Late one night last week, our dog, a nine year old boxer, startled us all awake…

The puppy heard it before anyone. She brought it to our attention by running around the bed, her nails tapping out a sort of morse code S.O.S. on the wooden floor. She may be young, but she’s resourceful.

It was 3 am. My husband got up and went to look into the old girl’s cubby in the wall, her virtual cave of a bed, to see what was what.

Querida (Dita for short) was thrashing around, on her back, legs in the air, doing the cartoon run for her life. You know, the one that gets you nowhere.

I could hear her wild breathing – the snorts and hoarse panting. It sounded like she was in the fight of her life with an invisible foe. Come to find out she was battling her own demons.

It appeared (as reported by a somewhat reliable source, my husband) that Dita had somehow become wedged between the wall and her down filled, hotel bed quality, better than any dog deserves – cushion. A crevice had opened during the night, and while she lay unaware, peacefully dreaming her sweet doggie dreams, it had swallowed her whole.

He reported that she looked like a bug on it’s back, struggling to right itself, only problem was – she was uncomfortably wedged until he was able to free her.

When he pulled her out of what I’m sure seemed to her to be a deep, dark, Grand Canyon sized chasm, my girl tried to shake it off.
She paced; wandering around our dark house, going in and out of every room, as if searching for her lost car keys. Several minutes later I heard her take herself, in her adrenaline infused stupor, outside to pee, after first tussling with the doggie door. I think she just needed the cool, fresh air.

Her breathing was rapid, she was panting, her little heart running a marathon.

As I watched my dog use the ancient instinct she was born with to navigate the terror inside that dark and twisted place that was her mind – I had a realization.

Through some fluke of nature, some law of weird science, Dita really IS my daughter, because here it is 3 am and she is having a panic attack!

Panic attacks used to be my wheel house, I know them well. Boy, could I relate.

Curiously, our attacks were identical, the reactions the same – an instinctive, primal, repetitive dance of self preservation.

I too have woken up flailing like a bug on my back, my brain convincing me of my imminent demise after falling into an invisible abyss. I too have walked the halls, alone, searching for comfort, my hand feeling its way in the dark, touching old wood in the hopes of grounding; soaking up its familiarity. I have not gone outside to pee, (there but for the grace of God), but I have spent the hours just before dawn shaking in the bathroom; waiting for my heart to stop racing.

And it is ALWAYS, without FAIL, 3 am(ish). WTF?!

Have you ever had an anxiety or panic attack? If you have you know what I’m talking about. I would not wish them on my worst enemy. On those unfortunate souls I wish a bad perm and severely chapped lips. Anxiety attacks, in my opinion, are somewhere along the lines of emotional water boarding.

They are torture.

Mine felt like a cross between a heart attack, loosing my mind, and being chased through the streets by a Velociraptor. My heart would beat out of my chest, while an elephant or two pulled up a seat right there and got comfy.
I would obsess on my breathing and start sweating, gasping for air – fight or flight in all it’s glory.
The sky appeared to be hung too low, making me feel like Chicken Little.
My sanity seemed elusive, my thoughts raced.

I have actually looked at myself in the mirror and not recognized the person behind my eyes.

Sometimes it would be preceded by a stressful situation; but often times not. Hence waking up in a full panic for no apparent reason; which just added confusion to the already fear infused emotional cocktail that was messing with my head.

Why me? Why now? When will it end?

I watched my poor pork chop of a boxer (she’s not fat, just thick in the middle, from age – again like her mother) try to navigate her fear, struggling to maintain her sanity. She had believed the story her mind was telling her, and THAT’S when the terror took hold.

She believed she was trapped ( huge anxiety trigger) and it caused her to hyperventilate (classic step two of panic attacks) which then convinced her she was going to die.

So she did what you do in that situation. You flee, you run, you take a walk, you look for someplace that holds comfort for you – you do whatever it takes to gather your wits.

Once we figured out what was happening, which took us awhile because we were all so groggy (except for the puppy, who thought being up in the middle of the night warranted popcorn, bad TV and a pillow fight) we brought her up onto the bed with us; disoriented and frantic.
Because isn’t that the final solution you come to after you’ve worn out all the other options? That you must eventually find your way back to bed?

Elizabeth Gibert wrote about just that in Eat, Pray, Love.
After spending hours crying on the bathroom floor, begging for mercy from her emotional pain; a voice in her head answered her prayer for guidance, “Go back to bed Liz” was it’s simple directive.

Since Dita was too scared to go back to her own bed, ( do you blame her? It had tried to eat her alive.) I knew the next step – she had to come up with us. (I would have crawled in bed with my parents during my attacks – if I’d lived at home and wasn’t 25, 35, 40.)

With one hand on her head, I laid there deep in thought, realizing that her fear had been as baseless as mine all those years ago.
She was fine. It was self invented – self inflicted.
Easy for me to say from where I sit NOW, but it’s true.

Her mind presented false evidence that appeared real. FEAR.
With hindsight I could see that mine had been just as ridiculous.

After another fifteen minutes she took a deep, calming breath; settled down, and fell asleep. My husband and I then took a turn, each taking our own deep breath – filled with relief.
I continued to stroke her graying, velvet ears, listening to her softly snore.

I’m happy we could help her.
Because of my (our) familiarity with this kind of behavior, we had kept the lights off and stayed calm, talking to her softly, petting and kissing her face. We hadn’t shadowed her, following her from room to room, asking her what was wrong. That would have made her feel more anxious. Animals can sense energy, they can feel your fear.
No, we did all the things I’ve learned in order to calm myself when I’m in the midst of an anxiety attack; slow, deep breaths, remaining calm and finding a place to feel safe. Apparently that works for people and dogs.

If I can tell you one thing, it’s that she is fortunate to be a dog. With a minimum of baggage, and tons of good canine instinct, she was able to calm herself in a little less than an hour. That makes her my hero; I only wish I’d been that adept.

Yep, she’s my fearful, furry daughter and clearly I’m her mom.


  • Dominator says:

    It’s a good reminder that some of our lessons come from the strangest interactions.
    Dogs are the best teachers of unconditional love.

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