For as long as I can remember I’ve had a deadly fear of dogs, the type of panic-stricken, heart about to leap out of my chest the minute one managed to get anywhere close to me kind of fear. Me and dogs have a colorful history. My father used to joke, “Want to see Gale move fast? Put a dog behind her.”
I can’t say for sure exactly where this fear came from but if I’m sure it had something to do with negative childhood experience. As a small child, in do I dare say the late 70s, we lived on a Brooklyn block with one remaining white family clearly dissatisfied with both the changing face of their neighborhood and, as I perceive in hindsight, their financial inability to move like the rest of their counterparts did. Perhaps to channel their aggression and for amusement, they would release their German shepherd on us. The dog chased me once, me narrowly escaping his harrowing jaws. After that I became finely attuned to any signs of dogs in my vicinity, from the sound of jingling dog tags to the patterns of their breathing, and took every precaution to avoid danger.
Fast forward to the early 90s. I met my soon to be ex-husband in 1990, when I was 16 years old. By 1992 we broke up twice due to him cheating on me in both instances. The first occurrence I handled well, saddened but gracefully parting ways. The second time, not so much. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, I launch a Beware of Dog campaign throughout the five boroughs of New York city. As James Brown put it: revenge, I’m mad.
See I could go into how he apologized after the first breakup and assured me it would never happen again but the truth is none of that matters. What matters is he showed me who he was the first time and still yet I managed to convince myself otherwise, so much so that despite having marked him on a beware of dog flyer some twenty-five years ago we ended up married with child.
In case you’re wondering the answer is yes. Yes, I really did create a paper flyer with a Beware of Dog header, his picture underneath and some key bullet points as a dating public service announcement to would be suitors. Fool me twice, shame on me. For the sake of time let’s just say I was a damn fool, some might say a fool for love. A dear friend used to say love makes you deaf, dumb, blind and stupid and admittedly I became all of the above for turning a blind eye to the markers that, in a moment of rage and clarity, I outlined not just for myself but for all to see.
By the time a lengthy relationship reaches breakup or marriage reaches divorce, patterns are evident. People show us who they are all the time but we find a way to explain or excuse away the red flags. The divorce process, a hard and painful professor, forced me to remove the rose-colored glasses and open my eyes, teaching me that two people may love each other but that does not mean they are good with or for each other. We find ourselves drawn to people and situations designed to teach us something.
Red flags, simply put, are caution signs. If it sounds like a dog and breathes like a dog and you’re afraid of dogs, take cover. He’s so charming, if he would just _________________. She’s so beautiful, I don’t like that she _______________________ but __________________. You fill in the blanks with those seemingly minor disturbances which, over time, become major impediments. Stop focusing on them and what they did or didn’t do. To move forward, turn the focus inward. How were you sensory challenged? Did you hear what you wanted to hear or see what you wanted to see?
After my marriage imploded, I overcame my fear of dogs. Not only did I stop avoiding dogs, I began approaching them. Divorce forced me to confront my fears. The fear of being alone was a big one but perhaps the greatest fear was the loss of integrity.
Every time we ignore a red flag, acquiesce to fit a square peg into a round hole, we lose a bit of ourselves by moving the yard stick on our personal boundaries. That is not indicative of love and it is a malignancy to self-love. When those alarm bells go off, look within. Evaluate the warning, determine the validity of the perceived threat and make necessary adjustments.
My fear of dogs was valid. I learned early on that some dogs pose a threat. I had to look within to realize that the level of fear I had pertaining to dogs was irrational. The key was differentiating between perception and actuality. The bark is worse than the bite. Words are perception. Anyone can spin a favorable narrative. Action is actuality. What does the behavior tell you?
Life has a funny way of bringing our issues to the forefront. Mother Theresa said “In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” All of our experiences are designed to teach us something and, like it or not, pain is a powerful teacher. Our job is to decipher the lesson, trace it back to its root, learn from and improve upon it.What has pain taught you?