Many people find their love and support through family and friends in their most difficult times in life. At twelve years old, after I was subjected to clergy abuse by a trusted family priest, I did not have that support. Instead, I found myself clinging to my furry family dog for comfort.
Trusting anyone was impossible and remained a difficult struggle for me. First, it was hard to to think anyone would believe me. Second, I was terrified that I would be blamed for what happened. This just intensified the shame and guilt that I was holding onto in my heart. So, I turned to nobody—but my dog.
She was lovable, and when she looked into your eyes, you could almost feel the compassion she had to share with you. Also, I knew she couldn’t tell anyone. And, my dog responded to my vulnerability after the trauma with cuddling, remaining by my side and not wanting anything in return. It was our secret. It was my comfort until, one day when I was fourteen, I was told she was going to live on a farm as a place that she needed to run and play and have more space.
Yet my heart ached to see her go. I tried to believe it would be a happier place for her. However, once again, I felt the lies and betrayal as an anti-cruelty truck picked her up from our house. Grabbing the leash from my hands, the workers threw her in back of the truck. Our eyes met, and I felt the sadness in her eyes, as though she too felt abandoned and betrayed. I knew exactly how she felt. We really understood each other alone, like no others.
It was her love and compassion that carried me through, that I felt and needed after such awful abuse. It was her friendship, though only a dog, that brought me comfort and took away some of the loneliness that I was experiencing. It wasn’t a human that consoled me, it was my sweet dog. And just like that, she was out of my life.
Here, again, I struggled to know why I was lied to and betrayed, but I held onto the memories we shared when she was a part of my life. As I’ve grown older, I realize people tend to think of animals as nothing other than an animal, but in my childhood experiences having a dog, I could feel the love and support in her heart almost as if she was a human—and a more supportive and unconditionally loving human at that.
Fourteen years ago I wrote a poem called, “Without This Skin- The me within.…” At the time I never could fully explain what that title meant other than, it was just what I felt. Through this process of healing, I learned that inside there was so much pain, and that pain, within my skin, had not only contaminated me inside but outside as well, although the wounds could not be observed by others. I felt my skin that housed this torture also kept me held hostage from emotional and physical contact as if I were covered with the visible sore of leprosy, yet there were no visible sores. However, that layer of unblemished skin protected me from human contact no matter how much I despised it or starved for it. It kept me safe from taking the risk of both submission and repulsions; either was highly possible, but neither was predictable.
So where does one go to be comforted, to feel love, to express love, to dwell in trust? Well, before it became a slogan: What would Jesus do? I often turned to Jesus’s followers and the examples their lives offered us. I think this practice began in grade school, when the nuns shared their holy cards. Oh those holy cards, they were so precious to me—actually the cards and the Sisters. I truly got to know the saints and the lives they lived both through their own pain and sorrow. Their faith and love of God through all their lives, especially difficult times, was beautiful to me. The desire to know and love God was infectious, and I believe that special relationship grew until I was sexually abused. Then, suddenly, I was too infected to even let God near. I kept God away. Or so I thought.
Saint Francis and his life was still there to inspire me. Did I really want to live a life of retreat in this crowded “abusive” world? Absolutely not, but then I realized I was doing just that. I was trying to survive a self-imposed life of isolation. I kept wondering how St. Francis dealt with that isolation, somehow not as a feeling of being cut off but rather of true participation.
How does this all relate to how our pets contributed to healing after abuse? Well, a number of years ago I adopted a rescue cat, and I now share my home with my 3rd rescue cat. Yes, at first it seems I was engulfed in caring for them, but it is so much more than that. My cat crossed that invisible line of contact, her little tongue licked my skin, that contaminated skinned no one else was allowed near. Her purring while sitting next to me broke through that bondage of feeling unlovable. Her companionship healed my hunger for love, to share love and receive it and not be in any danger during this participatory, trusting relationship. No wonder St. Francis never felt alone. It took me many years to understand the love my pets offered me was the true definition of unconditional love during all those years I kept everything and everyone at more than an arm’s distance. What broke through that steel wall was the love from my cats. When we don’t let anyone near, a pet can hear the cries of our heart just as God does. And we learn we are never alone, never unlovable, never beyond healing.
It’s hard to image how I would have psychically survived childhood and especially teen years. The safest place in the world was my nuzzling into a dog’s warm neck, pouring the secrets of my heart, for which I had no words, into my dog’s knowing. In childhood, my dogs were my only witnesses—and guardians to some degree. They were all stray dogs, loved dearly by and unconditionally loving toward my family and me, but they were also skittish and escaped notice much like I. In that sense, because of them, I never felt alone.
As an adult, I turned to dogs again to guard me. I trained my first dog to guard the door to my bedroom to permit me to sleep after years of insomnia. She was my transition from using, I am not proud to say, people, brutish people, as a protection against the cruelty and dangers of any adult life in an urban world. My second dog, McGee, joined Jeepers as a fierce protector who startled more than one gentle man while hiking in the woods; McGee could ward off a six-foot, 260-pound fellow hiker with the glare of an eye. Able guardians, they were partners on adventures and in fun, which survivors can have a tough time enjoying. They were also my reliable companions while I was still learning to trust worthy human beings.
Both dogs passed away in my arms. Staggered with grief, I was surprised to receive—from their spirits overflowing in the Presence of God, I believe—an abundant sense of the love we shared to the point of my heart overflowing. This is a very different heart than that broken as a child or bruised as a young adult. There is a saying about dogs (and pets) appropriate here: When I was in need of rescue, I reached out my hand and found your paw.
In 2002, we adopted Claudia, a Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier, as a puppy, who really bonded with my wife Kathy. Our children were little at the time. I struggled with the potty training and the walks around the block – it seemed like an annoying chore. My heart wasn’t in it, especially standing out in the rain, trying to encourage the dog to go pee. My wife knew it.
In 2006, I came forward to tell my story of childhood sexual abuse to my wife. Soon after that, I told my story to the Archdiocesan Review Board, and I began individual counseling. By then, Claudia was four years old. During this time in my life I would come home from work, immediately change my clothes, and take Claudia for a walk. We would enjoy the beautiful forest preserve right near our home with a great bike trail. Also, we would walk the neighborhood. Every day, I considered it such a simple pleasure walking and spending time with Claudia, and Claudia was happy to spend time with me. For six years we walked, and walked, and walked. It was very therapeutic for me. At the age of ten, she stopped going on long walks and at the age of 13 she passed.
Initially, both my wife and I felt we wouldn’t get another dog. The loss of Claudia was too heavy on our hearts. However, this past summer, we adopted Walter, a Tibetan Terrier Poodle mix. He bonded with my wife Kathy first, again. But this time his potty training didn’t seem like an annoying chore for me. Walter is a year and a half old now, still a puppy, but I feel such a simple pleasure in walking him. Walking Walter helps me clear my mind. In fact, Walter and my wife have just completed the AKC Therapy Dog program. Soon, they will shadow with another dog and owner at a school. Soon after that, they can be assigned a therapeutic setting. My wife is interested in helping children. Walter will help with them, but he is already helping me—in the way Claudia taught me to be helped.