When I was a kid, I had nightmares, was afraid of the dark and had to sleep with a night light. One side of my bed had to be pushed against a wall so that I could sleep with my back against it. The closet door had to be closed because in the dark, the clothes that hung there looked like evil puppets who wanted to eat my brain, the shoes looked like a pile of poisonous snakes, and I was sure that there was a secret door in the back that could only be opened at night where trolls or aliens could get in and the only magic that could stop them was to keep the closet door closed.
Even as an adult, I found it hard to sleep with a closet door open. Fear became the reason I didn’t, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. I turned down opportunities and avoided experiences, giving up things I wanted out of fear and the resulting sense of despair. Fear was always there, lurking at the edges, chewing on my insides, shivering in anticipation. My muscles tensed, frozen and prepared to flee or fight, but most of the time they never moved beyond anything ordinary—walking, sitting, eating, sleeping, breathing.
The year Eric and I bought our first house, there was a rapist terrorizing young women in Fort Collins. Starting in the spring until the end of the summer, there were a series of attacks: six rapes, the victims college-aged women assaulted in their homes, all of which were near CSU. He would come in through an open window, (it was hot and those without air-conditioning would open their windows at night to let in the cooler air), sometime between three and five a.m. He would blindfold and tie her up, then force her to perform a sexual act—the newspapers were never specific as to what act, so it was left up to our overactive imaginations. Young women were sleeping with ice picks under their pillows and none of us would go out at night alone.
Eric and I moved into this, our first house, on October 30, 2001, one and a half months after 9/11. It was a strange moment to begin what felt like finally our real, adult lives. We’d watched the Twin Towers collapse on CNN as it was happening, and the news in the days since had been filled with suffering, fear, panic, terror, death, anger and smoke. Some moments, it felt like things would be okay, and others it seemed like “okay” was a balloon that had slipped out of our fingers and all we could do was watch as it floated away.
In April of 2002, the rapist would be arrested, but in October of 2001, after a summer of attacks and the worst terrorist event in U.S. history, I was on edge. I was having trouble sleeping more than a few hours at a time and afraid to be home alone, to be anywhere alone really. I exhibited all the key symptoms of chronic anxiety: muscle tension, nightmares, stomach & head aches, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, irritability of mood and bowel, panic attacks, an overwhelming and constant feeling of apprehension and dread. I didn’t just want a dog, I needed a dog, the bigger and meaner looking, the better.
Fear was the primary motivation to get our first dog, when we did. I wanted a dog that was loyal and strong. This would not be one of those dogs whose people said “it’s okay, he’s friendly” as it rushed towards you. This dog would instill fear in others, at the same time he kept me from my own. I wanted a protector. I wanted to feel sure that no one could or would hurt me. I wanted to feel safe.
We picked a Rottweiler, German Shepherd male puppy, eleven weeks old, and we named him Obi. Of course, there is the obvious Star Wars reference. It’s unavoidable. I saw the first Star Wars movie at the Star Cinema when I was only ten years old. In the movie, Obi Wan Kenobi is a Jedi master, a teacher, a father figure who manifested and lived by the light side of the force—guided by compassion, courage, healing, and benevolence.
It’s a boy’s name, Nigerian in origin, specifically used by Igbo people, which means “heart.” Obi is also used by some in Africa as the short form of Obinna, which means the heart of the father or God’s heart. It’s also the Yoruba word for parents, with “ebi” meaning “whole family.” Obi: a warrior, father figure, heart (the center of feelings and intuitions, where love and fearlessness and compassion rest), God’s heart. This was the name of the dog that would protect me, and it was perfect.
Except that Obi was the happiest and friendliest of puppies, and afraid of just about everything. It seemed like he had never been inside a house before. Walking him up to the front door, he froze on the front step and had to be carried inside. He got stuck again between the hardwood floors and the linoleum, not wanting to step from one to the other, shaking his little paw like the floor was hot or wet when he touched it. Taking him out back to go potty for the first time, he came to a complete halt on the step leading out and had to be lifted down. It took probably 10 more trips in and out before he would easily take the step himself, and it was only one step. We tried to take him for a little walk down our street after he’d been with us about a week, but he refused to go any farther than the front yard, and even that short distance took almost 10 minutes and lots of encouragement to cross. Also, he wouldn’t eat unless we fed him by hand.
We also had to help Obi overcome separation anxiety, a destructive puppy stage that lasted almost two years, and a fear of small children. We joked (while understanding that it was most likely true) that if he’d ended up with someone else, he would have been returned or dumped at a shelter, he could be so challenging, so frustrating sometimes. What Obi never outgrew was his fear of loud noises. He would forever be scared of fireworks, gunshots, wind and thunder, fans and hair dryers.
All the years I spent taking care of Obi and watching his fear take him over, I learned to see that my own fears were monsters created by my own imagination, tragedies written and cast by me. I became aware of how and where I was generating my own suffering. Over time, I stopped running, stopped hiding, and stayed still, sitting with my fear. Not that fear didn’t still have the power to upset me, it knew where all my soft spots were, but it was no longer my secret shadow.
Somewhere I heard that when you have recurring nightmares about being chased, all you need to do is to stop running, turn and face the monster. Supposedly when you do this, the monster disappears or turns into something cute or silly, like a kitten or a smiley faced yellow balloon. Mine turned out to be a big black scaredy cat of a dog with a giant bark and a huge heart. As scared as he ever was, he would have done anything to protect me, and I him, and that constant truth most likely saved both of us. Together, we were able to move through the world in a way we never could have managed alone. And ultimately, the fearlessness he taught me was exactly what I needed when it was time to let him go.