How I Learned to Make More than Lemonade

No, I’m not changing my usual Wednesday-Friday schedule. Unfortunately I caught a cold this week and that set my writing schedule back a couple of days. I’ll be back on schedule next week, though. And now for the good stuff…

Tis the season for fresh starts and new commitments, but this month I’m going a little off-trend to share with you a story I’ve been in the middle of for the past two and a half years. It’s a story of imperfection, shame, isolation, and empowerment. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Greta, my current dog, is on mental health sabbatical. This is her story.

I’ve written this post, and the next few, primarily for other service dog users. When I first saw the specter of trouble with my service dog I went online in search of support and found a veneer of smooth accomplishment and unflappable competence, an unrealistic presentation of success my life couldn’t begin to resemble. It was largely this isolation that kept me from seeking help for so long. Let this not happen to you.

I’m having behavioral problems with my service dog. I have been for years. Today I’ll share with you the contributing factors that perpetuated the problem from my perspective. Next week it’ll all be about Greta and her experience of our situation

Week 3 I’ll share with you a hard decision I had to make after The Seeing Eye told me to retire Greta, that her behavioral problem couldn’t be overcome to a satisfactory level.

And finally, I’ll end the month with our plans for the future.

So let’s talk about my two favorite lemons, toxic perfectionism and toxic positivity.

For those of you who don’t know, toxic perfectionism is a pursuit of perfection to the detriment of the pursuer and/or that which the pursuer tries to make perfect.

In other words, you do things like pretend you know what ‘Toxic perfectionism” means when you really don’t because someone or something in your life has made you afraid to admit to not knowing, not being, not doing…enough. 

It goes hand-in-hand with its buddy toxic positivity, the refusal to acknowledge anything less than the most positive perspective on a given situation. Everything has to be done right, and with a smile plastered on your face!

Unfortunately, these two mix pretty thoroughly in a lot of disability circles. Cult-like collections of educators, caregivers, rehabilitation specialists, and advocates brutally prune out appearances of discontent and incompetence in order to project the heart-warming differently abled character you see on TV. You know the one, with great hair and no dings or dents in her wheelchair, who makes the occasional request for help look like an elegant social dance move.

Like most unhealthy mentalities, it’s born of fear.

Why and how this phenomenally unhealthy combination has developed is something for another post. For now it’s enough that you know that it exists, and it keeps people like me from asking for help with the day-to-day unglamorous problems more often than it should.

When I got both my first and second dogs from The Seeing Eye I heard multiple trainers state that they were available whenever we might need help with a problem. But the lists of problems they shared included things like “dog becomes scared of something on route,” or “dog is attacked by another dog,” or “I’m facing a really complicated barrier and my dog blue-screened. How do I get past it?”

They don’t talk about situations where a guide dog might bark at someone who makes eye contact for too long while walking toward them, or a guide dog that gets too excited around other dogs in a park and tries to start a wrestling match instead of navigating around the canine obstacle. And none of the retrains talked about those kinds of problems, either.

So, was it just me? Was I lacking in some unique way that caused me to ruin my dog?

Guide dogs are prized for their impeccable behavior. A Section of the Americans with Disabilities Act is based on that excellent behavior. To admit to having behavioral problems with your dog is to admit to potentially threatening the reputation of all guide dog users. I had a lot of reasons to keep quiet.

Official offers of help do little to break through a culture of silence. When Greta started displaying anxiety behaviors I knew what they were instantly, yet I feared misinterpretation from outsiders and judgment from insiders. I was afraid Greta’s fearful barking and jumping would be misinterpreted as aggression, and that admission of failure to maintain her excellent behavior would result in condemnation from trainers, not to mention reiterations of warnings about the importance of good behavior.

Warning someone to do better when they’ve failed is about as useful as saying “watch out!” after someone trips over a crack in the pavement. Good advice too late.

But am I getting ahead of myself? Let me tell you the story before I philosophize anymore.

Greta’s work around dog distractions at The Seeing Eye was never stellar, but I was told that once she settled in to our new home she’d get over it. That denial of my instincts led me to blame myself when it didn’t. THe experts said the problem would go away. If it didn’t, then I must have done something wrong.

Just a few months after I brought her home to Alabama, we took a trip to Oregon to visit my family. While walking through the children’s section of a local library a small child flung herself off a piece of furniture and nearly landed on Greta’s head. Greta, understandably, jumped straight up and woofed. My companion at the time physically dragged me and Greta down to the first floor, apologizing to anyone who would make eye contact.

I was so overwhelmed with the sudden crescendo of stress around me and the pure shock that my service dog had just barked at a child — however understandably — and in a library no less that I did almost nothing to address the situation with Greta, my companion, or the bystanders.

I was told “when someone hears a German shepherd barking they automatically think she’s aggressive.” So on that day I learned other people won’t give me the benefit of the doubt.

Greta was scared of bicycles and motor cycles. I began to wonder if I had been given an anxious dog, and what to do about it. I took Greta to parks and even a Harley Davidson dealership, where the staff helped me with some very supportive exposure therapy. Greta smoothed out. Her work, when she wasn’t shying away from bikes, was excellent. I love her attention to detail and dance-like avoidance maneuvers. She was sharp, focused in a way Prada hadn’t quite achieved. We made a great team.

But this high alertness is the flip side to the coin that makes her high strung, as well. We counselors often tell couples that the thing which drives you  crazy about your spouse now is the thing that probably caused you to fall in love with them in the first place. You just need to find your way back to balance, where that trait is healthy again.

Then I took an internship at a public high school, and THIS is why I dubbed our situation “Post High-School Stress Disorder.”

I loved the work, and to be fair to the kids, they respected Greta, gave us lots of space and obeyed the rules about not touching her or making eye contact. But when you put a sensitive German shepherd into narrow hallways full of teenagers exuding hormone casserole, horsing around and pouring out their woes to their friends, and then you do it for months on end, you’re bound to end up with a few frayed nerves.

Greta began to bark at students when they rough-housed. The teachers and staff all apologized to us – high schoolers are hooligans until proven otherwise – but I lived every day with an aching back wound tight, just waiting for the day someone decided they didn’t feel safe having an “aggressive’ dog in their child’s school. It was inevitable, I was sure.

I slept an average of 3 hours every Sunday night, rehearsing over and over again what I’d say if that ever happened, what I could do to help greta overcome her frustration and anxiety, who we might turn to for support, whether or not I should give up the internship, give up my career goals entirely. Give up my dog? Give up on dogs in general? Could any German shepherd ever be level-headed enough to handle being around counseling clients? Had I ruined my dog? Would I ruin all dogs? Would I get us sued, the school sued? The ADA dismantled because people would start seeing all service dogs as potential threats to their children?

I rehearsed various versions of apologies and explanations to students, teachers, staff, and parents in my head every waking moment. Someday I’d need to soothe someone’s fears in order to protect Greta and myself from those inevitable accusations, and I couldn’t keep the looming conversations from running circles inside my head.

It was at this time that I took up meditation just to get through the day. I recognized the classic symptom of anxiety, imagining and preparing for the worst possible outcome. This is often called “catastrophizing” in clinical language. But on the morning I finally realized what kind of a state I was in, I found this verse in my inbox.

“Now all glory to God who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we could ever ask or imagine.” Eph 3;20.

I’ve always thought of my imagination as limitless, but lately it had become inextricably mired in terrifying nightmare scenarios. But this verse reminded me that the potential outcomes were not, in fact, limited by my imagination. When I noticed my thoughts gravitating toward their habitual negative whirlwind I would repeat this verse to myself, remembering that growth and good I had yet to conceive of were truly inevitable. I just had to look for them.

God had just introduced me to the concept of lemonade, and I was ready to wring the juice out of my lemons by force.

The internship ended without escalation. I got a therapist myself (every counselor should have one!), and read every book on canine psychology I could get my hands on. And I finally reached out to The Seeing Eye for help. TO my surprise they acted like this was a fairly common occurrence. They also took some of the burden of guilt off my shoulders by pointing out that it was likely the environment, not me, which had caused and perpetuated the problem.

When I told the trainer I consulted with where I’d been working his exact words were ‘oh God…”

It took outside support from my therapist, the trainers at The Seeing Eye, and a timely word from God to reframe my problem as a trial common to mankind. But even as these positive influences helped me stabilize myself I still ran a reel of condemnations through my mind every time greta misbehaved in public. “Whenever someone hears a German shepherd bark they assume it’s aggressive.” I couldn’t’ get that phrase out of my head.

The trainer I consulted from The Seeing Eye gave me techniques to try, but I began to wonder if I had somehow failed (maybe intentionally?) to communicate the true severity of the problem. THe techniques weren’t working. Maybe I’d soft-balled my explanations so the trainer wouldn’t think I’d ruined such a valuable dog? Or maybe he didn’t want to hear that a Seeing Eye dog was failing so miserably…

I steeled myself, then called the trainer again and explained everything again in excruciating detail. I made the trainer repeat things back to me so I knew he’d understood. Neither of us could deny the issue. He gave me the most devastating and inspiring advice I’ve ever received.

I read C S Lewis’ The Great Divorce for the first time this past spring, and this quote captures much of my journey over the past two and a half years.

Don’t you remember on earth there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them alright? Shame is like that. If you will attempt it—if you will drink the cup to the bottom—you will find it very nourishing; but try to do anything else with it and it scalds.

Without the nourishment I gained from confronting and working through my shame I wouldn’t be strong enough to share this story with you. Someone out there is living their own version of my story. Just because I survived it alone doesn’t mean you have to, too.

Going back to that “infinitely more than you could ask or imagine” bit, I’ve begun to realize that what God is mixing up for me is more like a nourishing, lemony Russian tea than just a plain old cup of lemonade.

Next week you can read Greta’s side of the story, learn about canine psychology and physiology. Until then, your favorite blindfluencer says “if you are imperfect you are in good company. Speak up and join the fun!”

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