My thoughts won’t turn off long enough to let me fall asleep, so I watch dog agility competitions in bed on my phone. After watching dog after dog attempt the same course, and inevitably commit the same errors in the same places, my eyes start to grow heavy. I know to let another dog or two go through before setting the phone down. Too often, I stop watching before I’m just about asleep and my brain turns back on, running through everything that will happen the next day and whether I’m adequately prepared for it.
True crime podcasts used to work just as well as dog agility to distract me to sleep, and then I listened to one about the cyanide-laced Tylenol in Chicago in the 1980s. For days afterward, images of pills popped up as I tried to work, and my throat closed in an attempt to protect me from poisoning when I tried to swallow a Vitamin D supplement with breakfast. My brain fixates on certain threats, such as poisoning, while it could care less about others. This makes the choice of a true crime podcast fraught. The image of a black-and-white wide-eyed dog flying through a set of weave poles doesn’t come back to haunt me the next day, the way the poison Tylenol murders did.
No one caused the violent images; they were just always there. In elementary school, I would lean over the railing from the top landing of our school’s staircase, stare four flights down to the marble floor at the very bottom, and imagine what would happen if I jumped. As we drove home from my grandparents’ house, I always glanced over at the small waterfall created by the lock in the Allegheny River. First, I envisioned my beloved Raggedy Ann doll being swept over the falls, never to be recovered. Next, I saw myself swept over and caught in the churning waters at the base of falls, where I would be trapped and drown. The decision to look at the lock was only partly voluntary; I was compelled to turn my head and seek it out. I didn’t want to lose Raggedy Ann, and I didn’t want to die either. I didn’t understand it at the time, but my brain created the images to serve as a warning. Look what could happen if you let your guard down.
It’s always a border collie that wins the agility competition. The other breeds don’t have a chance. Border collies’ natural talents – intelligence, trainability, athleticism, persistence, boundless energy – give them such an advantage that the major British kennel club hosts an “ABC” (Anything But a Collie) round during its annual agility competition just to let the others shine.
A single border collie can manage a flock of one thousand sheep, traveling up to a quarter mile away from its handler to retrieve the livestock. They are distinct from other herding breeds in their use of an intense stare to intimidate the sheep into moving, rather than relying on barking or nipping from the start. And they will not rest until they gather the very last sheep. If the dog lets down its guard, an injured sheep may go unnoticed by the farmer or the flock may not make it into its safe enclosure for the night.
My mother signed me up for a class on poisonous plants at the local natural history museum when I was about eight-years-old. I never looked at a buttercup flower the same way again. Once while playing in my grandparents’ backyard, my hand brushed against a buttercup’s shiny yellow petals. The poisonous pollen must have stuck to me, my brain decided, and I must have poisoned myself by unwittingly eaten a snack with the hand or tugging a stray hair from my lips.
My mother, grandmother, and at least one uncle or aunt tried to console me with reassurance that I was fine. In my mind, of course I was not fine! I was poisoned, and I was about to start vomiting, struggle to breathe, and ultimately succumb to the buttercup. Eventually, my grandfather grew impatient with my panicked screeching and wordlessly plucked a buttercup from the ground, popped it in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.
He had never heard the phrase “exposure therapy,” yet he executed it like an expert.
A border collie with idle time on its paws may develop a compulsion to chase shadows. To an observer, the behavior may seem humorous at best and innocuous at worst. For the dog, the shadow obsession consumes it to the point that it cannot enjoy play and bonding with its family.
In middle school, at some point during nearly every class period with a male teacher, I would suddenly envision his penis under his clothes as he stood in front of the classroom. Then I saw myself leaping from my desk and running at him, grabbing him there before he could react. I would shake my head back, forth, back so quickly and subtly that I doubt anyone noticed. Shaking erased the image temporarily, and I tried to orient myself to the class discussion again.
I knew enough about sexual attraction to know that I didn’t feel it for the teacher. I was old enough to know not to confess the thoughts to anyone, yet not old enough to consider that someone else’s internal experience might match mine. When you believe you are the only one with violent intrusive thoughts, you assume they are wrong, and by extension, you are wrong, bad, shameful. Like many people, I always assumed that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) consists of checking the locks on doors a magical number of times and washing one’s hands a lot. No one ever told me that disturbing images, though we all have them, “stick” in the OCD brain, popping up into consciousness with the most benign trigger.
Man standing; sexual assault.
Body of water; drowning.
My own hands; murder weapon.
A border collie is content so long as it has work to focus on, but their talents aren’t limited to herding or agility. As a breed, their collective résumé goes on for pages. Some work as psychiatric service dogs, staying constantly vigilant for their human’s particular signs of trouble, such as hyperventilating or curling up in a ball on the couch, and directing them towards medication or a coping skill. Others haze geese off a customer’s property, providing a humane solution to piles of guano and goose acts of aggression.
Eighty years after Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, four border collies trained to sniff out human bones voyaged to a remote Pacific island in search of her remains. In every news story of the expedition, the four dogs are credited by name – Berkeley, Kayle, Marcy, and Piper – and one or more of them is pictured with nose to the ground, diligently sniffing, impassive to the majesty of the ocean and unspoiled vegetation surrounding them. All four dogs alerted to the same spot, where the human members of the team subsequently dug in search of Earhart. They didn’t find her. None of the articles describe the dogs’ reaction to the disappointment, though I’m confident they were rewarded for their work, unbothered by the humans’ failure to find the bones, and promptly shipped back home. Often, work done with the best of intentions does not yield the desired results.
I think of OCD as the most benevolent of the mental illnesses. Sufferers want so much to prevent harm to themselves or others that they take safety too far. When I walk past my cat, Cora, holding a cup of hot tea, I suddenly fear that I will deliberately tilt the cup and the hot liquid will scald her. I don’t just fear it; I see it. My brain catalogs methods of injury so meticulously that when it spots one, such as scalding liquid, paired with a being that I care about, it clings to the image so that I won’t forget to take precautions. On an island brimming with unspoiled beauty, my brain exposes the single reminder of death: a trace of an eighty-year-old bone too small to see. Sometimes it needs to demonstrate the threat to me so clearly that I am forced to pay attention, by making me the perpetrator of the violence.
“You’d never do that,” I tell myself. “You love Cora.”
I’d never do that…but I could.
They are a great breed, the celebrity dog trainer warns, but if you don’t give them a job, they will destroy every possession you own.
When the pandemic drove us to work from home full-time, and I was with Cora all day, her safety became my obsession. If I couldn’t see her from my desk, I would get up to check for her, ensuring that she was still alive and reasonably content. The urge to check nagged at me until I satisfied it. The longer I waited, the more gruesome the images my brain conjured. Perhaps our landlord set out rodent poison in the basement, a poisoned mouse crawled through the walls and popped out under our radiator, Cora ate it and now was actively dying, and I wasn’t there to help. I would arrive too late to save her, I would crash the car trying to race her to the vet, I would physically attack the landlord and end up in jail. I’d shake my head back, forth, back to symbolically erase the image and rise from my chair. More often than not, I’d find Cora sleeping in a cardboard box set by the door to go out with the recycling. I’d return to my desk, having forgotten where I was in the task, and by the time I settled back into productivity, the doubt about whether Cora was safe had crept in again.
While waiting for my coffee one morning, I watch a group of dog owners seated at one of the outdoor tables, chatting with the dogs at their feet. I smile as I recognize a border collie among the group. There aren’t too many jobs for them in the city lifestyle, and this is the first one I’ve seen in town. Another dog in the group has an inside-out ear, blown open by the wind. The border collie turns to its friend and uses its snout to flip the ear back to its rightful position. My smile broadens.
You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?
I am a half hour’s drive away from home, sitting in a class and unable to check on Cora when I see an image of her falling through the screen window and being eaten by a coyote. I hope no one else in the room sees my grimace or the head shake – back, forth, back. She’s fine, I start to tell myself, before I catch it. Paradoxically, reassurance will only make the intrusive thoughts more frequent. If you’re reassuring yourself, then you’re buying into the narrative that there’s something to fear. Reassurance begets reassurance, in a never-ending cycle.
My eyes drift to the fresh scab on my hand. By now, I suspect the scar will be with me forever, no matter what I do or don’t do. Yet, an internal battle rages. Picking the scab will eventually lead to scarring and infection. Refraining from picking is the wise choice. Yet inexplicably, tugging at my own skin makes the images go away sometimes. Before the mental debate can resolve, I’m suddenly rolling the remaining scab tissue between the fingers of my opposite hand, and raw pink skin glows where the scab once was. Thoughts of Cora’s corpse being dragged down our street to the coyote’s den are gone, replaced by shame tinged with disgust.
Even if you paid me, I couldn’t tell you what the class discussion was even remotely about.
I returned to the same coffee shop at the same time on the same day of the week. The dog walking club arrived just as I readied myself to pull out of my parking spot and leave. The border collie’s owner handed its leash to one of the other owners and entered the store to get coffees for all. Eyes wide and ears perked, the dog stared in its owner’s wake, completely motionless. The other dogs paid no attention, sniffing here and there, giving an occasional tail wag.
Sitting in my car, I felt a surge of empathy for the border collie. The group is not complete without its owner. Something’s not right, and it can’t rest until order is restored. No one could explain to it how long this separation will last or for what purpose. As I drove away, I wondered whether the border collie knows that it is different from its peers.
I was the only one at the office that day. When I stepped into the kitchen, I noticed the basement light on. It shouldn’t be. The last person out at night is supposed to turn off all the lights except the one in the front room. Unless…if the manager never left last night, she is still downstairs in her office. If she didn’t leave, she must be dead. She must have suffered a heart attack and died at her desk. And when I descend the stairs and stand at the threshold of her office, I will see her body. I will have to attempt CPR until the obvious becomes obvious.
I froze, the often neglected third option of the sympathetic nervous system. Fight, flight, or freeze. Every muscle tensed, my neck stiffened so that I couldn’t turn my head away from the basement door and shake the image away. A single tear rolled down my cheek as I waited to unfreeze.
Of course I know it didn’t happen. But I still felt it happen.
“I’m thinking of adopting a border collie,” I announce to a friend. “The way I see it, if you have a completely hyper, out of control dog, there would be no time to worry. Everything else would just become secondary.”
I was joking, but her face momentarily softened in serious consideration.
About twice a year, we fly to stay with my mother for holiday visits. For as many potential hazards as exist for a cat in an airport, I wouldn’t be able to separate from Cora for longer than a few days, no matter how expert the cat sitter’s qualifications. Perhaps I could resist checking her for an hour, but not a week.
One night during our stay, Cora pokes a curious head into the refrigerator as I peruse it, and my mother, in an attempt to be helpful, sharply corrects her. Startled, Cora abruptly turns and darts away, her head hitting my shin in the process, before she adjusts her path to avoid me. The image of the nearby heavy wooden door in place of my shin bubbles up, Cora bleeding from the ears, arriving at the vet too late, not being able to live with myself.
The rage comes before I can catch it, and I unleash it on my mother.
“You don’t scream at an animal! She doesn’t understand! She could run into something and hit her head and be killed! I’m not driving to a vet tonight!”
I’d never heard such vindictiveness in my voice. My mother is reduced to tears, then the tensest of silences. Shame eats at me, though I know my reaction would be the same if the incident happened tomorrow. When I apologize for overreacting, I don’t mention the number of times I’ve shaken my head back and forth to erase the image of myself snapping Cora’s neck.
I’d never do that, but I could.
If Cora dies due to injury, before the end of her natural lifespan, I don’t know that I would be safe with myself. I may not inflict the blow with my own hands, but I would carry the responsibility for placing her in the situation.
“Hi, my cat is sick and I think I need to bring her in.”
“What’s your cat’s name?”
I enunciate each syllable to save myself the trouble of having to spell our last name. I figure I have to say more than just “Cora,” since I haven’t yet introduced myself to the receptionist. After all, she didn’t ask for my name; she asked for the cat’s. There is no reaction on her part. No chuckle, no calling me out on the ludicrousness of it all. In the veterinary clinic, of course pets have last names. Cora has my name. It’s right there on the vet’s paperwork; she is my responsibility, and mine alone.
They have no appointments until the next day, and Cora’s gastrointestinal distress doesn’t seem serious enough to warrant an ER visit, so we wait. That evening, sitting on the couch and stroking her, my mind races through the scenario before I can catch it. Cora will be mixed up with another pet in the back rooms of the veterinary hospital and flagged for euthanasia. Emotionally destroyed, I will carry a container of her ashes home, rage at the veterinarian in question simmering as I research lawyers to sue the hospital. My heart races, my breathing quickens and shallows, every muscle tenses.
This time, I stop the thought train before I freeze. “This is OCD,” I say aloud. Mid-purr, Cora twitches an ear in response. The thoughts are here, and that’s fine. They’re just thoughts. The thoughts can be here and Cora can still be fine.
I repeat this last phrase over and over as a mantra while I sit in the parked car outside the vet’s office during Cora’s exam. It helps but doesn’t replace the relief when I see the tech walking out of the building with Cora’s carrier in hand and glimpse her huge pale green eyes scanning the parking lot, very much alive.
The border collie would have our last name, too.
Cora races around the apartment, chirping with either joy or some unwelcome mania – I’ve never known which – weaving through and jumping over obstacles to complete the agility course in her mind. I sit at my desk, my rational mind navigating through its own course of “existential obsessions,” thoughts that maybe you’re the only person who’s real, and everyone else is an invention of your mind. In an effort to break the cycle, I pull up a YouTube video of someone attempting to teach their border collie to vocalize the word “hello.” The dog will get pretty close by the end of the minute-long video. Yet at the beginning, her brown eyes dart back and forth between her two owners, obviously desperate for the ability to comprehend their speech and to have hers received in turn. I’ve seen that look before.
“Cori!” I call across the room. Her tiny head snaps to attention, pale green eyes wide and locked on me. “Do you want to learn a trick?”
She follows my finger with her eyes, from her nose to the other side of my leg, held a foot off the ground. Then she leaps over the leg. “Yay!” I exclaim.
We spend several minutes here. Leap, “yay!”, treat. Leap, “yay!” treat.
My mind is filled only with her. There’s no violence, no poison, no fear that an error in judgment will hurt her or another person. The reprieve will last only a few minutes.