The Case for Codependency… With a Rescue Dog
Tue, 08 Mar 2022 06:46:07 +0000
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They say all roads lead to Al-Anon, but every time I take my seat in a dank church basement at a meeting that delves into control, I inevitably end up wanting to run away. Because the thing is, there can be a lot of love in an enmeshed family and I have not yet been able to cut those cords. It’s the love I don’t want to lose, as well as the qualities I’ve gained from being a part of a codependent system. The gifts I’ve acquired – like going the extra mile and being the kind of person others can depend on – are things I like about me.
I come from a family who polls every decision, vibrates with panic, and shapeshifts into blurred roles and lines constantly, and these are some of the challenging patterns I continue to work on as a codependent person. But at the same time, I’ve been able to use some of the aforementioned CODA skills to help animals, specifically shelter dogs. Yeah, it’s a loophole, of sorts. Everything has a light side and a dark side. But the tangled-up, deep love I’ve learned to practice in my family of origin, the kind of love that almost hurts, has allowed me to have the positive relationships with rescue dogs who need help. And as I’ve learned to engage in this kind of love with them, I inadvertently stopped being codependent with people, because loving dogs well involved me wanting to get them right in the mind. That taught me to implement boundaries. I know it’s a stretch but trust me: walking down a shelter corridor and taking in all that pain, very much makes one want to do right by those animals. It will mean more than wanting to feel like a savior. It will become less about you. What a relief, right?
Furthermore, because of how much I love dogs, they make me careful not to make them codependent on me. As a foster mom, my job is to get them ready to go to happy homes and enjoy the smoothest transition possible into their new life. This means I must allow them to experience discomfort, tolerate limitations, learn independence, and be balanced. And in giving these gifts to them, I’ve learned how to give them to myself.
Am I really making a case for codependency here? I am.
Because once we understand something and experience it fully, with awareness, we can know how to stop it.
I want to take a minute to point out that codependency can feel like the encouragement to abandon oneself and put others first. It’s a cutting off self, a lack of identity without person or family to fix or please or obsess about. It’s a dangerous game when we can’t speak our needs or share a truth, and I don’t want to gloss over those agonizing elements of this unhealthy dynamic or make the dysfunction sound fun. But it’s humans I’ve experienced this with, it’s people who have disappointed me when it comes to a codependent paradigm. It’s my family I haven’t been able to change the nature of our relationship with.
As I type these words, my 17-year old Beagle mix, Ophelia, my first rescue dog, is snoring on my lap. She has never, not once, pushed me to forget myself, has never shoved her guilt onto me or held on tighter when I walked out the door. My dog waits patiently, she dances when I come home, she accepts what I want, and she lets me know what she wants, as if it’s all okay just the way we are, as if we can be together or apart, but the love isn’t dependent on either and it won’t ever be affected by imperfections or mistakes or feelings. I adore Ophelia, I am devoted to her, and because of her, I have grown to love myself. Because of her, I’ve also adopted many other dogs and fostered many other dogs, each time proving to myself again that being codependent on dogs is safe. Here exactly is why:
- You never have to sell yourself out for a dog’s affection and companionship. You never have to perform to earn their approval. You just have to be halfway decent. For me, going into an animal shelter, bearing that world of hurt and taking in the ugly smells and earsplitting barks and eager eyes from behind kennel bars, was all I had to do to be rewarded with unconditional friendship from someone who needed just one friend in the world. It makes me feel proud to be that friend, and I can admit that a part of me still needs to be needed. Perhaps that part of me is a continuation of codependency instead of a cure, but it’s also a safe place to park my natural/nurture-al symbiotic spirit there so that I don’t keep handing it over to humans who will without a doubt let me down. It’s my great, grand ability to be disappointed that I’ve found hard to deal with. But my old Beagle, my shelter pets, they never let me down. They continue to need me and I am not above saying it because when we speak honestly, we can hopefully prevent the fallout of defects run rampant and pathologies.
- Emotionally relying on a dog who relies on me is also acceptable in my book because it can actually strengthen the bond. A dog requires consistent checking in, and every time we do that, every time we engage in communication with our dogs, they are looking back at us with those devoted eyes that in and of themselves are an honor. And because of all this happens without words, it will make you believe in the power of communicating, in sharing your needs as well as attempting to understand another’s, with willingness. It will make you get quiet enough to hear yourself.
- My dogs and I are in a constant feedback loop of connection. Each time I try to reach out and understand or be understood by them, they are doing the same, they are there to receive it, cherish it, and reciprocate. I’m not saying animals are here to serve us, but I am saying that an indirect benefit of loving Ophelia has been enjoying a relationship where codependency feels nontoxic precisely because there is no risk of being rejected. Sometimes it feels like she and I are one. Sometimes other people don’t get that. But I don’t care, and in this light, being codependent with a dog might be the best way towards self-discovery – because I have found that I can be somebody who doesn’t care what others think. Go figure!
- A dog will become a justifiable excuse to say no when you need to say no, even embolden you to say it. Practicing saying no in order to go feed my dog, walk her, and take care of her has been incredibly therapeutic for me. It has dared me to try saying no at other times. Am I using her? Maybe a little. Does she mind? I don’t think so. Because whether Ophelia catches me picking my nose or declining a call I should answer or being a general asshole or fibbing, she doesn’t judge me, and that has helped me stop judging myself, at least a little bit.
- Over the years, as I have had to trust my intuition about what I think my dogs are telling me, it has compelled me to trust myself, what I believe, what my gut says. I think that is the muscle I’ve most needed to build in order to loosen my codependency on other people. Ophelia has shown me that I can count on myself, on what I perceive or sense, and that I’m often right. And that when I’m not, it’s not the end of the world, I can try again. More forgiveness has been the result.
So maybe I am looking for a workaround, an excuse to be codependent in a way that serves me because it’s so hard to change our own mental patterns. Sure, I’ll probably return to Al-Anon again in six months on the edge of reason. But I will still have dogs in my life to walk through recovery with me, wherever I am on that journey. And for now, this area of my recovery remains the final frontier. Because I love my family, I do, and the only border I’ve been able to implement between us is made up of four-legged friends. I’ve learned to pour my CODA into purpose, into these tender animals who deserve a chance at a good life, and miraculously they’re helping me evolve. They’re helping me feel good about what I give. They’re helping me feel worthwhile and worth loving.
What’s ironic is that as I engage in a sacred love with Ophelia, my codependency is morphing and I am in the practice of learning to let go. Because my precious pets will not live as long as I do, and thus I will have no choice but to grow the resilience and self-care needed in order to go on. In this most generous last act, dogs help heal us of codependency’s grip, showing us what we’re made of, how strong we really are, and that we can live beyond heartache. I look at Ophelia with utter gratitude even though I know what’s coming. She will leave me standing on my own two feet, less codependent than I was before her. Proud of what we were together, forever. And there is always another shelter, there are always more dogs to take in and learn from, learn with. And on and on it goes, the world turns, and we redefine ourselves each day by the ones who love us. But when it comes to dogs, they leave us loving ourselves most in the end.
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