Our family doesn’t do ‘easy.’ At times when I am tired and worn down I might rail against this, but when you get right down to it I don’t really expect life to be any other way.
A week before Christmas we brought home a puppy, a nearly 5-month-old mutt rescued from Bulgaria. This followed the unexpected death of our beloved, gentle Christmas dog Noel. The empty space in the lower 12-inches of this house was too great for our son with FASD to bear. We all were sad. So we moved quickly. Our idea was to bring in a dog different enough from Noel to avoid constant comparisons.
Enter Joy. (Yes, remarkably that was her name.) She is a beautiful, sweet being who had a complicated beginning. As a friend of ours, Savanna Pietrantonio, insightfully said, “We get the dog we need, not the dog we want.”
At the last minute we had to bring our son with us to pick up Joy from the kennel. We were worried that if the dog was unsettled on the long ride home it might be traumatic. On the contrary, Joy was silent the whole ride home and for the first couple of days. Our son comforted her the whole way home. They have a special bond as a result.
But welcoming Joy was and is complex. For the first time in many years I was thrown back to the days when we first brought home our son who had spent the first sixteen months of his life in a Russian orphanage. The effects of early institutionalization were familiar in a deeply saddening and worrying way. Our little one too had been silent, not making any voluntary noises. He had been unfamiliar with any but the most limited of sights, smells, sounds, tastes, textures. His basic needs had been met but his soul was uninspired, dormant. He was withdrawn into himself, not trusting the world could meet his needs. He would retract his arms and legs into a onesie and rock himself because no one else did. He too flinched if I made a sudden movement.
Joy had lived her first five months with other puppies in what looked like a 3×3 corner of a concrete room. She was fed and warm but not able to explore, to grow, to socialize with humans. We hadn’t fully appreciated the impact this would have on her. The first morning she was here she was terrified by a garbage truck and the sound of rumbling bins being dragged along the pavement. She also had tentatively crept up behind my husband who stepped back and accidently trod on her. She was not hurt but freaked. She spent that entire day on the dog bed not moving, not eating. I was fearful, reliving Noel’s last days as I hand-fed her food and worried if maybe my husband had hurt her back, scared she could not move. But she was just shut down, uncertain. Later she growled and snapped at my husband and our elder son. She wouldn’t go through doorways. When she eventually found her voice, she barked at every sound – the heating, the trees, footsteps on the stairs. These sudden and unpredictable outbursts of course affected our son with FASD. We became alarmed that perhaps this might not work. Our house isn’t easy – and the last thing we need in our mix is an unpredictable and scarred dog.
But then I started to notice little moments.
Our son with FASD was giving me hugs, encouraging me. He saw Joy was upset. He was analyzing how she was reacting to me and he told me I was doing a ‘good job.’ He understood that she needed reassurance. He kept his voice modulated, withdrew to his room when it was too much for him. He understood that Joy was experiencing new sounds and sights that were overwhelming her, just like sometimes happens to him. Even after she snapped (though interestingly never at him) he understood that sometimes he too lashes out when he is dysregulated. He forgave her. He was using his experience to explain her needs to us. He thinks Joy sees him as her Daddy. This is the first time I have ever heard our son see himself in a paternal role, a sign of how he is maturing. Proof that while Noel was all about comfort and security, this dog is going to help him in different ways, taking him and our family to the next level.
The rest of us are having to seriously reexamine what type of energy we are projecting. Joy had an instant negative reaction to our stress. For years we have talked about our need to keep a calm environment to cognitively support our son, but Joy is forcing us to take this awareness to a whole new level. She responds instantly to negativity, showing us physically that even when we think we might be modulating our energy, the stress is still too high, still has an impact. It makes me think of all the pressure we place on our son, even when we don’t realise we are doing so, relying on him to be the one to change, to conform. Joy is showing us we are not as calm and collected as we think we are-this is an incredibly timely reminder to help us help our son as he enters these teenage years.
Joy has removed the focus from our son with FASD and has allowed us all to have a third-party discussion about sensory issues and strategies that brings our family to a whole new level of awareness. Suddenly our youngest son is not the only one in the house with needs in this area. Changing the focus is freeing for him in ways I had not anticipated.
After one particularly hyper and alarming moment, I took Joy onto my lap and I started to massage her as I have learned to do with our youngest, providing deep pressure to help self-regulation. I was discussing with our son as I was doing it that this is the same thing that helps him sometimes, he could see it working from a different perspective. Joy relaxed fully, like butter in my arms. It was humbling and encouraging. That was when I believed we could overcome her issues. We know how to help a traumatized soul. We just need patience. I also realized this would take time. So, while I regretted this happened just before Christmas, I began to welcome the timing for the gift it was. Over the holiday we have had the time to give. And I needed to slow down anyway. The immediacy of this forced me to step into the now.
This year, we simplified our Christmas celebrations. We put up fewer decorations. Everything on the tree is non-breakable just in case. We mostly stayed home and limited who was coming to the house. Those who did come came with an explicit request to be gentle and calm. As a result, despite the added chaos of a new puppy in our mix, we have had one of the calmest and most successful holidays yet.
Due to her enthusiasm at smelling human food, Joy has even succeeded in getting our family eating once again around a table. Bonus!
As our friend Savanna Pietrantonio said, “Everyone can come together for this little being who didn’t choose to be born but was chosen.” As an adult with FASD who has a ground-breaking FASD service dog, the first of the kind in her area, she has offered us a consistent stream of insight and advice on how to integrate this puppy into our lives. She said Joy will help our son become self-aware. “I really have to watch my voice and reactions now so not to scare [my dog]. I’ve become really aware of myself being myself. That’s a good thing for [your son].” She helped me to see the lesson in this for me as well. I was receiving a wide range of advice from corners near and far. But I felt this dog should not be pushed too fast, that there was healing that needed to be done first. She said, “You know instinctively how to do this. All the people around you make you doubt yourself and work against you. Just like FASD!!!!! People assume dogs are like us with FASD. We must be disciplined and obey and use logic and not spoil them! I say meet the child or dog child’s needs and they will have no needs.”
Joy is settling down, learning how to trust our pack. We have come to accept that nips are not always bites and her growls might come from fear that is diminishing with decreased anxiety and security.
She stuns me at times with her nobility, her gentleness, her playfulness, her alertness. She is a bundle of energy, a hound whose senses are highly attuned. She likes to get wet and muddy. As we had hoped, she is so different from Noel that there is no comparison. Each of us is bonding with her in our own ways. It’s lovely.
The second time we let Joy into the garden, I witnessed something magnificent. Suddenly she overcame her fear of all the unknowns and let go. She ran for what I think was the first time in her life, bounding over low walls and steps. Soaring. She had found her legs. I felt like I had witnessed a birth. It was a freedom and a feeling she had never known. I hadn’t known I needed this dog too.
I was thrown back to the early days with our son who also had lived confined within walls all his early life. I remembered the first time he felt the wind on his face—he laughed with pure glee, blinking his eye lashes, completely enthralled. It took a while but he began to welcome and not fear those horizons that are wider than his early experiences led him to believe. To learn there can be hope beyond the walls that contain us.
This sums up the lessons of our FASD parenting journey. If we nurture our belief in what is good in this world and in those we love even through the dark times—maybe especially through the dark times—if we let go of expectations we can open our hearts and our lives to what’s new and different.
Going beyond our fears and trusting Joy is going to take us to the next level.