Guilt, PTSD and a Dog Named Jack

Daily Prompt: The Guilt that Haunts Me  Share a time when you were overcome with guilt. What were the circumstances? How did you overcome your guilt?

What an interesting prompt that happens to fall on Christmas Eve when the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future haunt Ebeneezer Scrooge. I’ve been really enamored of A Christmas Carol of late so perhaps I’ll be watching it tonight or tomorrow.

Asking this question of a person who grew up Catholic is like asking if I breathe – we were cultivated to feel overwhelming guilt all-of-the-time! Not just a twinge of conscience, but oath breaking make Jesus weep with despair Dante would be inspired type of guilt.

In 2004, my dog Jack was about 9 years old. He had been acting a bit off but the vet couldn’t find anything wrong. I didn’t have a lot of money in my relatively new job in social services (I had taken a pay cut to move to this agency.) Jack got into a fight with one of my puppies so I took him to the vet where he was sewed up and sent home with medication. That night, he attacked me.

I was leaning over to give him his meds, something I had done a million times. I had nursed him back from Parvo. I could stick my hand in his mouth with no fear. But he snapped and bit my face. He left a gash in my forehead that was bleeding, bit through my lip and a few other facial wounds.

I was so stunned when it happened, but I acted instinctivly and rolled away from him into a crouch on the floor, protecting my face and head, thinking how I could get out of the room.  He backed off, I left the room and was hysterical but trying to be calm. I was also living alone. The other dogs were terrified. I checked my injuries, grabbed towels with ice and called my then-girlfriend Laura. She immediately jumped in her car to come over. I put the other dogs in the basement with water. I put the cat in the attic with litter and water. I had blood pouring over my face and couldn’t think what to do. Laura tended to my injuries and I called my friend who was a vet.

I let Jack out to have the rest of the house and we went to the ER where I had a ton of stitches and a tetanus shot and so forth. I fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, I knew what I was going to have to do. I called my friend the vet again and he confirmed that euthanasia was the best choice – mind you, he had cared for this dog since puppyhood and didn’t usually suggest this. I am very grateful he gave me the gift of telling me clearly what he thought was best. I spent the day sobbing about losing my best friend and yet terrified to go near him.

We drove him to the vet and my Dad met us because he knew I couldn’t do it myself. He sat with Jack while he passed and I sat in the waiting room hyperventilating. Both my Dad and Laura tried to convince me to get his ashes but I kept insisting I couldn’t afford it and refused to let them pay for it. I was distraught because I was in shock.

I went back to work looking like a Tim Burton creature and that was hard to keep explaining. Finally I just started telling people I was in a car accident so they would shut up and not remind me of what I had done – I had killed my dog.

My psychiatrist heard from my therapist what had happened (they shared a practice) and he CALLED ME which was  amazing. He thought I was experiencing PTSD and I was very fortunate that he and my therapist persistently addressed that with me for the entire next year. I was very fearful, anxious, etc. It was the second time I was bitten by a dog in five years so I was even afraid of my own other sweet dogs.

I was wracked with guilt. What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? Should I have kept him alive? Should I have tried something?

I overcame my guilt because I had Laura’s unconditional support, I had a good vet friend who assured me over and over that whatever was wrong with Jack was not something I could have addressed with my resources and I had a good therapist. I remember one day my psychiatrist told me to focus on good memories with the dog so I could let go of my fear. As I walked outside, I felt the sun shining on my face and I resolved to think that Jack was shining down on me. So I consciously did that every time I was conscious of the sun.

He loved Kongs.
He loved Kongs.

This is a tough post to write so I’m not going to tell you Jack’s backstory today. But he was a great dog. I miss him all these years later. I feel twinges of guilt and regret, but I recognize that I made the best decision with the information I had on hand. You can’t get much better advice than your vet who happens to be a dear friend. So I wouldn’t undo anything, I just have to be okay with the fact that sometimes terrible things happen and we really can’t make them better by wishing.

But I have a permanent reminder scar inside my lip (and outside.) I also still have a scar on my forehead that aches when I’m stressed. And I have the sunshine.

I’m gonna go hug my dogs now. 

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