best to make me feel better, not worse!
I don’t know if it was the culmination of everything I’d been through, from selling my home and clinic to striking out on my own or if I’d finally gotten too old to put up with this kind of crap: whatever the cause, a switch flipped inside of me and I decided that, if this was what Dee called being a friend, I didn’t want any part of it thank you very much. A friend is someone who builds you up, catches you when you fall and gets your back and that no longer described my relationship with Dee.
In spite of everything, it was still incredibly hard to let my relationship with Dee go. I kept having second thoughts because the sappy Labrador inside of me wanted to stay friends no matter how much pain was involved. What actually made it possible for me to end things with Dee was my ability to think of her as a Rottiehuahua. Knowing she was a Rottiehuahua, I could accept her for who she was and realize that she wasn’t ever going to change. Dee was intense and very tightly wound in the same way that Chihuahuas and Rottweilers are intense and tightly wound. The fact that Dee was always pushing people away made perfect sense considering that both Rottweilers and Chihuahuas want to be left alone and they’ll do whatever it takes to get someone to back off and go away.
The same crisis of incompatibility that happened between Dee and I also takes place with people and dogs. As a vet, I’ve seen so many instances where owners had dogs that were biters or, in some other way, made their owners’ lives completely miserable. It’s hard to believe that 4.7 million people are bitten every year in the U. S., one in five needing medical attention (more than 880,000). As many as 34,000 people must endure painful reconstructive surgery due to a dog attack and, tragically, thirty to forty people are killed each year by dogs. It’s hard to imagine a more horrible 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 is the only way to think of temperament. Temperament is what it is: it’s constant, consistent and doesn’t change. Consequently, if we ever find ourselves in an difficult relationship (be it with a dog or another person), there are four possible courses of action we can take:
- Live with the relationship as it is. Sometimes, we simply can’t get ourselves to quit engaging even when we continue to experience misery and frustration time and time again. The only hope with this option concerns the fact that people often mellow with age. Aging makes us tired and, as a result, our attitudes can soften such that previously incompatible individuals now get along to some degree.
- Renegotiate or redefine the terms of the relationship. This option involves two components: the drastic lowering of expectations and doing our best to accept the other individual’s temperament as it is with no hope or expectation of change. Negotiation is a two way street and requires that both people are willing to haggle back and forth until some kind of workable situation is hammered out. Negotiation always takes both individuals. Redefining a relationship, though, can be a one-sided affair. In this situation, one person (all on their own) makes a shift in the way that they see the other person and the relationship as a whole. Through a lowering of expectations and the acceptance/resignation that neither individual is ever going to change, a new perspective is found. This was what I was forced to do when it came to the relationship I had with my sister. I love my sister with all my heart but we see every aspect of the world from completely and irreconcilable points of view. From God to the way we think that our elderly mother should be taken cared for, we can’t agree. Negotiation is not an option with my sister as we can’t agree on any middle ground. I decided that I could either continue to argue with her over every single thing or make a decision to not argue. I’ve decided that I’m going to let her take the lead in caring for my mother since she’s the only one of us kids still living in California. Though I don’t agree with my sister’s vision for my mom’s care, I know that if I continue to argue with her, our relationship won’t survive. Being able to stick to my guns so that I don’t allow myself to start arguing with her definitely requires that I create some emotional space in our relationship: I have to accept that we won’t ever be able to be as close as I’d hoped we might one day be. When two people are as different as we are, there are going to be limitations to how close we can be. That’s where I’ve had to lower my expectations and accept/resign myself to what is possible considering neither of us is ever going to change.
- Create space in the relationship. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” says it all: “good fences make good neighbors.” Creating emotional or physical space in a relationship can be an extremely effective means to being able to stay in a relationship yet minimize the explosiveness of the interaction. Though space can be either physical or emotional, it often takes both to do the trick. When emotional and/or physical space is at play in a relationship, the participants typically interact less frequently and, when they do, it’s much more superficial (which is why it works so well.)
- End the relationship. Sometimes circumstances in a relationship become so unbearable that one of the individuals decides to end the relationship.
This is what I decided to do with the relationship I had with Dee yet, I didn’t want to end the relationships with my brother or my mom. There have been times, though, when my mom’s behavior has gotten so outrageous that I’d thought that I was going to be forced to end my relationship with her.
One such instance occurred during the time when I was trying to start up my own veterinary practice in Camarillo, California. I’d ended up in California after graduating vet school because that’s where my mom’s family was and, as my dad had left her for another woman the previous year, she’d felt that she was going to need their support. My dad had always messed around with other women all throughout his marriage but when he actually decided to leave my mom for another woman, my mom went nuts! Not only did she try to commit suicide using an overdose of pills but she relentlessly stalked my dad and the other woman, even breaking into their apartment in the middle of the night to threaten them with a gun! Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt but I felt that it was only a matter of time before something horrible happened.
Growing up, my mom must have said it a million times if she’d said it once just how much she regretted ever leaving California to marry my dad. It seemed my dad had purposely decided to go to Texas because, in Texas, he wouldn’t have to answer to my mom’s family in California or his own family in North Dakota for all the drinking, gambling and womanizing that he obviously had plans to do throughout his marriage. With my mom’s regrets etched permanently into my brain from my childhood and seeing just how devastated she was over my dad having left her, I promised my mom that I’d take her to California as soon as I graduated vet school.
We set out to southern California from Dallas at the very end of a scorching August in 1980. It seemed to take us forever just getting across Texas. As I’d acquired a whole heck of a lot of animals in vet school, there were sixteen cats in the back of my blue 1974 Station Wagon while Loupy, my Shepobie (half Doberman, half German Shepherd) sat up front as he slobbered his way to California. Squeezed between Loupy and I was a small bird cage with two finches in it: a very cozy arrangement to say the least. I led the way as my mom followed in her Lincoln Continental. But, with her giant boat of a car riding hard on my butt for eight hours a day along with her insane honking of the horn anytime she wanted me to pull over (since we didn’t have cell phones back then), it was an extremely long and exhausting trip.
When we finally made it to Woodland Hills, California, my mom and I rented a house together for a year and a half until I got married in January of 1982. It felt odd living with my mom again as I’d been living away from home home for more than ten years. Plus, my mom had turned into a party girl ever since her divorce from my dad. Hanging with a bunch of friends she’d met in California, my mom spent most nights going out to various clubs and bars where she’d drink, dance and flirt. This wasn’t at all how I was used to seeing my mom!
By the time I got married and had my twin baby girls, I was ready to open my own veterinary clinic. I found the perfect location just four blocks from my home but, as I didn’t have enough money for the down payment, my mom offered to loan me the money. Unfortunately, it turned out that her money was tied up in a Certificate of Deposit that wasn’t going to be coming due for another six months. My mom didn’t want to take the money out early as she’d have to pay a penalty. 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 told this to my dad and he said “fine, no problem” but he told me that he’d need the money paid back as soon as my mom cashed in the Certificate of Deposit. My dad and I both should have known better than to trust my mom.
When my mom’s CD came due, she suddenly decided that she wasn’t going to pay my dad back after all! She said that she’d decided that my dad actually owed her money for all the hell he’d put her through! I couldn’t believe it! To make matters worse, my dad went through an unexpected financial setback in his business that made him even more desperate to get paid. He started calling me every day (sometimes twice a day!) and he’d flip back and forth between begging me to get my mom to pay him back or yelling at me for putting him in such a predicament. My mom didn’t care in the least how much this was hurting me and the relationship I had with my dad. She actually seemed quite giddy at being able to have my dad over a barrel for a change. No matter how much I begged her to pay him back, all she’d say was: “Don’t worry about your dad. He’ll be fine. It doesn’t hurt him to sweat a little for a change!”
I finally had to find a psychologist (a wonderful woman named Sharlene Stahl) who helped me find a backbone and give my mom an ultimatum. With Sharlene’s help, I mustered up the courage to tell my mom that, until she paid my dad the money she owed him, she was no longer welcome in my home. Initially, she was 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 that I had 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, at long last, she agreed to pay my dad back.
Similar run-ins and stand offs have occurred with my mom over the years, making me wonder if I shouldn’t just give up on our relationship. Somehow, just in the nick of time, we’d always manage to reach some middle ground. Unfortunately, I continued to feel shaken and off balance for months after we’d gone head to head: a certain amount of bitterness and resentment lingering inside of me, tainting my feelings for her.
These days, the relationship with my mom has been greatly benefited by the fact that I now live in a different state (two thousand lovely miles of physical space!) Whenever I find the courage to visit my mom, I always make sure that the length of my visit is short and that I do a lot of emotional prepping beforehand so I don’t get caught off guard by her outbursts.
No matter how I 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 whenever I’m around her. It’s as if there’s an incendiary device inside of me that quietly ticks and ticks until my mom finds just the right thing to say that’ll make me explode. I have the ability to get upset with my mom in a way that I never do with anyone else and I’m always shocked and ashamed at myself.
So, before I even make a decision to call my mom on the phone, I take a few moments to prepare myself emotionally. With years of practice under my belt, I’ve learned how to create an emotional bubble around myself that shields me from most of her negativity: a bit like John Travolta in “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” While I’m listening to my mom on the phone, I’ll often google various topics on my laptop or flip through a newspaper or magazine. This keeps me distracted and helps me to not overreact to the things she says. The reason that tactics like these work so well has to do with the fact that nothing is really required of me when I’m talking to my mom: my mom loves to chatter non-stop, lamenting about whatever’s upsetting her. She doesn’t want any input from me. In the past, this was a huge source of frustration and pain for me because I knew that nothing in my life was of any interest to her. Now, I’ve made peace with the fact that this is simply how it’s going to be for someone who has a Schipperke for a mom.
I do try to remember that my mom is the only mom that I’ll ever have and, because of that, I want to be as grateful as I can be for the life she’s given me. I’ve made a promise that I’m going to try and be the best daughter that I can, even if it requires that I maintain a certain amount of physical and emotional space from her. I know that, for the rest of my life, I’ll forever teeter on the tightrope of our relationship, that I’ll always have to fight to keep my balance when I’m around her. Though my mom and I won’t ever be able to be close, I still want to be polite towards her and to try and treat her with the respect that all mothers deserve.
When it comes to the occasional difficult relationship I encounter outside of my family, I realize now that love isn’t a numbers game, that I don’t need a multitude of friends to be happy. All I need at this point in my life is a few really good friends who I love and who love me in return. I know now that I never want to be in a relationship with anyone who would try to intentionally hurt me or take advantage of me. I’ve experienced both of those scenarios and I’d rather be alone than to endure that kind of relationship ever again.
Just as is true of the people in our lives, the same should go for all the dogs in our lives: meaning we should never keep a dog that shows signs of being dangerous. There are simply too many lovable dogs in the world to ever take a chance on one that could hurt or kill someone.
In truth, there’s only one individual that we can never walk away from. In the next chapter, we’ll look at what we need to do so that we can learn to accept and make peace with the most important person in our lives: ourselves. Woof!