Finding your own inner barking dog

A lot of these stories are really about me figuring out they are stories–narratives, if not wholly fictions—that I have used to make sense of my life. And a lot of them are more about the stories I used to describe Mom’s life and our lives in relation to each other, than they are about her death and its effects on me.

One of the stories I told (myself) most often was that Mom was my best friend. It is true, we were very close. When I was in college, and through adulthood, we talked on the phone at least once every day. She was a young mom, so we felt close in age. I used to say things like, “when we were growing up together…” High school days felt more like living in a girls’ dorm. My parents divorced when I was around 11 or 12, and mom didn’t start dating until I did. She fell in love about the same time I did, during my senior year.  I was always suspicious of her boyfriend, Peter, who would later become her husband. I never trusted him. I didn’t like what he seemed to bring out of her.

Looking back now, he brought out a lot of the things that I resented in her, the same things that threw off the balance of power in our relationship—her inability to stand up for herself, her compulsion to put the needs of others before her own, her extreme susceptibility to be overcome by the moods of others.

One characteristic of healthy friendship is an equality of power, a symmetry. In the mother-daughter dynamic, there is never an equality of power. There shouldn’t be. But in our relationship, the balance of power seemed to shift constantly between us, which in some ways may be why we felt like friends.

Growing up, I think I felt like we were “equals.”  But now I think this dynamic had more to do with the emotional fragility I sensed in her, and my own impulse to protect her from all potential threats. This was true even when I was a young child. Maybe she conveyed it to me, but I remember feeling very strongly that I needed to stick up for her with her family. I was hyper aware of every eye roll and sarcastic joke or judgmental eye-brow lift. I remember feeling like they didn’t accept her, like she didn’t measure up. I was fiercely protective of her with them, and with others later who brought out the black sheep, “I’m-not-good-enough” persona. Right or wrong, I often felt more like the mom, the protector. And it had consequences.

It was actually something we argued about a lot over the years, and especially when I started seeing a therapist in my 30s. Where did this compulsion to protect her come from, and when could I give it up? Mom said she never needed to me to protect her. She insisted that I “just came out that way.” (Like a mean little dachshund standing guard by the couch?) It hurt her for me to push back that she had played a part in my developing that way, as if I were accusing her of something. And then I’d feel guilty about hurting her feelings, and also a little resentful that she could not acknowledge her role in having shaped my personality, and then a little confused about why she thought that proposition was a BAD thing. Didn’t she love *me* just the way I am?

And this power thing continued throughout her life. In the last years, as chronic illness delimited her life for more than a decade, I really did have to be her protector. And I resented her for it, and I felt guilty about the resentment, and on and on…  I knew she wanted me to come see her, maybe she even needed me to help out with some things. But she also WANTED me to be living my life for me, not her, and she did NOT want to be dependent on anyone. I had grown up protecting her against whatever hurt feelings, which was often me. It was confusing. Now she needed real help, but I felt that my individuation required me to let that old habit go. She complied. She gave me “outs.” Sometimes I took them. Then the guilt again… the resentment… the self-flagellation, “GOD, will I ever just take responsibility for myself and quit blaming her?”

Crazy-making. If you’ve ever read about codependency, this might sound familiar. I think “codependent” is also my story.

When she died, I lost my partner in a lifelong routine of emotional tug of war. Benny was a convenient surrogate for my projections. Agitated by his barking and raw from the trauma of losing Mom, I’d project my anger and guilt onto him, my self-hatred, and long held resentments never fully worked through in therapy.

It seems so obvious now. I had an inkling that my frustration with him was infused with something more. It seemed out of proportion to me even then, but it wasn’t something I wanted to devote my attention to. I had a new job to busy my conscious mind.

Underneath that, though, I was working things out. I think that the consistency of Benny’s barking and other bad behaviors helped make obvious the reflexive character of my responses, both behavioral and emotional. The behavioral ones were easier to recognize.

 

Benny barks + I yell “No!” = Benny barks

Benny barks + I yell “No!” = Benny barks

Benny barks + I yell “No!” = Benny barks

Benny barks + I yell “No!” = Benny barks

 

I find pee puddle + I show Benny and tell him “No!” = Benny pees again the next day

I find pee puddle + I show Benny and tell him “No!” = Benny pees again the next day

I find pee puddle + I show Benny and tell him “No!” = Benny pees again the next day

I find pee puddle + I show Benny and tell him “No!” = Benny pees again the next day

 

Hmmmm… maybe my emotional responses are getting me nowhere as well… Time to give them up and try something new.

So, I let some things go. And I softened to Benny. I softened to myself. I came to accept him fully into my life. The resentment is gone. I think most of the anger is gone. At least, I’ve stopped being angry at myself for being angry. That’s something! Mom’s presence figures now more in the cute things Benny does, like singing when he eats, and even barking at “Jesus.”

I think this is how acceptance comes to be in the grieving process.

Not everyone has a Benny dog to help them through this. I think, though, that everybody has the ability to notice when old habits are no longer serving. You have to pay attention, and be willing to let go. Neither is easy to do when you’re mourning. You just have to find your own inner barking dog.

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