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How an Encounter With a Feral Dog Helped Me Conquer My Insomnia

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The power didn’t come to me all at once. It wasn’t until years later, through a moment of emotional and physical debilitation when power reasserted itself like a silver flagon of reserve strength. By then, I had mounted up plentiful reasons to doubt myself.

It happened quietly, several years ago, on a nature hike by a stream running near my parents’ house in rural Utah. They lived at the edge of town and the river bottoms, not 10 minutes’ stroll from the house, were better than halfway to nowhere.

I dipped into the stream, spring runoff foaming up cold and swift around my calves. I crossed and pressed up to the opposite bank. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze softened the heat. It was a lovely afternoon and nothing could be better than a lazy stroll, without another person in the world to disturb me. Not another person.

When I turned for home, I confronted my stalker.

A pit bull had been following me as I paralleled the stream. No collar and too lean for healthy domesticity. She didn’t look lost and had more than a passing interest in me.

My skin tingled and my thoughts raced. At this point, I was still OK. I could hop sideways into the stream and avoid a close encounter, she would be unlikely to follow me into the deep water. So I plunged straight into the middle, the current swallowed my knees as I grappled for footing. Then I raised my gaze.

A Rottweiler loomed down from the opposite bank. Also collarless. Also feral. He was dancing in the red dirt and nerving himself up to charge. I glanced back. The pit bull was braving the stream behind me. They were acting in concert. They were hunting me.

I froze, chest pounding and blood surging. My amygdala screamed, run!

But my pre-frontal cortex had already assessed this option. Two dogs, nothing to climb. No one would even hear the screams. One false move was sufficient. Death by mauling.

So I bluffed. Years of breeding for obedience to humans must come to something. I told myself: I’m in charge. Then I told the dogs.

I slapped my thigh and honeyed my larynx, “Come here boy! Come here.” I took a furtive step closer. “That’s it. Come!”

The beast bounded over and into me as though we were pals. The Rottweiler was the alpha, so the pit bull followed him. They trailed me all the way home, where I gave them some water and called animal control, who responded quickly, loading them docilely into the back of a closed trailer.

That was it. I buried the memory in my brain, never giving myself much credit for bravery or sharp instincts. I’d mastered a potentially horrible situation and saved my own life and perhaps others, but I didn’t think much about it. My subconscious mind, though, knew the truth.

The memory never surfaced again until years later when I was equally threatened. Only this time, I was dying by degrees in the late stages of HPA axis dysregulation and receiving therapy for severe insomnia that sometimes stretched on for days. Not sleeping terrified me. And this was a demon lording largely over me nightly.

I was on the postdoc insurance plan, so Stanford gave me its unqualified therapists. It was good practice for them and the right price for me. The system was a bit of a pretense, but I’m not complaining.

My “pseudo therapist” sat opposite me, legs crossed, an elbow propped on his desk. “Let’s not talk about confronting your fears. That would be easy. I’m talking about something bigger than that. How do you get to the place where you are greeting your horror-inducing demons and inviting them in for tea? The place where you have compassion for them?”

“Is there such a place?” I asked.

“Of course! Don’t look at me like that. I didn’t say I’d been there. But I’m not the one with a sleep problem.”

“I don’t even know how to start,” I said.

“Try to identify the monster your sleep deprivation represents. And then start dressing her up like she’s from 18th century England — whatever you can find humor in. It will take some practice, but you’ve got time.” He glanced at his wrist. “You can tell me how it went next week.”

I don’t mind meditation. I never did. If I could have simultaneously done a body scan and pushed a stroller, I would have done it. But I was never advanced enough. And since the order of the day was compassion for your demons, I could take no revenge on anyone, least of all my therapist.

A well-thumbed through copy of  “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” rested on my nightstand. Lady Poole was even more pitiable to me than to most. I ached for her and her terrors. Only by then, I had had a lot of therapy. So I at least had the illusion of patience when I took to my own bed at night. Internally, I was a wreck. I despised our midnight flautist neighbor. I loathed the washing machine’s thrumming from the apartment next to ours. I brought cookies to the neighbor who lived above us in hopes of persuading him to use earbuds.

Each night, I would lie down and compose myself for Insomnia’s tap on the shoulder. Each night, Insomnia leered at me in grotesque hospitality and we stood up in a ritual two-step. Night after night, we danced until dawn with me trying to muster some feigned — if not sincere — sense of compassion. But not this night.

From somewhere buried in the recesses of my mind, a Rottweiler reared its head and charged over years past into my conscious mind. Teeth bared and snarling. I tensed, but didn’t retreat a step. I remembered.

I had encountered this once before. The beast danced and lunged, but I held my ground. I stared at my aggressor, peering deep into his black menacing eyes. Something happened. I recognized the fear. It was real, no bluffing about it. And I softened. For fear, I had compassion. Fear, I understood. And I spoke to the animal, my heart almost breaking for this horrified beast.

It took most of the night, but I stayed with him, coaxing him slowly toward me. In the end, he curled at my feet, dropping off before I did.

I yielded to sleep at last, curling up with the dozing animal in my arms.

I look at it now through the lens of almost recovery and can compare the relative mountains of fear. I know all about HPA axis dysregulation, functional vitamin b6 deficiencies and the strengths and limits of cognitive behavioral therapy.

And I suppose I will encounter that angry beast yet again in my lifetime. But now, I will have not only the first, but also the second experience to stand upon. And deeper compassion to send to him.

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Originally published: January 24, 2017
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