When I was little, Nick showed me the illustrations of the dog breeds in the D encyclopaedia. The pictures – for a kid of about five who hadn’t seen a lot of dogs – fascinated me. I marvelled at the size of the Great Dane, the austerity of the German Shepherd, and the inquisitive look of the Beagle. But the dog that really drew my attention was the Siberian Husky. It was just so wolf-like.
As a kid, I owned a couple of mongrels. One – a Shepherd/Cocker Spaniel cross (when I was about eight or nine) – ran away with a pack of stray dogs that used to roam the paddocks behind our house. He was a great dog, very (too) clever, but also very (too) independent. Another – this one a black mongrel (when I was about twelve) – was a troublemaker who dug up the yard, did his business everywhere, and chewed up shoes and clothes. My parents got sick of him and gave him away. And that was it for dogs. My parents considered them too dirty, too much trouble, and too reckless.
Until now. Coming out of the worst of the anxiety and depression, it seemed a good idea to have a dog around. I had the sympathy vote in the household because of what I’d gone through, so there was no issue there. Now all that remained was actually finding one.
I wanted a Husky but couldn’t afford a pure breed, so instead settled for a pet store ad that said they had German Shepherd/Siberian Husky puppies. The only problem was the pet store was forty minutes’ drive away. My brother Nick and his wife Christine offered to take me, although the distance scared me. This would be the furthest I’d gone since all this began.
The further we got from home the more I expected symptoms, and it weighed on my mind that something was going to happen. The worst it got, though, was the occasional gulping for breath – I’d feel the breath lock in my chest, threatening to become shallow, so, every now and again, I’d take a deep breath, feel it plunge all the way into my diaphragm, just to prove it was okay. I also had some extra Xanax in my wallet if required – Dr Jarasinghe had told me to take an extra half if the anxiety ever got on top of me. That was a safety net, as were the presence of my brother and his wife.
Not that they knew this. They didn’t know about the panic attacks. About the fear of leaving the house. About all the intrusive thoughts. Like everybody in my family, they just had a general understanding I’d suffered from anxiety and depression.
When we got to the pet store, I saw the Shepherd/Husky crosses which were kept in a mesh enclosure. There were only two left, both girls. One had Shepherd colours, but Husky patterns. The other was predominantly black, with tan eyebrows, a tan bow-tie, and tan socks – patterning you might see on a Kelpie or Rottweiler. She pushed past her sister and jumped to the front of her enclosure. The thing that really attracted me to her was her big black nose. I wasn’t a big fan of dogs with the pink noses; this dog had the biggest black nose I’d seen.
It was funny that after wanting a dog with a wolf-like appearance, I got one with common markings. Then again, her little face was wolf-like – sharp, with angular eyes that were a brown so bright they were almost orange. There was something very wolfish about her.
And that’s what I called her: Wolf.
She immediately ingratiated herself into the household with her charms and quirks. When you reached for her food she would snarl at you, but never bite if challenged – in fact, she’d look sheepish that her bluff was called. When you emptied her water bowl, she would stare at you mournfully, as if to quiz you about what you were doing; go refill her water and she’d stare curiously at the stream emerging from the tap, trying to work out where it was coming from; then, occasionally, she’d leap onto the sink, and gulp from the tap. Sometimes, she’d bolt from one end of the yard to the other, like she was chasing something only she could see. If you yelled ‘pussycat’ she’d charge into the yard, barking, trying to locate the phantom intruder. Then she’d patrol, just to make sure it was all clear. And when she wagged her tail, the hind quarters of her body would pivot back and forth; and the tail itself would knock anything lose from low tables.
Wolf occupied much of my days, as puppies do. One day, when I was feeling anxious, she fell to the ground, thrashing and frothing at the mouth. I called the mobile vet who tended her and he said it must be epilepsy, as she was too young to be having a heart attack. She recovered (although she’d have occasional seizures for the next five or so years) and was fine, but the incident snapped me out of my own anxiety and focused me.
My initial walks with her were short. But as she got older and needed more exercise, I’d range further. I would take her out and walk randomly through back streets. Then my agoraphobia would holler, Hey, you’re miles from home! The shortness of breath hit. Then dizziness. As well as some disorientation. There was no way to get back quick. But I’d look at Wolf, who’d stare back innocently, and I’d think that if I had a panic attack, who would take care of her?
Through Wolf, I was able to push my sphere of comfort and expand (some) barriers that had kept me confined to home. It was weird, because I’d made it to the pet store to buy Wolf but it was like that trip existed in exclusivity. Maybe I just didn’t want to face the world alone after being broken – again. I don’t know. What I did know was that the fear remained whenever the possibility arose – then there was giddiness, then there was breathlessness, and that underlying panic threatening to blow.
Better to remain in my sphere.
For a while, Wolf came everywhere with me – even if I drove to the video library, she’d jump in the car with me. When she got older, I’d walk there with her every weekday. If I went to the shops, I’d take her and tie her up outside while I shopped. Whatever the weather, I’d walk her, (as everybody in the house would).
In that time when I shut out the world, when the world ticked by outside my sphere of comfort, she became my best friend.