When we adopted our dog Ella almost three years, we initially saw a frisky little beagle mix pooch who no one else wanted. We lavished her with love and attention (and expensive treats and food), only to quickly discover that she clearly had “issues.” Almost immediately, we realized that whenever we encountered other dogs on leashes (Ella is always on a leash, as well), she went into “kill” mode. She was gentle and sweet with our other dog and with us, but she seemed to think she was supposed to attack other dogs on leashes. When I went back to the shelter and asked about this, they told me she had been like this there (but they never told me!) I absolutely adore Ella in spite of her baggage. Even after three years of giving her constant love and affection, we have not been able to help Ella shed all the emotional baggage she has been carrying from her past.
I have loved many dogs. Dogs often give us the unconditional love and affection that our friends and family fail to provide. Even in their worst moments, the dogs I have loved have been like children to me. That said, however, I am not sure I have ever loved a dog as much as I love Ella. Recently, I think I figured out that a big reason for my special love for her is that I really identify with her. She has a strong personality like I, but she seems to get her feelings hurt very easily. On the rare occasions when I raise my voice to her or she thinks she is in trouble with me, she hides her face makes an expression of pain. My love language is words of affirmation, and Ella seems to always seek affirmation from. Ironically, not only did not get very few words of affirmation from my own mother, most of what I got from her was criticism.
My mother grew up a middle child with many insecurities. Her older sister was her father’s favorite child, and her younger sister was her mother’s favorite. She felt that she was no one’s favorite. Further, she has asthma, and she even missed her first day of 1st grade because of her asthma. I think Mom spent much of her life trying to prove she was worthy based on some inexplicable standard because of her chronic insecurities. My Dad was handsome and well-known in the community. I imagine when she married him, she had visions of having the perfect husband, beautiful & perfect kids and showing everyone she had the ideal family. Mom and Dad has two girls and two boys. I was the oldest. My sister and two brothers were all good-looking and athletic. I, on the other hand, was heavy and riddled with acne and tended to sit alone in my room to read books. I can still remember overhearing my mom tell me dad, “Maybe we need to take her to a psychologist.” My mom did not understand how two social and outgoing parents could end up with an introverted and shy (and ugly) child. While I remember my mom bragging about my siblings’ athletic accomplishments, all I really remember her doing with me was asking me things like: “You don’t need eat that, do you?” or “Did you forget to use your acne medicine last night?” or “Don’t you think people would like you more if you were thinner?”
I didn’t realize it for years, but in retrospect, I know now that almost every time I was around my mom, I was generally bracing myself to withstand the criticism that I certain to endure. She believed she was “helping” me, but I felt like I was constantly under attack. I never felt like she loved or appreciated me just as I was. When she was dying, her last words to me were “I don’t want to hear your voice right now.” When she died 8 years ago, the prevailing emotion I felt was relief. My dad told me at the time that Mom had told him that she felt like she loved me more than I loved her. I think she may have been right. I have read books by authors who had terrible mothers, and these authors have the depth of character to find it in themselves to still love their moms. I feel nothing. I have worried that perhaps I am heartless. Am I a psychopath? At Mom’s memorial service, all of my siblings wept. My best friend wept. I felt nothing by relief. Well, relief and some worry that my sense of relief was a sign that there is something wrong with me. I received so many sympathy cards from people telling me how sorry they were and that losing a mother is just so tragic. I felt like a fraud accepting these cards. I thought “I am relieved. I don’t need sympathy, I need champagne.”
Then anger set in. Mom handled all of the financial affairs for herself and my dad. By the time she died, Dad was the early stages of dementia. That meant I had to take over where she left off. But, of course, since she was in denial about the fact that she was dying, and my family has always refused to talk about anything unpleasant, Mom always refused to tell me where the financial records were, or what any PINs or passwords were. I cannot even describe the shit storm I inherited. I had nightmares after her death in which Mom would appear as a ghost, and I would ask her what a password for something was, and just as she was about to tell, she would “poof” disappear. I was furious! Or, I would be swimming, and she would pop up in the water, and I would try to drown her since she was supposed to be dead. Even 8 years after her death, I am still angry when she shows up in a dream.
I cannot share this with anyone except my therapist. People judge you when you think you might hate your mother. My siblings still cry when they talk about Mom. What I don’t think they will ever realize is that they had a different mother than I did. Their mother LOVED them and spoke their love language. My mother spent 43 years chipping away at my self-esteem and generally made me feel lousy about myself. Mom built my siblings up, and she tore me to bits.
So, I think Ella and I are both broken, and we connect because we need each other. I need to be needed, and she needs me to need her. We are bonded. We are both trying to deal with our baggage. When are snuggling together, all is right with our worlds. Do we need to continue to work through our issues? Of course. But I hope recognizing them will be a step in that process.