Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me from Myself
BOILING POINT, NEW YORK CITY
APRIL 16, 1996
The walk from the subway to my apartment was six blocks, but I wasn’t sure I would make it. I focused on the ground: the scuffed floor of the 4 train, the gum-strewn steps to 86th Street, the swirling black puddle at the corner of Lexington and 85th. I’d lived in Manhattan for almost a year, since one week after graduating from college in Ohio. I’d spent that year as an assistant editor at a book publisher in SoHo. My name appeared in the credits of two books. My boss called me his best assistant ever. I had scraped together enough money to pay my rent and bills, on time. I had caring friends and supportive parents who wanted me to succeed. And I was about to have a breakdown.
Only a few blocks out of the subway station, bloody thoughts descended: Walk into the path of that cab speeding up Lexington Avenue. Step in front of that oncoming bus. These were not voices in my head; they were rogue thoughts, terrible thoughts that I did not know how to control.
If you passed me on the street, you would have seen a tired, twenty-something woman. You’d probably think I was hung over or hadn’t eaten a vegetable in months, the latter being mostly accurate. I was tall, usually wearing a baggy shirt over a long black skirt and my worn-out steel-toed Doc Martens. My hair, formerly long and blonde and flowing halfway down my back, was chopped at my ears and had faded to a brown that looked mostly gray in store-window reflections—the result of an ill-advised trip to the drugstore and a three-dollar bottle of hair dye.
I rounded the corner on 82nd Street, past the brownstones with their bay windows and heavy doors, past P.S. 290, where I rarely saw any children. I climbed the steps to my first-floor apartment, unlocked two security doors, turned three more locks, then shuffled in, finally alone. I bolted the door behind me. My apartment smelled like sour milk and dust. For a first apartment out of college, the place was fine: two small, stacked rooms connected by a steep wooden staircase. Upstairs, exposed brick stood opposite a small corner kitchen. Downstairs, they’d carved out just enough space for a small bathroom and bedroom, forever dark and damp, the windows five feet off the floor, allowing only a view of feet and legs ambling by.
The living room had no furniture, just my stereo, the one I’d had since high school. Next to it was a collapsed pile of CDs and cassettes: Van Morrison, Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, Big Star, Ella Fitzgerald, Metallica. These were my companions in my darkest hours, this music in my ears, because in silence, I could only hear the thoughts in my head. They were thoughts that I did not notice or question, thoughts that said I was worthless, dumb, ugly, and weak. Wrong in every way. Wrong for being alive.
I began to boil water for pasta. I turned on the electric burner, filled the pot with water, and put it on the stove. Such an act might seem trivial, but I felt as if I’d just lifted a boulder. Small tasks had recently become extraordinarily difficult. Putting on shoes. Buttoning a shirt. Waking in the morning. I stood in front of the stove with my eyes closed.
Then I sat down on the floor, wooden spoon in hand. I can’t say whether I was conscious of what I was doing. I remember it, if that means anything. The water began to boil. Erupting water droplets popped and sizzled on the electric burner. I blinked, flattened one palm on the dusty hardwood floor and slid down so that I was lying on the kitchen’s scuffed planks. My left eyelid twitched.
I imagined myself a robot losing power, or a marionette with two snapped strings. I needed to reach the phone. I needed help. Something was really wrong. I recognized, vaguely, that the kitchen floor was an odd place to fall asleep. Then I noticed that the refrigerator door had an old brown sauce stain, a dried, stopped drip. I studied it because it didn’t belong there. I didn’t belong there. My head on my arm, a twitch in my spine, and I was gone.
All sounds became one enormous echo: the cars honking outside, the pigeons’ flapping wings, the people walking and talking outside, the hum of the refrigerator. I lay numb, thinking, nervous breakdown, nervous breakdown. The words echoed in my head, a sorrowful chant, a skipping song. You’re so dramatic, the thoughts continued. You’re not having a nervous breakdown. You’re just a fuck-up. Just kill yourself. Just tie a rope around something, cinch it around your neck, and jump.
Prior to New York City, I’d spent my entire life in Ohio, and I’d grown tired of the Midwest with its distant horizons and dark, quiet nights. Something always felt wrong. For much of high school and college, I figured that I had simply been born in the wrong place. I watched a lot of television and decided that I was a big-city girl—not an Ohio girl. It was all a simple mistake of geography. I couldn’t pin my malaise on my happily married parents. My brother and I fought, badly, but that, I thought, was normal. It would take this breakdown and several years of therapy to realize that it wasn’t.
My life in the city first hiccupped when an acquaintance told me that the boy I’d been dating since my junior year in college, Will, had been sleeping around while I was still at school. He was supposed to be waiting for me to join him in New York, to begin our life together. I confronted him; we fought for weeks, then broke up. He was in a band, said he needed to focus on his music. I knew it was cliché, but I suffered acutely at the demise of our romance. Will was my comfort, and now he was gone. I was a woman who couldn’t feel good unless a man loved her, and it had to be this man. Will. No other. Other men scared me. I wandered alone around the city feeling as if there was no safe haven for me in the world. Then, after weeks of silence, Will would call at 3 a.m. wanting to know whether he could come over and talk. I always said yes, and I always fell back into bed with him, the longing for him so intense, I could feel it like a pull in my skin. When our relationship soured, turned emotionally unsafe, I nearly imploded.
Big-city culture shock and this difficult breakup made it clear that there was something else very wrong with me. It wasn’t just that I was young, insecure, naïve, and heartbroken. It wasn’t just that my boyfriend had chosen other women and his band over me. There was something dark and immovable churning inside my mind.
My roommate, Leah, had left Manhattan a few weeks prior to the day this story starts, and at the time, I was sure her swift departure was my fault. We’d met in college and roomed together in New York—not because we were great friends, but because the timing was right. She was graceful, beautiful, small, and blonde with deep-set azure eyes. She also had a boyfriend who’d graduated a year before her and lived in the city. After a few months in Manhattan, they broke up too, but she seemed fine. She went on with her life as if the breakup was his loss. When Will and I broke up, I turned lovelorn. I obsessed about his life, what he did, who he was with, which rendered me distracted and inconsistent, terrible qualities for a friend.
I woke up blinded, unable to see anything except dull gray. I put my hands in front of my face to see if my vision really was gone. My fingers barely appeared through a thick fog. I coughed hard. My lungs seemed filled with hot cotton. There was a bleak smell, like lit charcoal. I waved my arm, and the back of my knuckles hit the refrigerator. There was the drip that didn’t belong.
I smelled smoke. I fumbled from the refrigerator to the stove, wheezing now. If my apartment had an operative smoke alarm, it would have been blaring. I turned off the burner and listened to the pot crackle before I lay down and fell back into the darkness……………..
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