I remember rolling my eyes the first time I saw a bumper sticker that depicted a dog and read “Who rescued who?”
Many years and two dogs later I completely understand this sentiment, and firmly believe my dogs helped me get and stay sober. As long as I can remember my yearly birthday candle wish was for a dog. I adored their permanent smiles and waggin’ tails; their endless capacity for love; and their playful spirit. It was a stretch to get my dad on the cat train, and a dog was out of the question. Yet, I remained obsessed, often befriending folks and families for the sake of getting in my weekly pet quota.
I didn’t grow up in a family very fond of the outdoors, but have always been drawn to animals and plants and the heartbeats and breaths that connect us. I grew up surrounded by cornfields in the Midwest, but any time I could walk along the dunes on the shores of the Great Lakes or duck into a rare forest my heart would soar. After decades in the Midwest I headed down to Tiwa Pueblo land in Albuquerque, New Mexico to start a new chapter of my life in grad school. Every day I’d wake up to see the pink tinted Sandia Mountains rising from the east. I’d venture down to the Rio Grande and follow her curves through miles of forest. I went camping for the very first time. I was in heaven - and I knew that I wanted to share all these nature adventures with a dog. I also knew I was barely able to take care of myself, let alone a pet.
This was a period of many transitions for me, geographically and genderly (it’s a word now I promise). Albuquerque was the first place I’d ever found a trans community and they gave me the strength to come out to myself and my people. I was lucky to grow up in a loving family that let me wear boy clothes from an early age, but growing up in the 90s I had no language to articulate that I wasn’t just a tomboy. Name changes and body changes and voice changes were wild to weather, but worth it. Despite this time of growth and self-acceptance, my relationship with drugs and alcohol was worsening. As Old Dickens likes to say “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
After the final remnants of my dreaded breast tissue left my body, I woke up from anesthesia and immediately asked for a whiskey. While I finally had my dream body and in a lot of ways my ideal life, I still couldn’t get through the day without drugs or the night without drinking. Wake and bakes began in high school and went from cutesy-edgy-stoner kid to being debilitated by anxiety after that first morning hit - but still doing it anyways. Drinking started as a way for me to assert my masculinity and turned into a way to mask my shame in finally expressing and embodying it. While my gender dysphoria was extremely diminished by the steps I’d taken to make my body a home, I still had a deep well of shame around my queer and trans identity.
After weeks of a pity party I was ready for a change. I hadn’t gotten real enough with myself to get sober - but I thought getting a dog would help give my life some meaning and structure. The Animal Humane Society has an amazing quiz that helps you match with a fur friend of a similar temperament. At the time I was spending hours on the couch, watching TV and day drinking, while telling all my friends that I was working on my master’s thesis. When I took the quiz I got “purple couch potato” and was matched mostly with elderly dogs. I decided to take the quiz again, this time as my ideal self - someone that got back into the nature they loved, woke up in the morning and not the afternoon, and lived a life they didn’t have to run from. My perfect match was, and is, Mahler.
The first months were lovely but rough. I wasn’t used to getting up in the mornings, and felt like a monster everytime she had an accident because I didn’t let her out. Day by day she got me out more - I was at the point of my addiction that just leaving the house was a success. Everyday her compassionate eyes and red heeler grin coaxed me into my running shoes and out to the river. I had always loathed structure, and I think part of my hate comes out of my absolute need for it. Mahler gave me that. This kind soul loved me no matter what, and doing things like getting up earlier, moving my body, and even making music brought her joy - and by watching her I learned how to feel that joy too.
A few months after getting Mahler I quit drinking. I never thought it was “that bad of an issue” but I had the shakes and other serious withdrawal symptoms for the first week. I called rehabilitation centers around me and out of desperation across the country. At the time I could not find a safe place to land as a nonbinary trans person - and amazing resources like CLEAN Cause supporting recovery with 50% of their profits weren’t around to help me pay for a facility. So I white knuckled it at home, with my pup comforting me through every shaky morning and endless night. Reaching out and feeling her fur in the middle of a panic attack or a swell of craving always grounded me back in reality.
So many of the Buddhist heart practices that have helped me get and stay sober are perfectly exhibited by dogs - a lot of meditation teachers even suggest conjuring to mind a loving pet when doing practices like compassion meditations. Mahler has taught me how to forgive, how to feel joy for myself and for others, and above all the magic of being in the moment.
Mahler got a baby sister this winter, a rez dog from Santo Domingo Pueblo named Billie Holiday. Watching Mahler be a kind teacher and loving play partner makes my heart swell with so much pride. I’ve never quite agreed with the saying that you need to learn how to love yourself before you can love others. Loving and caring for Mahler helped me learn how to love and care for myself. I don’t think I would have gotten sober had I not seen how much positively changing my life changes the world around me. It all starts small - if we want to change the world it starts with getting right with ourselves and the beings around us.
I got sober when I realized I’d completely isolated myself. I came to this beautiful place and found incredible community, and by the end of my drinking career I’d completely cut myself off from them. As Johann Hari powerfully said “the opposite of addiction is connection” - and I believe this extends beyond the human. Being outside and sober I feel this connection to all living things, usually by watching my dogs drink in a scene of beauty.
For me sobriety is choosing radical presence - and this isn’t always easy. My lows aren’t the same as they used to be, and my high points I can actually fully experience and appreciate. Everything good in my life right now is a result of making the decision to stop numbing and running, and turning to face my demons. There aren’t words to describe climbing a mountain speckled with wildflowers and sinking down to take a breather at the peak with your dogs panting and smiling and the sky stretching out forever, and being just as present as them to drink all that beauty in. There aren’t enough belly rubs in the world to thank these pups for saving me time and time again.