My therapist told me that in the wild, animals have the fight or flight response to a threat and then after the threat is gone they can relax. They can be in that moment of calm and just turn the switch of “alert” to off. She said that animals didn’t have PTSD like humans do. I’m not so sure Molly fit that category.
Our dog Molly was afraid of everything! Every sound. Everything that had a handle on it. Basically anything that moved…vacuum, ceiling fan, floor fan, broom. She was afraid of stationary things, a backpack on the back of a chair, or a jacket that may have fallen on the floor. We took her to the University of Florida animal clinic to check her eyes. I was sure she must be visually impaired. She wasn’t. Her eyes were perfect. We paid for a special dog trainer to come out and help us to teach Molly how to be unafraid. But it didn’t work. We always said Molly was just wild. She was like a wild animal that we brought into our home and tried to domesticate. She loved laying in the sun in a big dirt hole for most of the day. We had to coax her inside when we could see that she was getting overheated in the Florida sun. If she were truly wild though I would have thought she could have turned the fight or flight off. But with her, that switch was always turned on. She was always ready to protect, to fight, to be on alert. That dog lived with one eye open! We tried to love the fear away but it didn’t work. There was always something she was afraid of.
We don’t know what happened to her before she came to us. She was found mangy, with infections, and starving at 4 months old in a known dog fighting neighborhood. If a dog is supposed to not have PTSD I am not sure Molly fit into that category. I truly believed she remembered her past and reacted according to those memories.
When she was sleeping with my daughter she was able to be calm. She would see me come in the room, give me a “Don’t bother us” look and fall back asleep. She was often wrapped in a princess blanket, and when she was a baby she ran around the house with my daughter’s old pacifier in her mouth. She knew what love felt like. She knew she was loved. When she was afraid I comforted her. I spent most of her life comforting her. Reassuring her that she was ok and that the broom wasn’t going to hurt her.
The therapist may not think a dog can have PTSD but I think Molly demonstrated the perfect example of what PTSD feels like. When Molly saw a broom she did not see me. She did not see the person she loved. She only saw the broom. She cowered under the table and shook. When Molly walked into a room with a stranger her hair immediately stood on end and she either froze and stared, or backed out slowly. I could not love the bad memories away for her. I could just love her through it.
I cannot remember all of the things that trigger my emotions. But certain things cause me to freeze, they cause me to shake, they cause me to stare and cower. Maybe Molly remembered the things that scared her or maybe she didn’t. But she had her fight or flight turned on wherever she went. While on a walk I don’t know that she ever fully was relaxed. She was always on guard. She was always ready for a fight, ready for an intruder, ready to need to protect.
Years ago while on a walk a neighbor’s dog ran out and attacked her. It was quite a traumatic event because my daughter’s hand got caught in Molly’s leash and my daughter was in the middle of a dog fight. The owners of the dog moved away. Every day for years after that event, the moment we passed that neighbor’s house, Molly’s hair stood up and she huffed and puffed herself up ready to be attacked again. She remembered the exact house. She knew it meant danger. Eventually someone else moved into that house. I assume it was a form of cognitive behavior therapy because after a few years of nothing happening to Molly and passing the same house, she eventually walked past it with no regard.
Molly is the poster dog for for what I feel like having PTSD. I understood her. I know how she felt.
I don’t know how to turn the fight or flight switch off. Hopefully it can turn to a dimmer switch and slowly the dimmer can go down. That is what therapy is supposed to do. Bring more peace to the side that is in constant alert. Fill up that fight or flight space with more and more calm.
But PTSD sucks! It really really sucks!
Unlike my little Molly-moo I don’t always have a known trigger. I can’t avoid a broom or be covered with a princess blanket, or do a task over and over again until it doesn’t bother me anymore because I don’t always KNOW what that trigger will be. Maybe there isn’t always a trigger. Sometimes flashbacks just happen out of the blue!
I was laying in the bed last night watching the Olympics with my family. Nothing happened. Nothing that I can put my finger on. But I was all of a sudden back on the lake. I was in the boat with the man who molested me. Another man was in the boat too. He picked me up and put me off the side of the boat into the water. He pulled me up by my arms and commented to the other guy in the boat that I wasn’t wearing a bra and it was a wet t-shirt contest. I was just a child. I felt so exposed. The other man said nothing. The olympics, the moment with my family, the serenity, was gone. I could not get it back. I was here again but my body was still there, feeling what it felt like to be an object. I know exactly what it feels like to be an object. It is being treated as if you are not a human. You have no emotions. You have no free will. You’ve been stripped of your humanity. You are just an object for someone else. I felt those feelings flood back throughout my body. I have felt them for the last 24 hours. No princess blanket, no cuddling, no reassurance, no words, nothing could give me back the feeling I had only a few moments before.
If PTSD must include flashbacks in its criteria then maybe Molly didn’t have it. I’m not sure dogs can have flashbacks. All I know is Molly knew the same fear I knew. I saw it in her eyes. We loved her all the days of her life. We tried to love away as much fear as we knew how to. I am loved. I am very loved. My daughter and my husband and my friends love me. But I don’t think you can love away flashbacks. It sure does help to be loved through it! But so far I haven’t been able conquer flashbacks with being loved. I am sure that as I go through this new therapy my body will learn how to respond in less fight or flight way. I am looking forward to that. I am so looking forward to learning better ways.
I can despise, hate, abhor, the man who did this to me, but it won’t take away the memories. I try not to think of him at all. But on a day that I am enjoying tranquility with my family, the fact that he still has the ability, within my brain, to make me feel victimized, makes me so utterly sad. So defeated. A man I have chosen to rise above. A man I have chosen to let go, still holds space in the depths of my brain. He still has power over me through the flashbacks. And that, is one of the worst feelings in the world.
I wish my sweet Molly were still here. I’d have a chat with her and somehow know that in her little dog mind she got where I was coming from. But she is off to greener pastures. And I am off to therapy. Hoping, to one day, feel that this monster has no hold over me anymore.