Big dogs and PTSD...
I was just listening to a podcast on PTSD. It was fascinating to hear of the studies done over the last 35 years or so after the Vietnam War in particular and the discoveries they have made along the way as new data emerges and better techniques and technologies assist researchers in uncovering the mysteries that surround this psychological disorder.
Whenever this term has been thrown around, I’ve always been drawn to it. There’s something that makes sense about the phrase Post Traumatic Stress Disorder…just the plain idea that after the fact, the effects of trauma tend to be relived more than relieved with time. I’ve seen this in my own life in little and big ways. It’s like painful events in my past take on a life of their own and involuntarily my body reacts as if the events were being experienced in the present (the present tense…pun intended).
My senses are heightened, my immune system engaged, my fight or flight mechanisms on red alert, my muscles taut in a defensive posture to survive the tragedy…over and over and over again. Inside, I die a thousand deaths, I imagine all the very worsts, and outside there is very little reason for the reaction. It is not a reaction to reality, it is a chain reaction to a past pain that resurrects itself and inflicts reoccurring injury mentally that manifests itself in all the physiological ways the original trauma affected/effected me.
It makes sense to me is all I’m saying. It can be mild, moderate, or sever, but it is real and it’s everywhere I look.
An event happened to me when I was 28 that altered reality for me. I’m not being overdramatic, it literally changed my reality in a certain sector of my life.
We were visiting family in New Jersey and we stopped off at a Ma and Pa doughnut shop on the side of a busy road. I remember distinctively deciding to not get Kami out of her car seat and bringing her in with me. You’ll see why this particular memory matters in a moment. Part of me wanted her to see how the doughnuts were made and to get some fresh air after being in the car for an hour, and part of me just wanted to get the stinkin’ doughnuts and get to the beach (that’s where we were headed that day). So I just ran in, grabbed a baker’s dozen, and headed out the door back to the car.
I turned to my right and no more than 15 feet away from me was the biggest Rottweiler I’d ever seen in my life. I saw in his eyes that he wasn’t friendly and in about a second I perceived he wasn’t on a chain and that he was going to attack me. Up to this point in my life, I’d never had a fear of dogs. I had no reason to feel anxious around barking dogs, big dogs, or junk yard dogs. But in this moment, that all changed.
I saw that the dog was making a move toward me and I knew I had about 2 seconds to make a decision. Face him and yell? Run the opposite way? Options were coming as fast as the nanoseconds I had to decide my next move. For some reason, I landed on an odd option. Walk calmly for two steps and then lunge forward hoping that the dog has pounced toward me and somehow flies by me pulled by his own momentum. So that is what I did.
It almost worked. Almost. The dog for the most part missed me other than grabbing the back of my left thigh on his way by. It was enough to put two significant holes in my hamstring. But at least he didn’t hit me head on and maul me. It was all instinct from there. As the dog tumbled sideways to get on his feet to come after me again, I threw my bag of doughnuts at him and they scattered all over the place. He was confused and went for the bait while I ran in my flipflops across the highway eventually leaving them behind in the middle of the road as I ran with bare feet until I heard the owner yelling at the dog and apprehending him (while he was eating my doughnuts). I stopped in shock. Panting. Shaking.
To make a longer story less long, the owner said the dog got off the chain in the back somehow and reiterated again and again how sorry he was over and over. I could see he was thinking about a lawsuit. I just wanted to get in the van and get to the beach. He grabbed us a bunch of doughnuts and added another dozen as a peace offering. We thought about going to get some tetanus shots for these teeth holes left in my leg, but I can’t remember if we did or didn’t. I honestly don’t remember much about anything after that moment of terror.
So glad it was over. Nope.
The next day I was out golfing with a youth pastor from my father-in-law’s church and on the back nine I shanked a shot to the far right over next to the chain link fence of a house built along the edge of the golf course. I found the ball and actually was pretty happy about my second shot considering how far off the fairway I was. That happiness went bye-bye the minute I looked up and saw a dog house next to this garage about 50 ft. away. Sitting next to the dog house was—you guessed it—another Rottweiler. Two days, Two Rottweilers. What are the chances?
I stared mostly because I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s like he could tell I was looking fishy, so he bolted for me. I remember hoping he was on a chain. No such luck. He just kept coming and all that was between me and him was this 4 ft. high chain-link fence. You would have thought I would have started running the minute I saw him make a move toward me. Nope. Or maybe just grab my golf club and get ready to take a swing at him if he jumped the fence. Nope. I just stood there paralyzed. I literally couldn’t move, frozen in sheer fear. The dog hit the fence with his face and just barked and growled with saliva flying all over the place. I was about 5 feet away watching it all go down…I just couldn’t move a muscle.
Fortunately, he didn’t jump the fence and slowly I came to my senses and got the heck out of there, leaving my ball behind.
That one sealed the deal.
When I’m around a big dog, my blood gets hot and I feel like I don’t want to make eye contact with them. If it happens to be a Rottweiler, it’s PTSD. I can’t help it; I can’t stop it. My body goes into fight or flight and my adrenaline courses through my body. It happened over 15 years ago and to my psyche, it is as real as yesterday. I’ve had dreams of Rottweilers attacking me. This last spring there was one where we got some ice cream…I couldn’t walk past him even though he was on a leash lying on the ground next to his owner. It’s crazy.
But this is really crazy…this last Sunday, the last day of my Sabbatical before I headed back into the fray of ministry, I was taking a jog and feeling certain feelings of uncertainty and insecurity as I made my reentry. Satan was attacking my mind big time and I was literally shouting down out loud every single lie that was popping into my mind as I was running a trail that parallels the road. The run was symbolic of pressing through opposition as I ran further than I ever have before on terrain that was very hilly with all kinds of surfaces.
As I made the turn toward home, I was easing into a good pace on the paved trail when I saw a man and a couple dogs next to him. Immediately I thought, there’s no way those are Rottweilers. They have to be Golden Retrievers or Labradors. As I got closer, I noticed the owner getting out leashes and quickly putting them on the dogs that were still in the shadows of the overhanging trees. But as I got nearer, my nightmare came true before my very eyes.
When I saw the two Rottweilers, my body marshalled every shred of energy and reserved energy I had left after running 6 miles already. I thought about just running off the side of the trail and facing the fear, but I just couldn’t. I kept my legs moving and cut sideways to run on the side of the road until they passed. My heart was pounding and my body was fueled with an explosion of energy…until…I got well past the dogs. My body suddenly lapsed into putty, my muscles going from soft to tight with cramping all over the place. But I just kept my legs moving telling myself, “Don’t stop. Just keep moving. You got this.” In time, my body regulated and I felt strength return for the home stretch.
I know this has been long, but I haven’t written about this story before and in light of the recent events, I wanted to share it. I haven’t experienced gobs of trauma in my life, but this is one small way I identify with a person who has triggers to something else that causes emotions they can’t overcome, or struggle to overcome.
I heard someone say one time that sometimes you have to do things afraid. You can’t wait for fear to go away or for feelings to iron out, you just have to keep moving forward.
I thought it was more than a coincidence the other night that I had to face those two dogs. I think those dogs (in some form or another) will be with me the rest of my life and I’m going to have to keep figuring out how to not let them shut me down.
That PTSD podcast today brought up all kinds of stuff in my head and heart.