Broken Reilly

My life is ruled by insanity—too many animals, too many students, too much coffee, and too little time for me. I wouldn’t have it any other way because there is, simply, no other way I can have it. I am the overly proud mom to two wonderful little girls, a 5 and a 7. But I’m also a mom to two dogs who never stop barking, one who is as hairy as a yeti, and the other who will be on anti-anxiety meds for the remainder of his life, and I fear will lead me to needing the same. I also parent two cats, one who lives in my closet and poops in my shoes and the other, through some cross-species confusion, believes he is a dog.

I am fortunate in so many ways. I count among my blessings the usual things: health, kids, career, friendship, marriage. But I also count among these blessings my insane animals. When we first adopted our Reilly, the neurotic dog who has added so much anxiety to our lives, I was sure he was the perfect dog; initially, he was submissive, obedient, and tender. Then I took him for his first vet appointment three days into his life with us.

All of these wonderful traits disappeared with a few days of antibiotics as Reilly was incredibly ill: kennel cough, pneumonia, and full system sepsis from his neutering that had never been checked by the SPCA that we adopted him from and who also had done his surgery. He was, in short, a mess. Once the antibiotics started to do their job, the real Reilly appeared, and he proved himself to be more dog than we ever wanted.

I’d adopted problem dogs before. My greyhound, Spike, was on Prozac for years before his bone cancer finally ended his life. But I’d never quite met a mess like Reilly before. He was afraid to be pet, to be walked, to come when called; loud noises outside set him barking mad; and if we raised our voices inside, whether playing with the kids, singing, or calling from one room to the next, he would go into a barking frenzy, complete with stripe of hair raised down his back.

When I did try to pet him, he’d lunge on me, leaving bruises from my shoulder to my feet. He never bit one of us, but he did claw, jump, and push to move us away from him.

With pediatric intervention we met a great behavioralist who helped Reilly learn to be pet, to come when called, to stop stealing and hiding food, and to be a member of our family. But we also employed pharmaceuticals to help quell his anxieties. Behavior modification took him so far, but we needed to help him better.

Reilly was so easily upset by so much. Anytime the garbage truck went by, or the FedEx truck drove by, or the doorbell rang, anytime normal daily interruptions dispelled the quiet, Reilly attacked windows and tried to protect us from life. So twice a day, he takes a pill to help ease his tension with the world around us and his need to guard us at all times.

What Reilly has taught me is invaluable. I know many people with a variety of mental illness. From OCD to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia, mental illness in humans is diagnosed and treated everyday. We need to give the same comfort to our animals, particularly those that we rescue from shelters, and make no mistake, we need to rescue these animals from the shelters they have landed in through no fault of their own. In my house, we know from dealing with Reilly that he had been abused before we adopted him. We cannot touch his paws without him jerking away.

All parties involved in his care believe he had been “stomped,” a barbaric method of punishment where the dog’s paws are stomped on in order to curb a behavior. We also know that something violent happened to his ears as we cannot clean his ears without him melting down.

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Our assumption is another barbaric method of punishment where the dog’s ears are jerked hard in order to curb a behavior, sort of like the nuns used to do those of us who survived the old Catholic schools. Whenever we get loud in our house, and we are a loud bunch, Reilly stripes, easily upset by loud noises; slowly he is getting better, more accustomed to our noises. We assume he was shouted at a great deal.

What I have learned from Reilly is simple: he reminds me daily how important it is to care for those among us with illnesses we cannot see. My Reilly is broken, of that I have no doubt. We have given him the best life we know how; it is not a perfect life, and I am not sure we are the best family for him. Reilly might do much better somewhere far away from the maddening crowd where life is quieter and he could run more freely than our fenced in yard. But we have given him love and all the cookies he could want. We have given him another dog to play with and kids to lavish him with kisses. We have given him the best veterinary care we could provide.

But what of the others? What of the broken people with no one to love them? What of the broken dogs with no one to love them? Reilly makes my heart hurt for all the others and makes my heart swell for the chance he has been given. When he frustrates me, I try to remind myself that he is the very parallel for all of us who are broken by life, who live with less love than they need, who live with abuse, who live with neglect. Reilly is one of the lucky ones to get a family who love him and put up with his crazy idiosyncracies. What about the others?

One of my friends is depressed, has been since his divorce a decade ago. He won’t take his meds for depression because he does not like the way he feels on the medication, and he is so used to being depressed and dealing with depression that he prefers this to the altered sensations he gets on his prescriptions. He has limited his social circles, barely speaks to anyone in his family, and works from home now, closing off his world even more. Where are the loved ones to take care of him? Each time I talk to him, I feel like I need a prescription to pull myself back up to the surface.

Each conversation is work for me. But should his illness be about me? Probably not. Reilly reminds me of that. He is my in-home reminder of what it is like to live with someone with mental illness.

Someone beat my dog, set him free, and then that dog came to live with us. We live daily with the after-affects of that abuse. I have no doubt that Reilly is broken, anxiety ridden, and able to protect us better than anything I can imagine. He is a gentle soul that has been damaged. And he is such a perfect reminder to me of why I need to be gentler to others who don’t have a life as rich, full, and rounded as I do.

Bio: Housemate of several dogs and cats, former greyt-housemate. Spend far too much time trying to shave my hairy beast Mo because he can’t see and gets far too warm. Love my dogs.

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