By T. Pitt Green, Founder
Shenanigans St. Michael McGee dodged work crews who tried to coax him out of the junk heaps for over a year. He gobbled up scraps until one day someone managed to corner him. Shortly thereafter he was pertly sitting in the back of my car, taking drags of air through the partly open window, ears flapping. I was driving us home.
This wasn’t a feral dog. He knew car rides, and he loved car rides, and he loved every cushion he ever met. He just turned out to be a dog who ran away from something and retained a terrible fear. So began the lessons for this homeless beast, who revealed the freedom I could find in my recurring grief from having been an abused child.
On his first day home, McGee burrowed under cushions, under laundry, under anything to hide. The second night he slept in his bed after I piled it full of laundry. The second morning is when it all began. Smiling at him, I raised a brush to my hair. Instantly McGee cowered, with human-like moaning. Then the seizure began.
From the start, I recognized something in McGee not unlike my experience, triggering memories at moments unexpectedly. As I tried to comfort him, I also was being forced to admit I needed comfort. I had been denying the triggers, instead, soldiering on. Finally, I was forced to acknowledge the extent of the wound of abuse was so great that it would make demands on the life I had chosen as an adult. This required a whole new grieving. It wasn’t an easy task tending to McGee’s grief.
I obeyed the behaviorist. Most immediately, triggers were removed. Things like hair brushes and folding umbrellas were hidden. I moved mindfully, not raising a hand over him, not grabbing his collar. His seizures began to subside. Just as prescribed, our house became a sanctuary of calm. McGee needed to think before reacting, she said, so nothing should happen too fast for him to process. Pacing affected my own habits. I had used a personal overdrive to drown out feelings. It wore me down and kept me running, but it kept me distracted, and upset. Now, I had to disengage my drive for the sake of us both.
It came time to desensitize McGee. I dropped a hairbrush on the floor far from where he lay but where he could see it. Over several weeks, I kicked the brush inch by inch closer. One night, brush in mouth, he trotted past me and dropped it among his toys. So it is with my triggers. Usually, I have hold of them. Only sometimes now am I carried away in their jaws.
Bossy as wizened dogs are wont to be, McGee is almost 15 years old now. It doesn’t happen often, but, recently, his gray face flinched, his yowl broke out, when I grabbed him from the peril of snagging a brownie on the floor. The moment he recognized my hand his body relaxed. His tail meekly wagged. There would be no seizure. There would be instead accusing puppy-dog eyes and dramatic begging for chocolate, which can kill dogs. His current sense of safety has trumped the wounds that still linger. Why? Because he recognizes his master. Like people who refuse to abandon pets to gain shelter in disaster, unlike others who might have protected me as a child, in this life which I have finally become free to choose, I would most certainly choose death before I would let harm come to this creature.
It was I who changed McGee’s sense of self. Who changes mine? In contrast to a childhood home which I did not choose or control, I have chosen truth and safety in my adulthood, but my choice can only affect so much. My efforts now to desensitize my nerves from what happened then only get me so far. Whose hand can guide me beyond these furthest limits? I’m talking about recovery, restoration and new life. In plaintiff prayers over the decades, I have insisted on what I needed with all the certainty McGee begs for his brownie. Indeed, I have spent years with my fist raised toward heaven, demanding freedom from the grip of my abusers.
It’s still hard to believe God will actually protect me, even after I have experienced His rescue first hand. That comes, I suppose, from having lived years egregiously y unprotected where child predators donned the disarming habit of priests and prowled enabled by Church and its esteemed counselors. Quite apart from the Church’s struggle to reverse course, even to make amends, I had tested God and come to trust Him. There’s no credit to my kind of wisdom. I simply hit that place where all the alternatives to God were exhausted, leaving me at the end of all my human ability—still in as much need as when I started. It was around then that God sent McGee.
The lessons of McGee are not limited to triggers, safety and masters. I realized that I better than others could help this abused animal precisely because I had been abused, too. My longing for respite was his need; I knew it well. In my own understanding was his comfort and safety. What he returned in exchange was all he had—a dog’s version of unconditional love. So it has been with God and me.
It’s still a challenge to accept that healing will not come on my terms, but it’s a reminder that salvation was not revealed on terms expected by the holy elite of Jesus’s time. Something greater trumps this unsettled piece of my heart. It is a hand that I recognize in the distress. It is a wounded hand, pierced with nails, bruised from abuse, torn from falling. The wounds this hand bears were not erased, but transformed in Resurrection. They reveal not only an end point to suffering but also light, beauty, and miracle that defies human comprehension. Here is where our stumbling and tenacious flights from the abuse we did not choose can lead—to a loving Master.
So the lessons of McGee have wakened me in a new way to a pain-riddled world with many broken-hearted people, near to me and yet unknown (and with many adoptable pets). My pain, my grief and my stumbling tenacity can be a gift of light to a few. In this I have found the freedom of choosing to be a wounded healer.