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Everything in this story is the God’s honest truth; especially the parts that seem exaggerated. When my twins, my only children, were applying to colleges, I told them that they couldn’t go west of Connecticut. I raised them in Rhode Island. While they currently live on campus, the bus that takes them to and from the university they attend passes by our new house, the one my husband and I downsized into so that we could pay for their college education and not have to work until we are Orrin Hatch’s age. The move was a sacrifice: from one of the most secluded neighborhoods on Aquidneck Island where everyone has a golf cart for trick or treating, to a house off the highway, so close to the busy road that when I’m using the bathroom, I have to brace myself if a truck drives by. Actually, if I open my front door and then sit on the toilet with the bathroom door open and I time it right, I can wave to my sister Jeanne who passes by every morning.
Six months before our daughters left, I thought I would buy them the dog they’ve always wanted, so in the spring of the girls’ senior year of high school, we googled “Dogs that don’t bark and don’t like to walk.” We ended up with Harry, an English bulldog. I flew from Providence, Rhode Island to Columbus, Ohio in an afternoon to pick him up. When I met a representative from the breeder and was handed a small brown animal with long ears, I thought I had been conned and wondered instantly if I had just flown to Ohio to pick up a rabbit.
I had never had a dog myself so for the first nine months I treated him like a toddler. He had scheduled nap times, a pink stroller, an air-conditioner in his room and a sound machine. Eventually he went off to doggy day care, which is more like a preschool, where he still goes every day, where they throw birthday parties and give out cake, and encourage the dogs to play on plastic cars and slides. When he was three months old and had completely exhausted us with his puppy antics, my husband, a medical doctor, was convinced Harry had rabies. I just thought he was mentally ill and that he also had a fondness for women’s underwear.
I had read on the Internet that English bulldogs are susceptible to all sorts of health conditions. Before he was ten months, Harry had suffered from a seizure, chronic skin infections, respiratory infections, conjunctivitis, and tear ducts that underproduced. I grew concerned that the veterinarian might start to blame me.
“Do you think the vet is going to think I have munchkins disease?” I asked my husband.
“If you mean Munchhausen syndrome by proxy, then no. Although he may think that there are other things wrong with you.”
Unquestionably, my husband was right; there were and still are many things wrong with me. On top of my empty-nest crisis and puppy training, I live with chronic pain. Not root-canal-without-Novocain pain, but hourly, daily, pain. In early November 2016, on a Saturday night, I took a lot of pills, not a Heath Ledger dose, not even close, but enough to end up in the ER and by Monday morning we, meaning my Dr. Husband and I, were off to see a psychiatrist. I took a combination of drugs to help relieve the pain I had been experiencing, but secretly I’d been hoping for a spiritual revelation. For the last twenty years. And one afternoon, a few weeks before the ER visit, I was sure that I was on the verge of one while I was meditating.
I had taken up meditation, which for me involved sitting up in my bed wearing a sleeping mask and a bicycle helmet. Just before I reached a pretty impressive level of relaxation, I had a tendency to fall asleep and hit my head on the headboard. The helmet became a natural part of my meditation practice. On one particular afternoon, I thought for sure I saw a sign directly in front of me: a beautiful ruby red light, an indication of some sort of spiritual awakening. For about three or four seconds, I actually got nervous and questioned whether I was prepared for this type of experience: the light, the Truth, the whole thing. I even wondered if, braless, I were dressed for the occasion. I felt I might be seeing living sparks like Hildegard of Bingen or a red flowering tree sheltering all children like Black Elk. But it soon became clear that my desire for an awakening was just that my sleeping mask was on crooked and the red light was coming from the cable television box.
The experience that led me to the ER that cold November night was nothing short of terrifying but the only way I know how to describe it is to say that I had inhabited a universe made of Swiss cheese and every minute or two I slipped into one of the holes where time and space were incomprehensible. Trying to hold a thought together that night was like trying to hold smoke between my fingertips. A friend of mine who grew up in the Sixties called it a “bad trip.”
In the end, my psychiatrist said that my experience might have been the best thing that ever happened to me. When I asked him to explain, he said, “Sometimes you don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” We drove ninety minutes to hear him quote Mick Jagger.
I had been on a strict Paleo diet for thirty days, but on that morning, on our way back from seeing the doctor we headed to Dunkin’ Donuts where I got two large raisin bran muffins. On the way home, we took a different route. The thought occurred to me that maybe my husband was taking me someplace to commit me and my second thought was I hope he had enough sense to send me to a place that had Netflix since I had to finish Stranger Things and Luke Cage and for the love of God, I thought, I hope he packed my mascara and foundation. It turned out my husband just took a wrong turn and we were lost.
The following day when I returned home from picking Harry up at school I went into a full-fledged panic attack. Once I had unlocked my front door and was standing in my kitchen, I was convinced that someone was in our house. I called my sister who lives four minutes away. When she came into the house she could tell that I was on the edge, and she demanded I take a lorazepam before I even told her what was wrong.
Ever since I moved out of my parents’ house in 1985, I’ve had an irrational fear of men hiding in my closets, under the bed, in the basement or in the attic. For the past thirty years, wherever I’ve lived – in a studio apartment in Santa Cruz or in a large house on the coast of Maine – if I came home alone, I compulsively checked between every pair of Gap jeans and as I got older and fatter and went through menopause, I checked between every extra-long tunic, and behind every door. By the time I was middle-aged, my husband and I were living in a house with twelve closets and checking each one and then checking the basement and the attic turned out to be a work out.
That night, standing in the kitchen with my sister I said, “I need you to check the closets.”
“What am I looking for?” my sister asked.
“Men.” I told her.
“Any particular type?” she asked.
My sister, who is usually bold and unstoppable, slowly opened the pantry door and peered into it. And then she closed it as quickly as she could, holding her breath she said, “I think you’ve called the wrong person for the job.”
But still she carried on.
Eventually we headed to the attic. Harry took the lead, hauling his little bulldog ass up the stairs. When my sister opened the attic door, Harry made a beeline for the eaves. I managed to catch him but not before he put something in his mouth and swallowed it. I had suspected it was mouse poison and my mind raced back to the night I accidentally fed my twin ten-year-old daughters hot dogs laced with bright blue mouse droppings. Well, technically my husband fed them the hotdogs.
“Daddy, these hot dogs have blue spots on them,” Zoe said.
“Eat the hot dogs. They’re fine; I just bought them,” Dr. Husband replied.
“No, Daddy, they have turquoise-colored dots on them,” explained the future art major.
Having overheard this, I dashed into the kitchen and discovered flecks of tainted mouse poop in the cupboards and in the frying pan. I immediately called poison control and began quizzing the person on the other end of the line. He explained to me that my daughters would have had to ingest grams and grams to be, how shall I say, poisoned. My husband had to put me in a hot bath that night and give me a sedative. When I was sure he was back downstairs with the girls, I climbed out of the tub and called poison control back, this time disguising my voice and using my best manly British accent.
“My daughters, who weigh about 80 pounds, just ate hot dogs that had blue spots on them, the color of turquoise,” I said.
There was silence on the other end.
“Hello, did you hear me? My daughters ate hot dogs that were cooked in a pan that a dying mouse shit in.”
“Ma’am, I’ve already told you…”
Regardless of how he tried to assuage my fears again, I really couldn’t wrap my mind around what a “gram” was so I spent the night looking up grams of cocaine, grams of sand, grams of loose tea.
The morning after my sister searched in vain for a human intruder, Harry had what appeared to be a seizure. He was lying on his back, paws up in the air, like he was dead. I carried him to the car in a state of panic noticing dog chewed wrappings of a Dunkin’ Donuts raisin bran muffin. I didn’t know what caused the seizure: the raisins, which are known to be poisonous to dogs or mouse poison he might’ve gotten into the night before.
By the time we got to the vet, Harry appeared perfectly normal. Well, that’s if you consider licking the wall normal. Sitting on the floor with him in an examining room, waiting for the vet to come in, I contemplated weighing myself on the giant stainless steel hydraulic examination table that also served as scale. Naturally, I would have to strip to get an accurate reading of my weight but I wondered how I would explain myself if the vet came in and saw me standing there in my underpants.
The week of Harry’s seizure and my own visit to the ER, I was so worked up that all I could manage to make for dinner was cereal. By the end of the week I called the fish market.
“Hi. Do you recognize my voice? I’m a middle-aged, overweight woman who comes in and orders three pieces of wild salmon with the skin on.”
“There’s a lot of women that fit that description,” said the fish man. “How can I help you?”
“Well, my dog Harry had a seizure the other day and I don’t want to leave him alone. Do you think I can order my salmon from the car and then just toss you my credit card from the doorway because I’ve seen that your sign reads ‘No dogs allowed’ and for the last four days I’ve been eating cereal for all my meals and we live in this new house where the bathroom is close to the road. Well, I really don’t want to go into the specifics but do you think you could help me?”
The fish-market man tossed me my salmon like he was pitching to a ten-year-old nearsighted kid. After my attempt at tossing my credit card to him from the front door, which was six feet away and over a five-foot counter, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind coming out from behind the counter. I thought if I could just get him to stand at the same distance as the starting point for a good old-fashioned egg toss, we would have been successful.
Around the same time, Harry and I each had our own respective visits to our dermatologists. As long as we wipe his paws and the multiple folds of his face with medicated pads every night and keep his anal pocket clean and his anal glands expressed and he stays on his restricted hypoallergenic diet, he’ll be fine. My own visit was a little more anxiety-provoking as I had been experiencing intense itchy nipples which my high school friend who is now an oncology nurse had convinced me was a sign of advanced breast cancer. Once in the examining room the medical assistant asked what my chief complaint was and I told her.
As she typed, she spoke to herself like she was taking a deli order. “Well that’s two itchy nipples.”
When she was done typing she looked up and told me to undress but leave my underwear on under the medical gown. I was little embarrassed.
“I’m not wearing any underwear on account of my vagina.”
“What’s wrong with your vagina?” she asked.
“It itches, too. I think it’s old.”
Turning back to her keyboard she typed, “That’s two itchy nipples and one itchy vagina,” as if she were confirming my sandwich order.
Given her tone, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if she had followed up with, “Will that be all?” And had she, I might have been tempted to tell her about my trip to the ER, Harry’s seizure, and the imaginary men hiding in my closets.
It turns out that Harry and I both just have sensitive skin and are prone to dermatitis.
As November passed by, I still had not accepted my friend’s interpretation that it was all just a bad trip. I wore sunglasses on foggy and rainy days and wept in public, convinced that I was slowly losing my mind and that feeling of not being in control and not being able to speak would reoccur, unannounced, and unwanted like my new neighbor who knocked at my door at 10:30 at night and asking me to help locate her runaway rooster.
But then I remembered something that my psychiatrist said. He suggested that I look for signs of change that might occur as the result of the “bad trip”, particularly positive changes in the way I felt towards others. This resonated with me. That fall, I had just finished reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and I had become completely obsessed with Father Zosima’s display ofunbridled compassion and his deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. I wanted that desperately. I had begun to pray every day – a simple prayer: God make me less of an asshole.
Years ago when I learned researchers at Johns Hopkins were the first to use psilocybin to treat existential anxieties of terminally ill patients, I was kind of jealous that I didn’t qualify for the study. They reported that participants had come to terms with dying and felt one with the universe. I wanted that too, minus the terminal illness. So I conceded and thought maybe my psychiatrist was onto something. Perhaps that terrifying night wasn’t the type of spiritual experience that I wanted, but one that I needed. Following my doctor’s advice, I looked for subtle changes to see if I felt more connected to others. I ended up bonding with a lot of dogs on the beach that winter.
Maybe if I live long enough I’ll be diagnosed with cancer and then I’ll have a legitimate reason to investigate the effects of drugs like psilocybin. Now researchers have opened up the studies to garden-variety depressives and people prone to anxiety like myself. As ironic as it sounds, I think a cancer diagnosis would make me brave enough to experiment with drugs that promise life-changing experiences – experiences that might mitigate my pain and allow me to ignore the strangers in my closets. Until then, I’ll just hold on. Sometimes I’ll simply hold onto Harry, steadying myself like those moments when I’m on the can and my underwear is down around my ankles and a Mack truck drives by the house. I just hope that one day a truck doesn’t drive through the wall of our house and my colleagues and high school friends end up reading that I died on the toilet.
About Debra Curtis
I am a cultural anthropologist. My first book, Pleasures and Perils examines the production of girls' sexualities and capitalism on Nevis, a small Caribbean island. I am currently working on a novel set in Mongolia.