I think it started then—the day I killed my dog.
Bumpy sat between us on the silver metal table, his liquid brown eyes curious as he looked from one of us to the other. "He pees in his sleep," I said. "He's deaf; he can't see. He's senile. It's just his time."
"Incontinence is common in older dogs," the vet said. "Medication can control it. He may be a little deaf, may have lost some vision, but this little guy still has a lot of life left in him."
"No," I said. "He needs to be put to sleep." The vet's lips tightened into a thin line; I saw the muscles along his jaw tense. "All right," he said. "But you are going to hold him." "Fine," I said. "Let's go."
Bumpy and I had moved to Dallas for the promise and possibilities of my new job: a new home, a new city, even a new climate, as we left behind the dreary, drizzly gray skies of Pittsburgh. We left behind my husband, whose business tied him to the Northeast. But Bumpy came with me, and he dozed and dribbled through his days on the living room rug while I went off to work, and at night he leaned against me on the front steps as we gazed at a blanket of stars I could never have imagined in all my years under the low ceiling of the Midwest.
Those nights on the front step were a magical start to our adventure together, Bumpy's and mine. But over the next year, something inside me began to fray. My dog was intimate witness to my unraveling, as my hold on reality flagged and my behavior became alarmingly, increasingly bizarre. He cowered against the couch as I danced naked in my living room at three in the morning, stereo blasting, swinging my cat around by the paws as she howled in fury. Bumpy watched from the patio on winter nights as I floated in my pool in sixty-degree water, mesmerized by the blue bolts of electricity I saw dancing between my fingers.
While the vet prepared the injection, I anticipated the freedom I would enjoy, no longer tied down to this fat old cocker spaniel. I looked forward to staying out all night, partying, hitting the clubs, slipping in at dawn to shower and head off to work without having to clean up after Bumpy.
The vet filled the syringe. "Hold your dog," he said. He inserted the needle, began to push the plunger. Bumpy cried out in pain. "Well!" said the vet. "You just got a second chance. I missed the vein. You don't have to do this." "Just do it," I said.
I held my dog in my arms, the companion I had loved and cared for throughout the previous dozen years. He looked at me with trust, unafraid. I looked at my watch. The vet inserted the needle again. This time, there was no pain. I felt Bumpy's body relax. I felt the beating of his heart slow and then still, as he slumped to the table, his eyes still open and fixed on mine. For a moment, I was paralyzed. Then I understood fully what I had done, and my world collapsed around me as the exhilaration of the previous year turned dreadfully dark.
My psychiatrist never once, in all the years of my treatment with him, referred to my illness as "bipolar disorder". "Bipolar disorder!" he spat when I asked him, tearfully, that first day in his office, if that was what he meant by his diagnosis. "It sounds like a hangnail!" he barked. "They make up this kinder, gentler name for manic depression, so people won't be so afraid of it. Well, you should be afraid of it! You should be god damned afraid of it! Because if you don't get control of it, it will destroy everything that's important to you, everything that matters, your family, your career, your marriage, and when it's too excruciating to bear and too late to repair the damage, it will take your life. You should be very, very afraid of it!" He was right.
The simple, everyday living of life affords a level of unconsciousness to the mentally ill: a blind denial of all those things that are so wrong in your behavior, your beliefs, your treatment of those you love. Then comes therapy, and the skin of that unconsciousness is ripped away, exposing the raw meat of dysfunction, all those chinks and flaws, and it's time to look at them, really look at them, with your eyes wide open. Therapy is hard. It's harder than life. I've spent more time in therapy's conscious examination of my chinks and flaws, the raw meat of all my wrongs, of everything that shames me, than I have in the blissful, ignorant unconsciousness of everyday life.
During the first two years that followed my diagnosis of severe manic depression, I fought against an ever-changing cocktail of medications and their gruesome side effects: the mood stabilizers and antipsychotics, the antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, a multi-colored handful of ten or twelve pills I learned to knock back with a single gulp of water. I was ultimately grateful for the calming salve they laid over the roiling seas of my psyche, and as I became more compliant with my doctor's prescribed regimen and began to work with my therapist, I watched with wonder the gradual understanding and untangling of the mess I had made during my times of soaring mania: the arrests, the affairs, the rampant spending sprees, the neglect for the people I loved most; the pain I had inflicted on my aggrieved husband and my bewildered family, as they struggled to believe "it's not her; it's the illness." The deepest wounds were those I inflicted on myself, beginning with the death of my beloved dog, an event that sent me, finally, for help. Even this cut, in time, began to heal.
If there is such a thing, I was a rare lucky victim of manic depression. I had a brilliant psychiatrist and a gifted psychotherapist, who together held my feet when I was afraid I would fly off into space, spiraling high before landing with a splat! on the rocks below. They held on tight through my fear and anger, my despair and euphoria. They walked me through the tangled, sticky web of my recovery, and when I couldn't walk, they carried me. Sometimes, they dragged me. They helped me deal with the side effects of a roller coaster ride of lithium and Seroquel, Depakote and Trilafon; Tegretol and Ativan and others whose names I've forgotten. And finally, when the chaos in my brain began to subside, it was time to begin the hard work, to address the cognitive problems that had lain buried beneath the pathology: the anxiety, the phobias, the obsessions, the unhealthy borderline behaviors that had contributed to the turmoil in my life. This was the work that medication alone would not accomplish. But with that handful of pills, I began to feel like a human being again: hopeful, as though maybe I really could do that work, could rebuild my life, could heal the self-imposed damage in me that made life so hard, and repair the relationships that had become so badly frayed while I was twisting and flailing through recovery.
After a long period of unemployment while I underwent treatment, against all odds, I got a job: a really, really good job, one of the top jobs in my field. The job was of all places in Pittsburgh, and I moved back to the home I had shared with my husband, whose forgiveness was well beyond what I deserved. My moods were relatively stable. I was finally compliant with my medications and tolerating their side effects adequately. My life was calm and happy. If I still had periods of obsessive thinking, some dips into depression, the occasional episode of hypomania and a simmering undercurrent of anxiety, well, no one's perfect.
As they watched me relax into my new job and the relative calm of my new life, my husband was elated, my family relieved. But inside, I began quietly struggling with a mounting anxiety, dark and threatening. My therapist and psychiatrist were not overly concerned. It's normal to have these times of discomfort, they said. We'll just work through it. I did my part: I exercised, I ate well. I did the mental homework that helped to keep my demons at bay. I took my medicine. Still, I feared that something inside me was beginning to unravel.
Driving one weekday morning out of the wooded enclave where I lived with my husband, I encountered a traffic jam. I inched forward, and finally was horrified to see the cause: a car had hit a deer in the road ahead of me and left it there to suffer, mortally wounded. Three of the deer's legs were broken, and as it struggled frantically to cross the road into the safety of the brush, its one unbroken foreleg fought to pull the rest of its heavy body across the pavement. The three fractured legs twisted and splayed as the panicked deer dragged itself forward, its head back and its eyes wild with fright. It bawled in pain and terror, and when I saw driver after driver steer around the struggling animal, I could not bear it. I pulled over and ran toward the terrified doe, waving traffic around her. I called 911 and pleaded with the dispatcher to send someone right away to relieve this animal of its suffering. I reached the deer. I wanted her to stop struggling, to lie still with me until aid arrived. I wanted her to accept the loving help I had to give, to feel calmed and soothed by my care. But she was not my pet; she was a wild animal. Despite her injuries, she was strong, and frightened, desperate to escape this new terror: me. I reached her as she tried to flee, and she pulled me into the brush with her. We tumbled down the embankment together, my arms around her neck. When we landed, she was finally exhausted, and I cradled her head in my lap and spoke softly to her until Wildlife Control came. I was certain that she understood now how much I cared for her, that I was there to help her, to comfort her. But in that narcissistic way we humans have, it didn't occur to me that I was just as frightening to her as the cars passing around her. I'm certain now, from a saner place, that rather than finding comfort as she lay near death, her head cradled in my lap, she had simply done what all prey animals do when death is near: she succumbed and waited for the end. The officer delivered it with a quick injection to the neck. I sat in the brush, my suit in ruins, sobbing inconsolably, my face buried in the still-warm fur of the dying doe. The officer called my husband to come and collect me, then pulled me gently away from the dead animal. My husband took me home, called me in sick, bundled me in a blanket on the couch and fixed me a cup of tea. It was all he could do.
The roadways around the wooded outskirts of Pittsburgh are littered with the bloodied carcasses of deer, raccoons, skunks, opossums, even the occasional wild turkey. Closer in, the city has no shortage of stray cats and dogs who meet their ends under the wheels of careless city drivers rushing to their destinations. Before my encounter with the wounded doe, the number of casualties left to rot on the roadside so enraged me that I began taking pictures of the fetid carcasses and sending them, numbered and dated, to the county department responsible for their removal and disposal. My staff found this hilarious, as I came into the office seething with my daily body count. As if it were just a joke for me; as if it weren't deadly serious.
But when my deer—she had become "my" deer—died from a shot in the neck after countless drivers hurrying to work ignored her suffering, something happened to me. I became responsible for that deer. I became her guardian, her parent. It had become my job to care for that gravely wounded doe, to comfort her in her fear and sorrow and loneliness. I had been given the holy charter for the soul of this creature of God, and no concern for myself, for my wellbeing, for my safety, even for the condition of my two-thousand-dollar suit and four-hundred-dollar shoes, would stop me. She was my doe, yes. But she—and others like her—would also soon become my obsession.
Along the road as I drove to work and back, I saw the grizzled remains of the raccoon, recognizable by its Daniel Boone tail. I saw the opossum, this shy, harmless animal cursed with an ugly face and a long rat's tail. I saw the skunk, whose unique self-defense mechanism never dissuaded me; the squirrel, its face cute and fox-like around sharp little teeth, and the groundhog, fat and greasy. A fluttering wing beckoning to me from the roadside broke my heart, and from those feathers I learned to recognize the crow, the owl, the hawk, the turkey, the tiny "LBB"s—little brown birds—that no one else ever saw. And always, one after another, countless, the deer. Does. Bucks. Babies still with spots on their backs. I became afraid to go to work in the morning. I left the house earlier and earlier, and came home later and later, seeking safety under cover of darkness from the sight of them. Still, even unseen, their souls cried out to me, these abandoned corpses, shapeless piles of savaged skin and shattered bone, recognizable even in the gray of a drizzly dawn or a deepening dusk. They cried out for comfort, for someone who cared, someone who loved them, and in my increasingly disordered mind, I heard every voice. Eventually, I surrendered to the call.
My mission had become clear before me, and I was no longer afraid of the shapes along the edges of the dark highway. Now, I welcomed them. I began to make my commute in daylight once again.
Now I saw the deep sorrow of the dead on the roadside. I heard their pleas for rescue, for their souls' salvation, for one single person to care enough to remove their bodies to a place less gruesome, less impossibly sad, than the baking pavement. I answered that call. Over and over, I pulled my car to the side of the road and with my bare hands moved these carcasses to the shade of a sheltering tree or bush, and there, in tears, I thanked the animals for their lives, for their presence on Earth. I told them that I loved them. I prayed for their spirits' peace, and I wished their souls Godspeed.
An indifferent agnostic, I now felt the soft, holy hand of Saint Anthony on my head, the Saint of Lost Souls whose touch affirmed my dedication to the souls lost along the highways of Pittsburgh. I would sacrifice myself on the altar of roadside pavement, of gravel, and mud, and blood, of twisted bone and mangled flesh, and without fear, I would administer last rites to those souls and release them to the heavens. No one, I knew deep within my heart, was able to do what I was doing. No one else had been touched by the hand of Saint Anthony. No one else had been called. No one.
It wasn't just the dead who needed me now. On one dreary, rainy morning, midway through my commute, traffic slowed; a few horns blared. Along the edge of the highway ran a wounded goose, flapping its broad white wings in terror as traffic barely bothered to slow. I sped onto the opposite shoulder until I was well ahead of the goose and I jumped out of my car. I was on a six-lane highway in a silk suit and Prada shoes, waving my hands and yelling at the drivers as they flew past me, their tires spraying me with mud and grit from the rain-soaked pavement. Drivers slammed on their brakes. Windows came down; unfriendly gestures came out. I darted between cars toward the goose, my hands up, palms out, like a traffic cop's. But like my doe, the goose saw me coming, and only flapped harder to escape. I managed to chase it through the snarl of angry drivers and off the highway, but for me, that wasn't enough. Although it was now safely off the road, I needed to capture my goose, to hold it, and feel its beating heart slowly calm in my arms, and carry it lovingly to safety. I ran after it, sliding down into a drainage ditch and a foot of muddy water, where I watched it waddle away from me as I cried in grief over my loss. I arrived at the office deeply distraught, soaking wet, my stockings torn and my shoes caked with mud. I left work at noon and returned to the drainage ditch to try to find my goose. It was gone.
During a morning run in a local park, an enormous groundhog lay before me in the road. It was there for me, for the love only I could give it. I picked it up. It must have weighed twenty pounds, the size and shape of a gigantic, malodorous watermelon. As I looked for a nice tree or bush under which to place the dead groundhog, it suddenly moved. It was alive. I was two miles from my house. I carried my groundhog close against my chest, and I ran toward home. A driver stopped his car beside me. "Miss!" he called. "Miss! Can I help you with your dog?" "It's a groundhog," I said. He sped away, tires spinning, but not before I saw the look of disgust on his face. At home, I placed my groundhog gently in a cardboard box and surrounded him with grasses and leaves, and grubs I had dug out of the damp soil of my front yard with my neatly manicured nails. I tended to my groundhog throughout most of the day, missing several important meetings and ignoring calls from the office. Each time the animal moved, I was heartened. But mostly, it lay still. Late in the day, when my groundhog had been completely unresponsive for several hours, I took it to a wildlife rescue center. When they examined it, they found its back had been broken on the road that morning. It would be euthanized. I cried, and pleaded for the animal's life, and what about surgery? I would pay for such treatment! I said, and care for the animal myself. I was oblivious to the prolonged suffering my care had already caused. When I asked for the groundhog's body after euthanasia, I was escorted from the building in tears, and I recognized the same look of disgust I had seen on the face of the man in the park that morning. For days, I was inconsolable: not because my selfishness had prolonged my groundhog's suffering, but because I knew he had died in fear and sorrow and loneliness at the hands of people who could never have loved him as I did.
On a Saturday afternoon, I backed up traffic at a stop light and ran through the cars to pick up a dead squirrel from a city street. I placed it on my lap to drive to an area park and find a nice spot on which to lay its remains. But like the groundhog, the squirrel was merely stunned, and as it revived, it flew frantically around the car. I ducked and dodged to try to avoid the little animal's sharp claws, and I struggled to stay on the road. Despite the danger, I drove the several miles to the park, one protective arm over my head. When I got there, I opened my door before the wheels had stopped. The squirrel flew past me, leaving a long, deep scratch across the back of my neck. I felt bereft, robbed of the chance to hold and cuddle and console the squirrel. I failed to realize that he fled not only from the car, but from me.
My rescues, of both the living and the dead, became more and more urgent; my feeling of loss, more deeply devastating: the baby bird fallen from a nest; the injured rabbit; the mouse pried from the jaws of a neighbor's cat. For each of the mortally wounded, now I cried for days, often unable to rise from my bed or go to work.
It was crucial to my mission that I perform my holy duties in solitude, without the critical eye of my doctors or my family. I knew no one else would understand. I knew they would try to make me stop. Yet I also knew that the future of my own soul demanded that I not leave these beings abandoned on the road; that I not take leave of my duties. My therapist and psychiatrist were deeply concerned, and poked and scraped at my evasiveness, at the changes they could see in me. But in the face of my staunch insistence that all was well, there was nothing they could do to help me. My husband asked about my soiled and disheveled clothes. He asked about my gaunt appearance, my quiet wanderings through the house at night, my loss of appetite and frequent absences from work. My tears. I gave him excuses. Whether they satisfied him or not I don't know. It wasn't in his nature to pry.
I was coming apart. I was sleepless, losing weight, distracted at work. My doctors and family became alarmed, yet I remained defiant in my secrecy. While driving, I barely kept my eyes on the road now, so obsessed was I with spotting dead animals. But when my company moved its offices into town from the suburbs, my fervor reached a new pitch. Dead cats, it seemed, were everywhere, and oh, did they need me! Often, by the time I rescued them, they had lain in the curb for days or weeks. And there was nowhere to put them, amid the concrete and brick and stone of downtown. The trunk of my car began to stink as I collected the carcasses I planned to take to a suburban park. Finally, in a stroke of brilliance, I began taking my dead cats to a local vet's office to have them cremated. I dared the receptionist to say one single word to me about the stiff, flattened, bloodied cats I laid on the desk before her. But this was good income for a small, rundown city clinic, and after the staff's initial shock, I was welcomed as a valued client. The cats' remains were returned to me in little white plastic boxes, so puny and pathetic I ached with wonder that the remains of a whole warm, living creature could fit into such insignificant containers. I found myself unable to dispose of the cremated cats, lest they feel unloved. Instead, I tucked them on a shelf behind my suits in the back of the walk-in closet I shared with my husband. I began to neglect my own beloved eight cats, each collected as a stray. I shied away from them, haunted by horrific images of each of them flattened on the pavement, their faces crusted with blood.
My internal distress was nearing a boiling point. I couldn't keep up with the number of dead animals I saw on the road. The remorse I felt any time I passed one by without removing it from the pavement was becoming more and more unbearable.
The beginning of the end came on Secretary's Day. I had made plans to take my assistant out for lunch. I had just received my new company car—a beautiful and elegant slate blue Jaguar sedan —and she was excited to ride in it. But when she opened her door, she let out an ear-splitting shriek. There, on the creamy glove leather of the passenger seat, lay a dead black cat, stiff as a board, its mouth agape, eyes sunken into dried hollows and its flattened face caked with blood. I offered to move the cat to the trunk so she could take her seat, but she backed away speechless, her eyes wide. She turned and ran back into the building without a word.
I knew my secret was out; I saw the horror on my secretary's face as she turned and ran back to the office from the company parking lot. She called my husband, and my husband called my therapist. Sitting with my therapist and psychiatrist, all I could do was cry: not because of my own distress, which I surely felt, but because I was afraid they would make me stop. And then what would happen to my animals, the lost souls for whom I had become responsible? Who would take care of them?
Despite my resistance, I knew I was in trouble, and I needed help. I was frightened by my activities, by my obsession and my inability to gain control over it. At the same time, I was terrified that no amount of therapy, no amount of medication, not even hospitalization, would bring relief to the urgent need inside me to do what I was doing, and the increasing despair I felt as a result. Still, I began, tentatively, to talk with my therapist and psychiatrist about my activities. Both were alarmed for my wellbeing, both mental and physical. My therapist tried to reason with me, to convince me that these little souls had already left their bodies, that they didn't need me to dispose of them. My psychiatrist was not so gentle. He pushed, he raged, he threatened me with involuntary hospitalization for my own safety. He was brutal. But I knew, even then, that under his bluster lay a deep caring for me, a profoundly empathic concern for my survival. As he pushed and pushed harder, my tears became more desperate. Finally, his face inches from mine, he demanded: "Who are you really rescuing?" and I broke down, my face in my hands as I sobbed. "It's me!" I cried. "It's me!"
Therapy was harder now, in those months after I sat in my psychiatrist's office with my face in my hands. It was more than work. It was a life-or-death struggle with my own psyche, a fight for my very self. It was the excruciating examination of the motivations that made me put myself so at risk by dragging stinking carcasses off the highway. It was hours of fight with my therapist, hours of trying to make her see why it was so important that someone take care of these animals; why that someone could only be me. Gradually, over time, little by little, I began to hear her: the souls of the animals I connected with so deeply had long since left their bodies, empty shells for which they had no more need. If I believed in the persistence of the souls of these animals, then I would know, deep inside, that their bodies had no more purpose or value, any more than our own bodies after we die. Their spirits were at rest now, and while grateful for the care I showed them, they didn't need me, she said, to dispose of the empty shells that had once contained them. And they certainly didn't need for me to put myself at such grave risk for something that had no more value to them than a discarded tissue. I learned about magical thinking, and confronted my bone-deep conviction that I needed to rescue these animals to save myself.
At times, during this process, I thought about the man who fell into a slot canyon and was wedged so tightly between the rock walls that he was unable to dislodge himself. In a truly remarkable act of courage, and with an extraordinary will to live, he severed his own arm, and in so doing, released his trapped body from the canyon and saved his life. He was an inspiration to me—not because I compared my circumstances to his physical peril, but because I often felt that giving up my practice of rescuing dead and wounded animals was the psychological equivalent of severing a limb. I felt as though I would die from the pain of it, and the loss. But as I worked through the months under the patient and compassionate care of my therapist, I also came to know that if I didn't sever that limb, if I didn't find a way to separate myself from this obsession, I would surely die. I would never leave the deep canyon of the mental illness that trapped me there.
A year after the devastating session in my psychiatrist's office, as my therapy turned from stopping my obsession to exploring the deep causes of it, I moved my suits aside in my closet and filled a paper bag with thirty-four tiny white boxes of ashes. I carried the bag into a densely wooded area near my home and, one by one, opened the boxes and scattered the remains of each cat across the damp, still, soft bed of the forest, saying a prayer of thanks for the brief life of each animal. By the time I came to the last box of ashes, I had almost stopped crying, and night had nearly fallen. As I stood in the darkening forest and rain began to fall, I knew my ritual of last rites was over.
I still struggle with a desire to care for the dead body of an animal tossed carelessly aside and left to rot on the roadside, to express my love and compassion for a little soul no one cared about. It's a pull, a tug, to turn my eyes away and keep going. A few evenings ago, at dusk on a mountain road near my cabin in New Mexico, a small bear cub lay tumbled and eviscerated in the middle of the pavement. I saw the precious sweet, pink pads of an upturned paw, the rounded tuft of an ear. His face was cradled in an arm, as if to hide from the shame. I wondered if he was afraid when the car's bumper sent him flying, if he cried out for his mother as she fled into the woods. I wondered if he felt lonely out there, as if no one cared.
I was the only one on the road. Who would know? Who would know if I scooped up that shattered little body and took it to a soft, quiet spot under a big tree? If I prayed for his soul's peace and thanked him for his brief life on earth? Just this one last time, for this one innocent little being, who would know?
But I had made a promise. I had made a solemn and sincere promise to my therapist, and that promise was a part of my healing—a part against which I had fought hard, but to which I finally succumbed. I had given her my word that I would never again handle a dead or wounded wild animal, for any reason. Many times, in the years since, I have struggled to keep that promise, but I have never broken it.
I kept my promise that night. I drove on, leaving the dead cub in the road. Still, once it was out of range of my rear view mirror, I pulled over to the shoulder. I pulled over, and I sat there on the side of the road, just out of sight of a baby bear who would never know how much someone cared for him, how much he was loved. I sat for a very long time, and then I drove on.