The Re-creation of Abandonment
One of the first things I learned in recovery was the inevitable re-creation of our most significant childhood hurts. I thought there would be comfort in that understanding because I loved having an explanation for what otherwise appeared random. I have always wanted predictability and this understanding helped make sense out of an otherwise chaotic life. But there was a problem. I had repressed memories. And it was those memories that held the secret to my deepest pain.
For the first several years of memory recovery, I did not understand the manifestations of my outer life. I was confused. Why did my adult life seem to be riddled with abandonment when I did not experience abandonment in my childhood? I would have given anything to have been abandoned by my caregivers, especially my father. Yet he stuck around, continuing to abuse me. It didn’t make sense that I seemed terrified of abandonment which became a self-fulfilling prophecy over and over. It didn’t make sense until that one memory, the memory that changed everything.
I have previously written about a person who was supposed to save me from my life of abuse. He was older than me. I had confided in him about the abuse. And I was sure he would help me. I was sure he was my ticket out of the hell I was living. We spent one summer together, an unlikely friendship between a gay college student and a traumatized kid. I would run away from home so I could sleep on his floor because for one night, I could feel safe. He would take me home knowing that my parents had the potential to ruin him, out him, make his life a living hell. He knew this because of the threats. He was in a bad situation. As a child, I didn’t understand that. I just thought I found someone who cared. And I needed that more than anything.
So when he left for college, my world crumbled. I had seen him as my final hope, my final escape plan. And I didn’t understand that he intended to come back, to check on me. I just expected to go with him because I was young and didn’t understand the complexities that would come from that, most significantly, the kidnapping charges. And I now know how intimidating my parents were to this college kid. I didn’t know that then.
The Pain of Self-Blame
But there was another side to the story. We had been taking care of this stray dog together. I didn’t know what kind of dog he was, but he looked like Benji. When my intended savior left for college, he also left the dog. I tried to get my parents to allow this dog to stay in our house, but like everything else, they refused to support my efforts. I tried to get the dog to stay in the woods outside my house, but of course, he didn’t. Eventually, he was hit by a car and died.
And I inevitably held myself responsible. I was used to blaming myself for everything, so this fit the pattern well. So on that fateful day, when the memory came, I looked down at my dog, the only dog I had ever owned in adulthood, and thought, “Wow. That dog looks a lot like Benji.” In my own unconscious mind, had I sought to resolve the pain of the past by trying again? Had I wanted to prove to myself that I could indeed take care of that little dog when the cards weren’t stacked against me? Maybe so. Maybe there was a healing in this canine relationship I had developed. But there was another inevitability … another abandonment. That’s the thing about pets. There is very little likelihood that we won’t be left behind on this Earth with a broken heart. In a way, I think that is their job, to break our hearts open.
Saviors Come in Many Forms
So this week, when my Benji-lookalike, whose name is actually Winston, went to the veterinary hospital with gastroenteritis, the grief of the potential loss of a pet came flooding forward. It wasn’t just the potential loss of my pet that was so intense. It was all he represented. He represented what I could not do all those years ago. He represented my inner child’s need to do it again, to do it right, to take care of an animal from an empowered place. But the fact is that animals die all the time. And it isn’t our fault. Some die from old age. Some die from accidents. Some have weird diseases and die early. But that doesn’t make it our fault. And we can’t fix it by getting another one. But we get another one anyway. And our hearts break open again and again.
My heart did break a little this week as I contemplated what might happen to my Winston who, in my opinion, is too young to leave just yet. And my heart did break as I contemplated all that Winston means to my inner child who is desperately trying to “make it all better” by reenacting the past until it turns out different. And my heart did break knowing that Winston will be gone eventually and the grief will suck, but I’ll get through it.
And Winston will have done his job because I will be a better person because he was here with me. Maybe I will just be a better person because I loved the little guy. Or maybe I will be a better person because I will finally let go of that little Benji dog I could not save thirty years ago. I will finally let go of that heavy burden of responsibility that I placed on myself. Maybe Winston will break my heart and set me free all at the same time.
That’s a big responsibility for a 14 pound dog.
But he can do it.
I know he can.