Before I get to the meaty bits of what I’m about to say, I’d like to offer a small appetizer. I’ve had what some may categorize a callous first run at life. I’ve also had the breed of woes many others would all too gladly clamor for at a Struggles Swap Meet, if that were an option. These things are relative—they get slopped on, latching without permission or warning. And these “things” I speak of? We’ve all got them, proof of life’s shark bites under our sleeves. I’m not here to compare my scars to any other. Nor am I here to speak for the characters in this spiel; they were doing their best. We’re all doing our best.
What I am here to do is to tell a story.
A story that starts where any practically arranged account does: the beginning. I was born into the kind of generationally-bestowed poverty that felt more like an incurable disease than a financial inconvenience. The kind not only determined by an omitted formal address (an unfinished basement in someone else’s home or a camper in a trailer park), but also by the heaviness in your shoulders and the thud of defeat in your eyes. The kind that adjusts a person.
I spent a lump of years in a haze of alarm, my subconscious instantly erasing memories too unwholesome to store—a rather neat, methodical trick. Then, unannounced, there was The Day—the one when my mom packed up me and the nothing we owned, hurrying us to a local women’s abuse shelter. It was a dull, chilly place that, despite its best efforts, made you feel more like a call number and less like a person with a name. It reeked of bleach and other people’s food. There were resident curfews and visitor approvals, counseling sessions where I sat silent and stared at the dimples in my shoes, and an unendurably ugly pea green quilt—a gift donated by a stranger and the only piece of bedding I had at the time. A quilt I still own; bury me with that putrid, full-size monstrosity.
Not long after, we moved to a secret home with “No Trespassing” signs zip-tied to the light posts in the yard, we ate Freeze Pops while perched atop the kitchen counter, we saw The Little Mermaid at the dollar theater. Not long after that, I began to believe this invited impression of ordinary had the potential to be more than a passerby—maybe it would sit with us a while, get to know us, like us enough to stay. And not long after that, my mom tried to commit suicide.
But this, I promise you, is not a total bummer of a story. The above? It’s context, only the first course; we’ve got two, three, and dessert coming up.
To cleanse your palate, my mom survived.
So did I.
I went along to become the first in my family to go to college, to buy a house, to do something so extravagant as hop on a plane pointed toward a passport-required destination. The tenderheartedness I was born with kept largely intact, I became sunny, determined, and impierceable.
“Ferociously friendly” has been a phrase used to describe me, one I find fitting. For years, though, that’s where it halted. Abruptly and by design. I’d architected a moat with a friend-to-many-close-to-none philosophy. Very, very surface is how I preferred my relationships with all other living creatures. The mundane, empty topics of conversation were always kosher. The weather? Sure. That one MPR segment? Yep. Favorite Biggie Smalls lyrics? “Birthdays was the worst days/now we sip champagne when we thirsty.” But dare try to get to know me—like, really get to know me, like, at all—I’d cut you out and toss you aside like scraps. It was safer that way. For all of us.
Of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual consequences, misplaced survival instincts like these seemed dainty enough to handle. They were mine, invisible jars of devilish gremlins I carried around with me—not apparent to anyone else, and I liked that about them. They kept me alert and frantic, careful and intact.
It was an ex-boyfriend who, caringly and rightly, first brought up the idea of a therapist. The gall. He had grown exhausted from trying to make conversation, only to find another item plainly listed on the buffet of off-limits topics. I responded to his inquiry with words forever etched into the grooves of my brain: “I can’t. The person who loves less holds all the power.” There it was, so purely and instinctively articulated, I stung even myself. Who thinks or believes or says that? Out loud? A busted person.
We broke up.
Eventually, after chipping away at a spreadsheet of pros and cons for, literally, weeks, I contacted a therapist, greeting her with another gross, forever-etched announcement of my intentions, “I’m here, but not because I want to be.” (Yeah, so take that, professional I’ve hired to help me make sense of me.)
The first hour I ever spent in therapy as an adult, I didn’t speak. I stared at the dimples in my shoes. We met again the next week and talked about weather, probably an MPR story, but didn’t get to The Notorious. By the third appointment, she reminded me there were more affordable places to sit and not talk, so instead of talking, I cried. That’s all I did. I sat there, I cried, I tried to carefully air out a drenched tissue on my thigh because I was too stubborn to reach for another. When our time was up, I hushed, “I’ll try to say something next time.”
Attachment Disorder and PTSD were the definitions she gave. Unexplained withdrawal, control issues, hypervigilance, inability to communicate, resistance to giving and receiving love despite craving it. Sounded about right.
Me: “What am I supposed to do about that?”
Her, very therapist-y: “That depends, what do you want?”
Questions cloaked in grand platitudes don’t appeal to me, but this was something I could overlook for one reason: I knew exactly what I wanted. I’ve always known exactly what I wanted. I wanted to right the wrongs. I wanted to put verbs and nouns to a new biography—a defiant middle finger to the statistics America was hell-bent on force-feeding. I was dented and dinged, but I would be unflinching. Mostly, I wanted to be the decider of my fate, a fate I imagined to have the one thing I ached for most of all: a family of my own. A family that didn’t have to be, couldn’t possibly be perfect, but one that could be constant, with people who laughed at slapstick and got diarrhea from eating too much cookie dough together.
Me: (An abbreviated, blubbering version of the above.)
Her: “You talk a lot about dogs. Get one. Start there.”
Me: “Are you giving me a prescription for a dog?”
I’ve always preferred the company of canines to humans, but this felt like too much pressure for one poor, unassuming pooch. A dog. I’d just get one and then, what? Ta-da, milk bones and happily ever afters? Is that how this worked? Seemed far-fetched at best, silly at worst. I did it anyway, mostly because I’d been looking for an excuse to get a dog and, you know, doctor’s orders.
My first afternoon with Arnold Evander Biscuits, my then-new pup, quickly revealed the contents of my assignment. He was a puppy and the thing about puppies is that they’re actually quite needy, and I’d always particularly despised needy. Needy provides no escape, needy demands attention; but needy, when worn on the face of a squishy-faced baby dog, is astronomically sweet. Even invited. This blunt force lesson in neediness was, unironically, all I needed.
He learned to ring a bell to go outside, he chewed not one, but two pairs of eyeglasses. He grew, and I did, too.
He asks for no explanations, his loyalty comes without prerequisite, and for someone who eye-rolls at the notion that everything in this big, weird, wild life happens for a reason, that dog was meant for me. He was meant to change me, and he did.
I wish there were this one thing that happened—this sickeningly sentimental Lifetime Original Movie moment to share with you—but there’s not. His love was unavoidable, a kind I couldn’t get away from; the kind I didn’t want to get away from. For the first time in my life, I learned immediately how to accept and reciprocate that love, something no human could have taught me. Something I wouldn’t have allowed any human to teach. He shares my excitement, feels my sadness, and nudges his way onto my lap to sniff at the tears I let out. He asks for no explanations, his loyalty comes without prerequisite, and for someone who eye-rolls at the notion that everything in this big, weird, wild life happens for a reason, that dog was meant for me. He was meant to change me, and he did.
Our closeness became training wheels for how to get through the world in a more meaningful way with my own species. I tested the waters by opening up more. Not a lot more, but a stingy extra helping here and there. I let people get close to me without resenting them for trying. I practiced, and practiced, and practiced. Then, startlingly, I toppled face-first, full-heartedly into love. Hard. The first night this man and I ever soloed together, I carefully walked him through the rooms of my life, making stops even in the dusty, dingy corners to pay them their dues. An exercise I had never done before, but I refused to be a stranger to him. Or to myself. He listened, calmly and coolly unfazed, then helped me seal up and set aside those jars I’d kept for so long. This kind of love was easy. It was sturdy. It was a home; one, that with all that practice, I was able to welcome myself into and not feel like an imposter.
Remember that life I knew I wanted? Arnold and I are living it, together, real cherry on top like. He, with a favorite sun patch, a yard, and more attention than is good for any one 28-pound pile of rolls. Me, with the love of my life and the miniature, diaper-wearing version of him. Am I healed? Not entirely. Did this nontraditional treatment plan turn my world right-side up? No question. After all, I now have a roster of about nine whole people I am deeply, entirely, unabashedly attached to—and that dog takes up two spots.
April (Swinson) Smasal spent her formative years in Wyoming, where her career options were limited to rodeo queen or writer. Foregoing the lure of an impressive belt buckle collection, she opted for the word thing. Now, she’s a copywriter and writer-writer living in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband, Nick, baby boy, Hank Danger and very cute-slash-spoiled French Bulldog, Arnold E. Biscuits.
BY April Smasal - May 14, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.