My last speaking engagement, in honor of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, was in October. I had Ranger, my trusty service dog, with me; as is always the case when I leave the house. Towards the end of the Q&A, I was asked by one of the attendees what difference(s) Ranger has made in my life.
Without hesitation, I said that he brought me joy. I found myself choking up with emotion as I continued, “I had forgotten what it was like to feel joy.” I can only assume joy is a gift dogs give to each of their owners; not just those of us suffering under the aftereffects of trauma. But after years of going through life weighted down by all the “bad stuff” in my head, it is nice to feel something other than just sad.
Ranger’s companionship is something to be joyful for. Even though I live with my parents, I can still tend to isolate in the confines of my room. Ranger, faithfully there by me (even if he’s asleep and snoring) takes away my being alone. When he’s awake, I find myself having a one-sided conversation with him; choosing to believe he understands; if not the words, then perhaps the unexpressed emotions behind the words.
Joy is a great delight; exceptionally good and satisfying. It can be a source of pleasure caused by something (or someone) greatly valued or appreciated. I feel all of this towards Ranger; caught up in the bliss of now; of our present together.
But one of the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is that, for a survivor, thoughts of the future are full of uncertainty and the fear of impending unexpected tragedy. One day, as I laid with Ranger on my bed, the joy I was experiencing was quickly cut short when I realized I have opened my heart and fallen in love with this four-legged creature; who will be loyal and love unconditionally. That is, until that day comes when he’ll no longer be here to lay beside me. Or for me to pet. Or snuggle up to. Because he will die. Maybe that came to mind because my niece had recently had to have her 10-year-old Lab given his lasting rest. Or maybe it’s because 9/11 survivors tend to focus on loss because we witnessed the deaths of so many.
I am still taken over by the joy of Ranger’s company. But it’s tempered now; knowing there is a dark cloud out there in the future that I will be forced to stand under.
So, joy has its boundaries.
And joy is rarely everlasting. Perhaps I believe this because that’s just my resignation to my post-9/11 view of life.
And I know there are other 9/11 survivors who know what I’m writing about.
But my words are not just for those who were traumatized by 9/11. I would believe there are countless others who have had to endure their own “9/11.” Those who have lost loved ones. Those who were the sole survivor of a horrible accident. Those who have been abused sexually, physically, verbally, emotionally or psychologically. I know there are other life experiences I’ve not mentioned that can be traumatic to an individual. No one is immune from tragedy.
And no one should bear the weight of trauma themselves. That’s who I write this blog for.
It has taken me 15 years to finally allow myself to experience joy and to speak and write about it. But the shining brightness of joy is limited in its reach. Like a lantern in a densely dark forest, the light of joy can only reach out so far.
One of Ranger’s attributes as a trained PTSD Service Dog is to comfort. When he and I lay on my bed to nap, I’m on my right side, his back is pressed up against me and I put my left arm around his middle and we drift off to sleep, as I feel the moving of his chest as he breathes. That is perhaps my favorite moment because I feel totally safe.
And when I have a flashback or start to feel anxious I have him to come to me. His eyes are the color of coffee and somewhat droopy. When I look in those eyes sometimes they seem full of sadness; as if they are reflecting back to me what he senses within me.
So, the lesson, if there is one, is it’s okay to allow our wounded souls to feel joy or happy; if even for a few minutes. Or, if we’re lucky . . . a whole day.