I Dream of John Henry

John Henry once came to me in a dream.

“I’m not as dumb as you think I am, you know,” He said, forlornly. His four paws patted the macadam, light and nimble, as his legs pumping him forward and a slight breeze blew through his rust-colored fur. A slight jounce remained in his step from his waning puppy-hood. Oy, our small, blonde Shiba Inu cross and Lucy, my loyal and recently deceased Rat Terrier trotted quickly on either side of John Henry and me.

“I’m smart in my own ways, you need to see that. When you see that, you’ll see me,” my relatively new rescue dog finished, then remained silent.

When I awoke, I told my wife about the dream and looked to John Henry. John is one of those eternally happy dogs who has a grin plastered to his face at all times and his ever-exploring tongue lolling out the front. He has kind eyes, dark brown and deep, but also aloof and graciously goofy. John took my look as an invitation to climb into our morning bed, and it was as such. He nestled into as inconvenient a position as possible in relation to my wife and I’s current coordinates in the bed, as was his way. I shook my head and scruffed him between the ears for a few seconds until he let out a satisfied “Phrumph,” and lay his head on my blanketed thigh.

John Henry came into our lives approximately six months prior to his short conversation with me. My aforementioned Rat Terrier, Lucy, had died at the age of fifteen. Our vet warned us of her impending expiry a few months ahead of time and I was able to prepare myself for losing her, my first furry companion. When she succumbed, I moved like a machine through the steps I had rehearsed countless times in my head and my wife and I took our loving Lucy to the appropriate pet cremation center. I cried a bit on the way home, but mostly I was prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was the loneliness.

Prior to my then fiancée’s cross-country move from Philadelphia to Albuquerque, I had two small dogs: Lucy and Oy. Once my wife arrived, all of Oy’s loyalties shifted to her and I was so much chopped liver. Whatever, I still had my little Lucy, who’s loyalty would never wander (indeed, she mistrusted my wife for quite some time after she moved in). When Lucy was gone, Oy didn’t magically start velcroing himself to my side. To the contrary, he invested more of himself in my wife. I’d said I wasn’t going to adopt another dog right away, but this creeping sense of envy chewed at me like a puppy on a favorite shoe. Or a favorite t-shirt. Or my dad’s wallet. Or my brand fucking new flip-flops.

When I read about an adoption fair the upcoming weekend in a park across the street from our neighborhood I remarked to my wife, “Maybe I’ll just stop by and take a look.” As the days lead up to the event, I was remarking to myself, “I’ll only consider a dog who chooses me,” adhering to the mystical belief of many dog rescuers that their reclaimed pups were simply waiting for them to show up. On the day of the event I recited this mantra to myself, and said aloud to my wife, “I’m not getting a dog today.” I crossed the street and wove through the tchotchke shops in Old Town Albuquerque, making my way to a quad of grass where two, large campers were parked.

The was a lot of noise coming from the campers. Excited children squealed and equally exuberant prospective adoptees whined, pawed at crate doors, and let out random, staccato yips. The first camper I entered was about twenty-feet long and indiscriminately common from the outside. The mundane appearance betrayed the colorful chaos inside. There was slight walkway bordered by metal dog crates of various sizes on either side. Some had occupants, others did not. There were a few aforementioned squealing children and their exasperated parents, no doubt already thinking about how they were going to say “No,” when their kids inevitably asked to take one of the scruffy rescues home.

I made my way through the first trailer with no distinct emotions triggered by any of the dogs. I’d rescued my first two dogs, and I was awaiting the intuitive spark that would happen if my dog found me. It didn’t happen. I made my way to the second trailer, watching two kids play with a puppy in the quad. This camper was quieter: less dogs, less kids. One ASPCA volunteer greeted me jovially. He watched as I slowly walked through the camper, peering into each occupied crate, analyzing my emotions and coming up empty. I was about to give up when I got to the final crate.

There was a red-orange ball of fluff, the color of a New Mexico sunset, curled tightly into the smallest ball it could, pressed against the far-back corner of the crate. This pup had sad eyes and was obviously scared. Consider the spark ignited.

“Who’s this?” I asked, pointing at the fiery fur ball.

“Oh, that’s Aries. He’s uh, well, he’s a different kind of dog.” And the jovial worker proceeded to tell me that Aries couldn’t walk, was not house broken, and had spent his entire life (seven months at this point) in the shelter.

“Why can’t he walk,” I asked, “Does he have a permanent injury?” I was a sucker for unabled dogs: Lucy only had one eye and it was a deciding factor in adopting her.

“He wouldn’t walk to his food or water or to go outside when he was small, so we carried him everywhere. We still do, I guess he never learned to walk.”

A dog who never learned to walk? And they carried him around the shelter? No wonder he didn’t walk. I was astounded at these actions: Aries was easily thirty pounds, not even close to fully grown, and carrying him around would become untenable in the near future. I was angry at this perceived malfeasance. “I’m interested,” I snapped, “Can I spend some time with him?”

“Well, sure you can, but…” I stopped the volunteer with a wave and asked him to let Aries out. The volunteer opened the crate and Aries seemed to cower further back into the corner. He needed coaxing to move closer, so the volunteer could scoop him up and transport him to the grassy quad, where I sat down, and Aries promptly peed on me.

“Uh,” the volunteer began.

“Don’t worry about it,” I countered, and looked Aries in the eyes. They were big, sad, and dark. There was goop collected in the tear duct, staining his face fur a bloody brown. He smelled like a dirty barn. I was in love. I gently wheedled him closer, and he eventually lay his chin on my thigh and looked up to me. The hooks were set, and I pulled my phone out to call my wife.

“Love, I think you have to come over here,” I said, not hiding the joy in my voice.

“Oh boy, did you find something?”

“I think so, just come over.” Within ten minutes, my wife was sitting on the grass with Aries and me and I was explaining with some enthusiasm about how Aries couldn’t walk and peed on me immediately and weren’t his sad eyes just the sweetest and his name was stupid so that would have to change, and don’t you think we should just take him home and love him forever?

Admittedly, it was a lot to take in, but my wife has known me since we were in high school and knew there wasn’t much of an argument to make. She asked the volunteer all the sensible questions about vaccinations, health, temperament, etc. She asked me all the sensible questions about owning a dog that couldn’t walk and wasn’t housebroken. I was unphased, this dog was already mine as far as I was concerned. An adoption fee of fifteen-dollars was exchanged with the volunteer and I gathered Aries, newly christened John Henry, in my arms and walked him to the car, where he promptly peed on the back seat. I laughed. My wife didn’t.

When John Henry got home, I picked him up and walked him over the threshold of our small house. Oy, the little, yellow Shiba Inu cross, was wary as I set John Henry down in the bed next to him. Sniffing ensued, and my wife got the bag of treats from on top of the fridge to reward our newest member of the family. Oy jumped high in the air, his typical behavior whenever treats were introduced, and John Henry watched, confused, as if he’d never seen a treat before.

Oy greedily inhaled his treat and John Henry was interested. He sniffed at the small morsel in my wife’s hand, then he took it into his mouth with a gentle manner in complete contrast to Oy’s avaricious snaps. I had to laugh as John Henry visibly turned the treat over in his mouth several times before finally crunching into it. Something came alive in him: my wife walked the treats back into the kitchen and John Henry popped up onto his feet and followed her!

We were not-so-quietly astonished at this abrupt turn and we gave this stinky, sticky dog so many hugs and scruffles and treats to reward him that he forgot he couldn’t walk. My wife graciously bathed him (he was not a fan) and by the end of the day he was walking alongside Oy, with a new leash attached to a new collar attached to a head attached face that wouldn’t stop smiling for at least the next five years.

It wasn’t just walking that John Henry picked up quickly, either. His accidents in the park and back seat of our car were the some of the only times it would happen. John Henry seemed to pick up being house broken from watching Oy, and by the second day he was going outside in regular intervals and by the end of the week he was coming up and asking to go out when he needed it.

This transformation happened so quickly it was jarring. John Henry went from being a sad, forlorn, and lonely dog to a joyful, loyal companion within a matter of days. My loneliness had been evacuated, as John Henry was most certainly my dog. He sat with his chin on my thigh when I watched TV. He and I went on early morning walks before everyone else was awake, because we really liked walking by the local golf course when the sprinklers were running: me because of the smell, John because he liked to try and catch the errant spray in his mouth when it would breach the fence.

But, John Henry was still a puppy, and would remain so for the next year-and-a-half. This fact was hammered home when he ate my favorite shoes, sandals, flip-flops, shirts, and even completely trashed my dad’s wallet, credit cards and all. He always went after my things and left my wife’s alone. Because he was my dog. I guess he thought chewing up my things was a gift to me. It certainly wasn’t, and I yelled at him more than once. His response was always the same: He’d look up at me with those big, happy eyes and break into the biggest grin you have ever seen grace the face of a dog.

We started noticing peccadillos in John Henry’s behavior about a month into his residence with us. Training school had been a mixed bag, Oy graduated but John Henry did not. He couldn’t leave the other dogs alone. He could sit, (usually) came when called, but generally was fairly obstinate and didn’t seem to listen well. He would walk from room to room in our small house every fifteen minutes. At night, he slept by the door, blocking midnight trips to the bathroom. His general goofiness, imperviousness to correction, his ceaseless licking of every surface in sight, and his growing obstinance led us to believe he wasn’t intelligent.

On the contrary, Oy was obviously smart as a whip. He passed training school with flying colors. He always listened and did what he was told. I’m not saying Oy was perfectly well behaved, he certainly wasn’t. But, he did seem incredibly smart in contrast to John’s seemingly senseless behavior and overt rebellion.

My wife and I went so far as to begin introducing our dogs as “Oy, the smart one, and John Henry, the simple one.” She and I would laugh at John Henry’s slapstick actions and inability to understand what we saw as simple commands. In a relatively short period of time, John Henry’s behavior began to deteriorate: more items were getting chewed up and walks had become intolerable due to his inability to get along with other dogs. I started yelling and getting angry at him more often. I was frustrated: I loved this goofy, playful dog of ours, but he wasn’t getting it. I didn’t understand, my other two dogs had been so easy to acclimate to the house.

 I was right: I didn’t get it. Then, I had the dream. The morning after, as I remained in bed and the sun was breaching the cracks in the window blinds, I scruffed John Henry between the ears and he smiled and batted at my hand with a lazy paw. After breakfast, I began looking into the breeds John Henry was supposedly a mix of: Golden Retriever and Australian Shepherd. I was fascinated by the attributes I found. John Henry was a herding dog and was behaving perfectly as one.

As I read, it started to sink in. I was thinking about this all wrong. John Henry is constantly vigilant, that was his order. He is always protecting his herd. He paces from room to room keeping a watchful eye. His behavior towards other dogs is out of protection. He sleeps in front of the door like a sheep dog would sleep in front of the fence gate. His “obstinance” stems from his priorities: Protect the herd at all costs. Why bother listening to a pointless command when the herd needs watching? Our lives are more important to him than rolling over.

John Henry has been with us for nine years, now. He’s almost ten. He hasn’t changed much over the years. He’s slowed down, sure he has. Who doesn’t at that age? He remains ever vigilant, and he continues to learn new tricks. Recently, we noticed that if I say the words, “I don’t feel good,” he comes trotting over to check on me. This is a phrase uttered a lot in our autistic household, and John Henry never fails to answer the call.

My Problem with Autistic Meltdowns: Part Two

This summer has been an adventure in more ways than one.

This past spring, I wrote a piece about my long struggle with violent, autistic meltdowns. In it, I talk about the problems I’ve had with controlling my meltdowns and basically not breaking things in my house. As I promised in that piece, I’m back to provide a “part two” update on my work with meltdowns.

Freedom from Shame

Over the past year, I’ve been lucky to reconnect with a good, old friend of mine from my undergraduate years. He has been walking his own mental health journey and we have been able to forge a meaningful connection based on some of our shared experiences, mainly the explosive vents we both experience within our respective diagnoses, but also regarding the shame and depression that follows each of these incidents.

When I have a violent meltdown and throw something against the wall and create a dent, or I punch a door and create a hole, or I throw my inhaler and it errantly hits the TV and completely bricks it, I inevitably feel incredible amounts of shame once I have returned to a more stable sense of self. This shame perpetuates depression, which can then push me towards another meltdown. For me, autistic burnout occurs when this process becomes cyclical: I can’t free myself and it becomes self-perpetuating.

Shortly after writing my original piece, I was speaking with my friend about my most recent violent meltdown, and I was recounting the myriad of things I had done: Thrown my lamp, broken my nightstand, screamed and screamed at anything moving or making noise in my house, and it lasted for hours. He offered this: “Instead of telling yourself about all the stuff you did, try telling yourself all the stuff you didn’t do.”

The Next Meltdown

I didn’t have to wait long for my next meltdown and to try my friend’s advice. What precipitated the meltdown was immaterial; what’s important was the aftermath. I remember running to my bedroom, slamming the door, screaming unintelligibly, and remaining on my bed with my face in a pillow for some time, but not for long. When my screams subsided, and our dogs sensed safety, they came rushing onto the bed to comfort me, as did my wife. The meltdown was over, and swiftly.

Afterwards, I began listing the things I didn’t do: I didn’t throw anything. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t yell at the dogs or my wife. I also didn’t feel the cold shame I’d become used to in the aftermath of my meltdowns.

Data and Debriefing

Another thing my friend recommended I do, and something my wife and I always have done, was debrief each meltdown and collect the data. Both my wife and I are serious data hounds: we’ve both been researchers in our lives and it’s ingrained in us. We hadn’t combined our practice of debriefing with our custom of data collection (we do have a tendency to chart a lot of my behavior for interpretation).

In debriefing, I was able to list the ways the meltdown went right to my wife. Any time I would begin to drift towards a damning statement about my behavior, we would check it and return back to what went right (kind of like following your breath in mindfulness meditation: when you get distracted, make note of it and return your attention to your breath). This is where the anti-shame work really happens.

By collecting data, which we do very informally (but I could totally see my nerdy wife and I turning it into spreadsheet), I am able to see the progress I’ve made in several areas including frequency, intensity, length, precipitating factors and stressors, and levels of shame or depression following. We then use the data to screen for future meltdowns: what situations could lead to one? What environmental triggers cause more intense meltdowns? How are the levels of negative emotions effected by the aforementioned factors?

In reviewing the data, we saw the change we’d been hoping for.

The Shame-Rage Cycle

The shame-rage cycle describes feelings happening when a person is shamed (being humiliated, embarrassed, or feeling judged) and those negative feelings turn into aggressive behaviors. The rage or aggression occurs as the person is trying to avoid feeling the shame. In counseling and psychology, we see normally see this occur in people who have been abused or bullied because these people are made to feel fault and shame by their perceived defects.

When we apply the shame-rage cycle to my meltdowns, we can see direct results. The more shame I feel following a meltdown increases the severity of my depression, which is a stressor that often leads to another meltdown, another incident where rage can emerge.

Shame-rage cycles are hardwired processes, so they are incredibly difficult to change. Mine come directly from an abusive childhood. However, the human brain has something called “neuroplasticity”, meaning it can and will change its schematics under optimal conditions. My friend gave me one of those conditions by telling me to focus on what went right with the meltdowns rather than what went wrong.

Breaking the Cycle

One simple change made an enormous difference in breaking the shame-rage cycle of my meltdowns. After the first debrief, where I was able to name all the things I did not do, my wife and I saw a change. My meltdowns were immediately less intense, less long, and occurred with less frequency. We went from seeing meltdowns occurring multiple times a week to once every three or four weeks. It has been a summer of change in our house.

Perhaps the most exciting change has come in my moods. Autism affected my moods for years, causing intense depression and anxiety. Through debriefing and looking at hard data, I’ve come to understand a lot of my depression comes post-meltdown. Levels of severity and violence in meltdowns appear to have a causal relationship with concurrent levels of depression and stress.

At this point, at the end of the summer, I can say with surety that I have broken the cycle for the time being. Honestly, I’ve had a wonderful summer as a result.

Living Free

I feel like I’m living free from the anxiety of meltdowns for the first time. This summer has seen me travel all over the place: from New Mexico and California to an upcoming trip to Colorado. Not to mention all over my home state of Oregon. My travels are no longer accompanied by a foreboding sense of doom. I used to leave for my road trips in tears and come home exhausted and completely crashed. Now, I am excited when I leave, and recharged when I return.

Part of this is how I’ve learned to mitigate my sensory and social environment (another blog, for sure). A lot of this is because I’m living free of the shame and rage I’ve come to expect in life. I owe a lot to my friend’s words.

But I also owe a lot to myself and my commitment to this work, which is something we often ignore.

Moving Forward

I’m so glad to be moving forward in my autistic life after living in a morass for so long. Right now, the name of the game is maintenance. This is new and exciting for me. I feel like I can breathe clearly, like my head’s above the water of my autism for the first time ever. It’s wonderful.

I plan on continuing my practice of debriefing and data. I plan on adding new stress reduction techniques to my life. I plan on seeing as much of the world as I can, as safely as possible with regards to public and personal health. When I think of how far I’ve come in the past five years, I’m quite happy with who I am.

Meltdowns have made me a better person. It’s strange to frame it like this, but it’s true. I’ve come to a place where I am grateful for them, and I welcome them into my home.

An incredibly happy summer…