As you might imagine, I hear this question a lot. I wouldn’t mind except that I always hear it tinged with judgment, as in “oh…you’re the crazy dog lady everyone always talks about!”
A dear friend often tells me that I am so much like her friend and coworker who rescues dogs and holds an annual fundraiser to help dogs who have disabilities. I think she means it as a compliment, but what I hear her say is, “You’re just as crazy as this other woman I know!”
It happened again this weekend – on my birthday, no less! Over dinner, an acquaintance struggled to comprehend that I’m currently sharing my home with nine pets. She said, “Sherron…that’s just…wrong!”
And then my mother chimed in with, “Thank you!” As in, thank you for having the same opinion of my deranged daughter’s pet situation that I do.
My mom – who I don’t believe intentionally sets out to hurt me – even said that the Phoebster “should’ve been gone a long time ago.” As in euthanized. Because she’s ancient. And inconvenient.
I tried to laugh it off, but their comments – especially my mom’s – really hurt my feelings. No, I shouldn’t let the comments of someone who barely knows me hurt my feelings. And no, I shouldn’t expect my mother to understand why I am so devoted to my pets. She has never been and will never be an animal lover.
She loves me, though. I know that. There are many people in my family whose love for me I question, but my mother has never been one of them. I’ve always known that my mother loves me and wants only the best for me.
But I’ve always known that my mother doesn’t understand me, doesn’t know me fully. How do I know this? Is it some sinking feeling of “she just doesn’t get me!”? Well, no. She doesn’t understand me because she can’t. It’s not possible to fully understand someone who harbors deep, dark secrets.
So here’s my secret. One of them, at least. The most important one for people who love me to know about me, for sure. It’s a secret worth revealing to everyone who reads this little blog, even those of you I’ve never met and never will, because it’s a secret that so many people share. They want you to know, but they can’t bring themselves to tell you. Some of them do tell you.
Leaving you with unanswered questions and wondering what you could’ve done to help in some way. In any way.
I work with a guy whose brother committed suicide a year or so ago. I didn’t know his brother had taken his own life, just that he had died, so when I saw John in the cafe at work, I asked how he and his family were doing. He told me they were so confused…His brother had struggled with depression but had been doing so much better. They didn’t see his suicide coming, didn’t know his life was spiraling out of control, didn’t know that living was all too painful for him and that he just wanted the pain to stop.
As we walked away from the cafe, I told John not to beat himself up because there was probably nothing at all that he or his family had overlooked. Because people who struggle with depression are some of the biggest fakers and liars you’ll ever meet.
I know this because I know that’s what I do. It’s what I learned to do after my closest friend told me that she knew I was struggling, but she hadn’t been able to be around me because it was just too hard.
Don’t judge her. That Cymbalta commercial is absolutely spot-on. Depression hurts everyone. But I don’t want to hurt people. So when I’m struggling, I fake being okay. When people – even people who really, truly care – ask me how I’m doing, I lie. Because the truth hurts and misery doesn’t always love company, not when knowing how much I’m hurting is what will make you hurt, too.
Some would say that’s twisted logic, that when people who love me ask how I’m doing, I should be honest. That is what I should be able to do. But when I’m pretty sure that person who cares about me will give me a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” pep talk or worse, will try to solve all of my problems within a 20-minute conversation? That’s when I lie. Because they don’t mean to, but they’re hurting me even more. They’re saying “Hey, c’mon, just do this thing over here and it’ll all be magically better!! You can do it!!” But unfortunately what I hear is, “If you would only…Why can’t you just…” judgments, and that makes me even more depressed.
Now, to be clear, what I struggle with is not the “blues.” It’s not seasonal affective disorder, although lack of sunshine does make things worse for me. It’s not temporary. It’s unrelenting. I wake up every single day with this and have since I was a teenager. There have been years when it has been milder, years when it has been debilitating. Yes, entire years. The last decade of my life has been so steeped in struggle that struggling feels like normal. Normal feels like elation, like walking on cloud nine.
A doctor diagnosed me with dysthymia about 12 years ago. It’s supposed to be the “mild” form of depression, major depression being the “not mild” form. John McManamy likens dysthymia to “a form of mind-wearing water torture. Day in and day out it grinds us down, robbing us of our will to succeed in life, to interact with others, and to enjoy the things that others take for granted…Still, we are able to function, a sort of death-in-life existence that gets us out into the world and to work and the duties of staying alive then back to our homes and the blessed relief of flopping into our unmade beds.”
A death-in-life existence? Yes, it’s that bad. Sometimes, it’s worse.
I have lost count of the times I didn’t want to live anymore. I wasn’t making plans to end my life, but I didn’t want to live. I saw no point to my life. Living hurt too much and no one, it seemed, was benefitting from my being alive, least of all me.
And then God gave me Mac. And then he gave me Alex. They saved my life more times than I want to think about. I didn’t want to live, but I knew I took better care of them than anyone else would. I wouldn’t leave them. They got me through some of the hardest years of my life, curling up next to me, watching tv with me, licking the tears off my face, giving me hope that I was going to be okay.
They loved me completely, without any strings attached. I didn’t have to measure up. I was enough for them.
And then they died, and I nearly did, too.
But then B’Elanna came into my life. She was as desperate to be loved and accepted as I was. You might think that would make us a poor match, but we’ve done really well together.
Then came Ginny and Chassie, stand-ins for Mac and Alex, if ever there could be any. They are lovers, givers. Ginny gives me her whole body wag with her goofy lovey face and I know I can face the day. Chassie hops around like some kind of spring-loaded Tigger toy and makes me laugh out loud.
And the others? Katie and Jool have taught me to accept others the way they are. I’m a dog person; they’re cats. We meet each other in the middle and have learned to appreciate one another.
JoJo and Callie Sue are living, breathing examples of the healing power of love. They came to me emotionally broken (JoJo less so than Callie, thanks to Karen’s and Jack’s kindness and love). Today, they still have scars, but like me, their little hearts and psyches are superglued together.
So my mother may worry about my financial solvency and my physical ability to care for so many pets. That’s okay. I understand her worries. They’re not without merit. So don’t judge my mother, either. She worries because she loves me, not because she enjoys criticizing me.
And then there’s this: It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around someone having a calling that they never envisioned. It’s not just that my pets saved my life. It’s that I have been called to take care of them. So it’s what I do. It is, undeniably, the one and only thing I have never fought with God about. Each and every one of my pets is part of my family because God said so. I know, I know, we all do things and think things that we believe are from God because we want to rationalize them and make them okay. (Very much like, for example, how I rationalized that baklava could be considered a healthy food, given all the nuts it contains. Feel free to use that rationalization, if you like!)
But with my pets, it’s not like that. I have had a sense of peace about adding each one to my family. Even Phoebe. Who drives me crazy. No rationalization involved. Just an absolute knowing that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
And, like a true calling, it really doesn’t matter whether people accept it or not. I’ll keep on doing it.
I can’t not do it.
That’s how I know it’s a calling.