After I tried to kill myself, my mother bought me a puppy off of Craigslist. I was a senior at Sarah Lawrence College, home in LA on a medical leave that coincided with winter break. She dumped the squirming puppy in my bed on Christmas morning like she were emptying a bucket of water she intended to wake me up with. Her logic was that if tasked with keeping something else alive, I’d have to do the same for myself.
Evolutionarily, baby animals illicit endorphins. Their helplessness and over-sized heads cause prolactin and oxytocin to flood the brain, reminding us of human children. No dormant nurturing tendencies awakened in me when given the puppy who was dressed in a red Adidas sweatshirt. I felt disassociated from all living things, even looking in the mirror was an unfamiliar experiences, a wan figure, like Giacometti sculpture, looking back.
Since I was having trouble attaching to it, I didn’t name the dog for a couple of weeks. We obviously were not on the same page. It woke up at dawn and wined to go outside, while I was still having trouble getting out of bed before 3pm. I saw my mother’s plan unfolding. Eventually I named it Oslo, while watching a documentary about Norwegian Black Metal. It was funny to imagine the dog dressed in the demonic drag of Darkthrone and Burzum, screaming at me to get up.
After about a month I noted a change in Oslo’s behavior. She showed little enthusiasm for food, slept in, shook violently when I tried to take her outside and paced neurotic figure-8s around my stacks of books. I took her to the vet but nothing was physically wrong. The next week, I brought her with me to my shrink.
“I think my dog is depressed.” I told the doctor.
“Do you think there is a possibility that you are projecting onto the animal a little bit?”
I rejected this patronizing diagnosis. I already knew I was depressed. Had I somehow passed it on to my pet? Was it airborne? On the internet, I quickly found a K-9 psychiatrist in Echo Park. She had coke-bottle spectacles and long acrylic nails. Her waiting room had framed portraits of Dogs Playing Poker.
I told the doctor about Oslo’s behavior. She offered Oslo a treat which was rejected apathetically.
“Just as I suspected,” she said. “PTSD. We can’t know what her life was like before she came into yours, but psychosomatic symptoms are arising from memories she’s repressed.”
I’d always envied animals for their privilege of moment-to-moment consciousness. I thought dogs were like goldfish or pylons: history-less, blank slates who don’t retain anything for more than a few hours. I’d never considered that my Schnauzer, like a Vietnam vet, could have flashbacks to a dramatic past that kept her up at night. The doctor jotted on her script, bordered with blue paw prints, “15 mgs of Prozac.”
After failing to sneak Oslo into Harry Potter World, I got her registered as an Emotional Support Animal. It was surprisingly simple. $75 got my dog into all restaurants, airports and a particularly lenient Korean spa. I dreaded returning to the New York winter, feeling no less anxious since my medical leave. Oslo cried when the cabin pressure changed as we left LAX and burrowed into my turtleneck.
By the time we got back to school, Oslo was acting almost as obsessive-compulsive as me. She scratched proportioned holes in the dry-wall like she were trying to hang a painting. She gnawed at a spot on her flank until you could see through her soft puppy coat to the abraded pink flesh underneath. I counted out our pills together each morning: her Fluoxetine, my Wellbutrin, her Clomicalm, my Efexor. I ground hers up with peanut butter and swallowed mine with a black coffee.
When I first suspected I might be depressed, I spoke to my mom’s psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Dr. Hanson, who she called Dr. Handsome, on the phone for 15 minutes and was prescribed two SSRIs and three Benzos to use “as needed.” I walked home from the Bronxville CVS, pill bottles shaking like maracas in the pocket of my coat, and obediently took the proper dosage. After 6 weeks, I didn’t notice a change—I actually had been spending more time in isolation and had used up my allotted sick days for the semester—so I called Dr. Handsome back and asked for an increased dosage. While I’d been taking my Zoloft, I had been squirreling away the Xanax and Chlonopin and Ativan as though I were starting a macabre collection of anti-anxiety medication.
One night in December, triggered by nothing in particular, I decided to take my Benzos collection one by one, each chased by a swallow of drug-store wine.
Both of us afraid of the frigid outside world, Oslo and I spent hours in my dorm room. Though all of the literature I’d read on the subject recommended the best way to housebreak an animal was a firm regimen of crate training, I couldn’t bare to listen to her whimper across the room and usually brought her into my bed. I’d give her a baby Benadryl for her insomnia and she’d fall limp next to me in a dreamless drug-induced slumber. Sometimes I had to rush her to the Bronxville veterinarian when she ate the cartridges for the electronic cigarette I had bought to avoid going outside. My housemates said that Oslo and my reclusiveness was bordering on Grey Gardens. They said that we enabled each other’s mentally-ill proclivities. I said we were healing.
We stayed cloistered in my room for most of the winter. I taught her a trick where I stuck out my index and middle fingers like a gun and said “bang bang” to which she would respond by falling to the ground, pretending to be dead.
After my incident with the Benzodiazepines, I was transferred from the ER to a hospital in Westchester for a 72-hour holding evaluation. Apparently my friends had found me neatly tucked into bed surrounded by orange canisters like discarded candy wrappers. I was glad the medicine had wiped my memory of the night. It wasn’t so much the stigma surrounding mental illness that brought me shame, but what I had put my loved ones through. What I would have put them through had they come in an hour or two later.
The Westchester psychiatric ward took away everything that had the potential to be dangerous: my shoe laces and hair bands, the underwire from my bras, even my retainer which felt a bit excessive. Stripped of my technology and with no books to read, I laid on the arthritic mattress, imagining ways I could kill myself with a retainer. Each coast personified my inner turmoil with a natural disaster. New York City was stricken with a blizzard that left the streets looking like a post-apocalyptic ice age and million dollar mansions were burning down in Los Angeles. I felt like the world was ending outside my sterile prison.
Oslo’s recovery began in April, the first day of spring. I started getting the sense that she wanted to go outside. She’d pace at the window and, if that didn't get my attention, shit in front of the door. I felt betrayed, like she’d forgotten our pact to be miserable together. But I obliged and both of us emerged from my room pale and skittish after almost 4 months of our self-inflicted house arrest.
We started going on runs. I stopped calling Dr. Handsome and started seeing a woman named Robin in Bronxville whose living room reminded me of the apartment on Frasier. She talked to me for at least an hour before prescribing anything. The chemistry of my brain was settling back into some semblance of normal. Oslo strutted around campus like she was the popular girl in school.
Though at that point I was emotionally fettered to the dog, I knew that a college campus was no place to raise Oslo. I’d often catch her rummaging through the trash for used tampons or lapping up an abandoned bottle of peach-flavored Svedka. She was getting larger and took up the majority of my twin bed. She was often my excuse for not going to my classes— the proverbial dog who ate my homework—so that I could spend the day watching her catch mice in the old music hall. We were a couple in a toxic relationship whose passionate love affair would inevitably lead to our mutual demise.
We flew home for spring break and I agreed to meet with some friends of my mother, a gay couple who had a large fenced-in backyard in Altadena. They were freelance writers who had time to properly train a dog, who’d have time to brush the matts from her fur and pull extension chords out of her mouth. They probably already knew not to leave electrical wires around a teething puppy. When we arrived, Oslo torpedoed into the sunlit yard. It was her first time off leash, the first grass she’d rolled in without a layer of ice glazing it. After a walk in New York, I usually had to blow dry Oslo to make sure she wasn’t frost bitten. My mother said it was better to go while she was distracted, like when dropping a child off at school. But she must have sensed I was leaving and ran to my heals. My eyes filled with tears. Our paths were splitting directions: I had to go graduate from college, she had to go torture the squirrels of California. I stuck my fingers out at her. “Bang bang,” and she collapsed at my feet like a marionette with cut strings.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Madeline Cash is a nonfiction writer from Sarah Lawrence College.