Chasing My Tail

My relationship with dogs is like my relationship with kids. I mostly just like mine. No offense. Occasionally, an exceptional creature will nip at my heart. But in general, I’d rather see pictures of your pooch than meet in real life. I donate extra money to the shelter, so they don’t call me to volunteer. If you see me holding a small dog on my lap, alert the authorities — that’s a hostage situation.

When my four kids were small, we had two large Labradors. One was a rescue and the other came from a breeder. They were very photogenic — rugged and rascally — completing the image of our big, messy and happy family. In reality, those dogs were overgrown furry assholes — digging holes, chewing shoes and swallowing socks. Their idea of “fetch” was just me chasing them through the neighborhood. Food was stolen off the counter; vomit was left on the carpet. The “No Dogs on the Furniture” rule was repealed. It was I who learned how to “sit” and “shake.”

Despite dutiful attendance in the 8-week puppy class, the dogs were not trained. Unless I was holding a live squirrel, they had zero interest. Even then, I had to beg. They were stubborn. Bad. Clearly not that smart. But it wasn’t my fault. I’d done my best.

I tried to appreciate the comedy of errors and honored the lifetime commitment. Fun was had by all. But I’ll be honest. That was a lot of work.

After they passed, I gave myself a break. I’d been running a 24/7 shitshow/zoo for twenty years. Silence, space and cleanliness were healing to my nervous system. For several years, I resisted the urge to take on a new dog. I wanted to do it right — for myself — not the Christmas card. When I felt ready, I researched breeds, watched training videos and enrolled in classes before I even went puppy shopping. A vision formed. My next dog would be more than just a pet; she would be my new hobby.

Dog Training and Recovery

I trained my German Shepherd (I named her Gretchen) and quit drinking alcohol at the same time. After years of believing that neither were possible, I was surprised to find both to be simple. Not easy. But certainly not as hard as the alternatives. Training and recovery are mindsets. Technical strategies may vary. You can be anti-prong or pro-e-collar; call yourself a recovering alcoholic or skip sobriety meetings altogether. Pick a stance; find your tribe. It’s what you do, not how you do it.

My goal had always been to manage life through sheer force of will. I put out fires, ignored the smell of char, and kept moving at all costs. In hindsight, my beliefs about what should be obscured my respect for what is. Having two labs and four kids and a glass of wine in my carefree hand was on-brand for my image. It felt good to look good. But I never stopped to ask what “looking good” actually meant — or if the trophy was actually valuable. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And I was chasing my own tail.

Beliefs are opinions that feel really true. They aren’t true — even when they’re considered infallible in an echo chamber. “Looking good” isn’t a real thing until a bunch of people agree on what it means and who wins. Even then, it’s just a game — you don’t have to play. Of course, beliefs are the currency of the human brain. They give our lives purpose and meaning. Imagination and storytelling distinguish us from other animals. They only become problematic when we neglect to evaluate the effects of a specific belief on reality. Logic wreaks havoc when applied to false assumptions.

When my Labradors jumped on people who came into our home, I blamed the dogs for not responding to the word “down.” The assumption was that my dogs were the problem. The logic that followed was that dog training only works on some dogs. Or it takes too much time. An assumption that now serves me better is that my dogs’ behavior is my responsibility. If I can’t control the behavior, I need to prevent it. Because I’m the boss.

Several years later, Gretchen can walk or run off-leash, next to a road or through the woods, and follow commands despite cars, cows, deer and rabbits. She assumes her position at my side when we encounter other dogs with their people. Her focus and calm demeanor are so impressive that it’s embarrassing (for others — leash-pulling, yipping and nipping are so tacky).

Gretchen doesn’t get credit for being a good dog. Of course, she is a great dog! But her performance is the result of my training. Her skills reflect my behavior. When she is off-leash, it is I who must stay on-point. Without me, she’s a dog gone wild. Just ask my neighbors. Also the Fed-Ex guy. Or my husband. Because he’s not trained. Yet.

Three basic principles have given me the dog I’ve always wanted and also accelerated my recovery from alcohol use disorder. They are to respect your bandwidth, maintain connection, and think small.

Respect Your Bandwidth

Bandwidth is the energy or mental capacity required to deal with a situation. Visualize teaching your dog to “sit” in your kitchen. You’re standing next to her and holding a treat. Notice three things: You’re in close proximity, there are no distractions, and you’re offering a bribe. Tails wag. Poochy sits. Good dog. But she doesn’t respond to “sit” from twenty feet away at the dog park. Because she can’t. This doesn’t mean she’s bad. Her bandwidth just can’t handle the distractions. Skill is built gradually. Comfort zones expand from within.

Sobriety restored just enough of my bandwidth for me to see it was significantly impaired. Emotional truth was painful — at first. Because I didn’t know how to use the information. I felt depressed. Unfocused. Also super resentful. But so what? Why spend time feeling bad? I wanted a treat for feeling my emotions. Looking good had been my reward for checking all the boxes every day. Looking good justified drinking every evening. Now the carrot was off the stick. The motivation to feel and process these pesky feelings wasn’t there yet. My emotional bandwidth was quite limited in early sobriety.

There’s a HUGE difference between controlling emotional behavior (so we can look good) and digesting our feelings into information we can use — so we canfeel good. Unpleasant emotions indicate that our assumptions are not creating a pleasant reality. We must excavate the conflicting beliefs and explore new perspectives. And then apply them.

Untangling cognitive cause and effect takes a lot of bandwidth. Mental agility is recovered with awareness. Thoughts are not Truth; they are opinions and beliefs that come from parents, school, church, culture, mass marketing, past experiences. “Most people’s opinions are a mimicry of other people’s thoughts.” — Oscar Wilde. Difficult feelings alert us to thoughts that darken reality. Awareness gives us a choice — is this thought serving you? New perspectives must be sought; thought patterns must be practiced.

Protecting yourself from overload is key to managing your mind. Don’t mistake a small win in the kitchen to mean you’re ready to run off leash at the dog park. Walking and talking at the same time will be challenging for a while. Respect for the process is key to expanding bandwidth.

Maintain Your Connection

Challenge the assumption that connection requires outside participation and agreement. It does not. Connection is not dependent on the dog’s ability to pay attention. Just yours. Gretchen is 100 percent responsive when I am dialed in to her. I don’t have to notice every squirrel before she does. I just have to see her see the squirrel. If I’m distracted, she’s gone.

In the same way, I have to use my feelings to monitor my thoughts. They chase a lot of squirrels too. My feelings alert me to the fact that I’ve gone down a rabbit hole. That yucky agitated feeling is actually my friend, waving me back to sanity. Hello! Come back! Our bodies use pain to communicate problems.

Before I head out on a trail with Gretchen, I put her in a tight heel and do a few warm-up laps around the car. This is for me, not her. I must get right in my head — adopt a dominant and calm mindset. We’re not clear for take-off until I feel fully present.

Similarly, I connect with myself for a few minutes every morning. While waiting for my tea to brew, I scan my body and evaluate my bandwidth. I practice gratitude and choose my mindset for the day. This allows me to move with intention instead of mindlessly reacting to outside agendas (what other people want me to think, feel and do). Whenever I find myself with a few extra seconds, I repeat this awareness exercise (instead of scrolling through distractions). The more I do it, the more I remember to do it. Staying connected to myself takes practice. Whenever I get upset, I need only remember that I am my own safe place.

Think Small

I thought that training a dog to walk on a leash required walking on a leash and saying bad words. Repeat until you either win or give up. Nope. Start next to a wall in the hallway where there is no room for error. Master the skill a few feet and a few minutes at a time. Soon you’re negotiating the living room furniture and cruising the stairs — hoping for the challenge of a doorbell ring. You’ve got to win Best in Class before you even go outside. Practice in the driveway before venturing into the grass where the smells are distracting. Build on each success; remediate as needed.

When you feel frustrated, you’re doing it wrong. Take a break. Respect your bandwidths and think small. It’s not helpful to blame the dog or anyone else for how you feel. Re-examine the situation and look for the beliefs and assumptions undermining your efforts.

When we encounter an unknown dog on a leash, I move Gretchen to the outside so that my body is a buffer. This small shift enhances her ability to resist a meet-and-greet. If I sense she is too distracted to avoid contact, I change course to avoid a failure. I don’t give her more space than she can handle or a command I can’t enforce. I am always calculating and adjusting for small variables.

The tipping point that led me to stop drinking was the sense of utter disconnect. But I couldn’t have articulated that at the time. You don’t know what you don’t know. A few weeks after I quit, I accused my husband of not caring about my needs. His reaction was unexpected. He asked how he could support me. He got a pen and paper and prepared to take notes. The problem was that I had nothing to say. Literally. Nothing.

With my bluff called, I realized I had no idea why I was so upset. That was an eye-opener. I’d been agitated for years: we always ate where he wanted to eat, watched what he wanted to watch, did what he wanted to do. He did usually ask my preference. But I was annoyed by the question. Because I didn’t have an answer.

Newly sober people are advised to not demand answers or make any major changes in the first year. Just do the next right thing. It’s a good rule of thumb.

Reconnecting with myself required me to think small — get granular. Small assumptions lead to massive fallout. Small shifts in habit make big improvements. All that cognitive reframing and emotional processing was exhausting.

Transformation is a slow burn. It’s a few deep breaths here. A subtle acknowledgement there. Compassion instead of shame for unexplained setbacks. Me and myself were not fast friends. Recovery is an excavation. But underneath the uncertainty, I am finding myself to be whole. Alive. And well. Hanging out with the Best Dog Ever.

How to Overcome Alcohol Use Disorder

To overcome alcohol use disorder you must admit that alcohol is causing more stress than it's worth. It's not fun anymore. Drinking too much is a form of self-neglect, not self-care.

group think sobriety

Don't surrender your autonomy to group-think sobriety. Exchanging one set of limiting beliefs for another won't set you free.

Internalized oppression

Is your inside voice a bully? Internalized oppression from patriarchal, elitist and racially-biased "standards" causes fear and shame.

Becoming a Non-Drinker

What's the difference between "recovering alcoholic" and a non-drinker? The words you chose have a big impact on your experience of sobriety. If you don't like what you feel, change what you think.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Do you wish you drank less but find it difficult to stop once you start? Are the legal experts in your head constantly debating the problem—and what you should do? That’s alcohol use disorder.
You’re not alone. Many of us have been duped into using alcohol as a consolation prize for neglecting our needs–and then criticized for becoming dependent on it. Win/win for the patriarchy! I was able to quit drinking after 30 years without AA, rehab or willpower. My energy, vitality and joy have returned. I help professional women see that sobriety is a superpower, not a disease. 

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