The Legacy of Childhood Trauma

Emotional-Freedom-Quote-1.jpgThis morning I read a piece in “The New Yorker” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz called “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” and found that his words, his experiences, resonated eerily with my own regarding relationships. This came as somewhat of a shock considering that the trauma he describes was his repeated rape, at the age of eight, by a grown man whom he trusted.

Now before you click on the link and read what he wrote, which you pretty much have to do in order to appreciate the rest of this blog, let me be clear about the differences between his and my experiences: I was not raped as a child (note the caveat: “as a child”) and I have never tried to take my own life (unless driving recklessly, drinking enough tequila to induce a five-day hangover at the age of 16, or any number of reckless behaviors count). In other words, I’ve never consciously, in the overdosing, gun-to-head, or standing-on-a-cliff-considering-jumping kind of way tried to end my own life. I’ve never tried and I’ve never thought about it. Nevertheless, there were things about Diaz’s piece that spoke to me and that therefore gave me pause to think, “Was there enough “trauma” in my childhood to create the behaviors that he describes that I am also guilty of?”

I know. You want me to tell you in detail what those behaviors were. I’ve alluded to at least one above – the drinking. Yes, there is a lot of excessive consumption of alcohol in my past. And a lot of morally questionable behaviors wrought of that drinking. Another trait we share(d)[1] is the inability to stay in a relationship past a certain point, usually the point where it looked like it might actually go somewhere good, and especially if the man exhibited behaviors that suggested he might actually be willing to remain in a monotonous, I mean, committed monogamous relationship.

Then there is his reference to cheating. Many would quickly label cheating as classic self-sabotage behavior. For me it was a bit more complex. My first bout of cheating gave me the confidence to leave a not-so-healthy marriage (I discovered that I was, contrary to my insecure belief at the time, desirable to other men) and subsequently over a decade later cheating gave me the excuse to end the next and only other long term relationship I’ve had. At the time I rationalized, “I clearly don’t love him enough if I can sleep with another man.” Next I did the morally righteous thing – I called him up, told him we had a problem and very soon thereafter left him. Because leaving was penance for bad behavior and, I rationalized, released me from moving forward in life as a liar and a cheat to the person who’s opinion mattered most to me.

Diaz’s references to drinking, to bouts of depression, to not being able to look at himself in a mirror, the deep-seated self-hatred are all things I saw reflections of in my own experience.

Given the relatively mild nature of the traumas I experienced as a child, when I finished the essay, I wide-eye wondered how many of us walk around with these wounds, oblivious to how much they shape who we are and what we do.

When I would get into my navel-gazing, self-examination mode, the man I had my second and last long-term relationship with – seven-years to be precise – and whom I still refer to as my second husband despite our never having married[2] used to assert, “You had a roof over your head, food in your stomach. You were not abused!” He was a lot older than me – twenty-six years – with attitudes borne of a time when those were the only measures of abuse, when “spare the rod, spoil the child” was an oft-used phrase. And yet, with the exception of one particularly memorable spanking that employed a plastic brush,[3] my parents didn’t hit us and we did have three squares a day. Was the fact that my mother repeatedly sent me to school with tomato sandwiches that by lunch hour had morphed into a disgusting mess of soggy pink bread enough to call her abusive? Abusive, no. Uninspired-where-school-lunches-were-concerned, yes.

The abuses that many of us suffered as children I would suggest were often much more subtle than those experienced by the Junot Diaz’s of the World.[3] So subtle as to make them unutterable for completely different reasons than those that made Diaz silent, so non-violent that by sharing them we feel embarrassment or guilt knowing that others have experienced so much worse. But that’s what I am most struck by, what made me sit up and take notice – it’s the recognition that even the mildest forms of abuse induce in children and the adults they become symptoms of full-blown trauma the likes of which Diaz experienced. I was struck hard in my consciousness by the reality that as children we are fragile, vulnerable, and sensitive beyond belief. We have a belief in a kind and loving world until we are proven wrong and whatever it is that teaches us that the world is a far more cruel place than we had ever imagined is what creates the pervasive psychological “hang ups” that dominate so many of our adult stories. The point I guess I’m trying to make is that I’m not convinced that enough of us recognize the degree to which even the “milder” forms of trauma[4] experienced in our childhoods are the source of our adult so-called “hang ups.” That in the absence of loving affirmation that we are okay, lovable, perfect even, just the way we are, too many of us try to hide what we perceive as short-comings, to dawn our masks of self-protection against the pain and suffering that is unfortunately a part of life, and thereby subsume the beautiful creature we are meant to be.

I dunno…I’m not a psychologist. I’m just thinking out loud and over-sharing, as I tend to do. But what do you think? I have to wonder, are the vast majority of us damaged and the only difference is a matter of degrees? And what are you doing to undo the damage? See below for one technique.

Lisa Nichols with a way to GET OUT of the pain of trauma that we all carry within us.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The jury’s out on whether this is in the past or not.

[2] I liked to say that he was a better “husband” than the man I actually married a decade earlier.

[3] Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge and am humbled and saddened by how many children experience abuse on a par with or greater than what Diaz described in his essay.

[4] Emotional trauma comes first to mind.

Stole My Heart

I came upon a pathetic sight on the way to town yesterday. Right after the turn off to the municipal dump stood a little black puppy on the edge of the road picking at something mashed into the dirt. I quickly brought the car to a stop and got out to see if I could catch her. I didn’t move directly towards her because typically these little ones run away in fear. Instead I stood about 15 feet away and called to her. Her attention pulled from the questionably edible thing on the road, she looked up wagging her skinny tail and trotted over to me. As I reached down to pick her up, she urinated submissively. Up close, I saw what a mess she was – her skin was grey and black with a leathery texture and was only sparsely covered with dry, dusty black hair. Her skeleton, clearly visible, poked at it from beneath. The leathery appearance of her skin I knew meant she had a bad case of mange. I picked her up gingerly – she weighed almost nothing – and carried her at arms length to the truck, where I placed her on the passenger side floor. As I put the car in drive, I tried to remember if I had any dog food in the car and wondered if I should stop to feed her, but I was late for work now, so decided to keep motoring. As I drove to town, she just sat there looking around curiously with what were surprisingly bright, amber-colored eyes. At one point she stood up, put one paw on the shifter between us, and looked at me questioningly, as if to say, “Hey, what’s going on?” I leaned over and pet her lightly on the head and she returned to sitting on the floor. She did not utter one sound the entire drive to the vet’s office. Her silent composure was impressive and a bit unsettling.

I have to admit I started to imagine what she’d look like when her hair grew back and planning how I would find her a home. I even went through a catalog of names that might suit her. I settled on “Pria,”  by shortening “prieta,” which means dark or swarthy in Spanish. An internet search this morning would strike me as significant – Pria being the Hindi word for “beautiful.”  At each of the stoplights in town, I leaned over and pet her bald little forehead with the back of my index finger. In response, she closed her eyes, apparently enjoying the feel of my touch. I wondered how long it had been since she’d received any affection from beast or man.

Carrying her into the vet’s I got a good whiff of her. I wrinkled my nose at the unmistakeable odor emanating from her. She smelled like some kind of excrement – probably cow or dog and I figured the poor darling was probably subsisting on a diet of crap. The female veterinary assistant greeted me, took one look at my companion and contorted her face into an expression of disgust. I asked her if they had some food we could give her, but she just shrugged her shoulders weakly. I asked if it was okay to put her on the floor and let her walk around so I didn’t have to smell her and she thankfully said yes. The pup wandered around sniffing and quickly found the area where she was most at home, out on the cool dirt near the entry gate. Had she ever been inside a building?

When it was our turn, I carried her into the examination room and placed her skinny body on the stainless steel examination table. Felipe the vet regarded her and I quickly sensed my optimism may have been misguided. He touched her ears, where the mange had reduced them to scaly, hairless flaps, looked in her mouth briefly and then picked up her tiny front paw and examined it closely. That’s when he said, “I am afraid that this dog has a serious and chronic type of mange. This is demodectic mange. Unlike sarcoptic mange which causes them to itch profoundly, is very contagious, and treatable, demodectic mange does not cause itching, is not very contagious, but it is chronic and very difficult to treat.” He paused, regarding her sympathetically and continued, “She probably got it from her mother and, sadly, in a puppy of this size, the treatment can do irreversible damage to her liver. The mange also compromises the immune system of the dog and makes them more susceptible to other illnesses. She could very well succumb to parvo-virus or distemper after we put her through several unpleasant treatments…it will be hard on her and it may not even work or, like I said, cause her harm. So we must weigh the benefits with the potential difficulties.” I knew where he was going. “In cases such as this, I think we must be philosophical. There are so many puppies that are healthy that need homes…” I nodded, unable to speak because I was already attached to this little waif standing Zen-like on the table in front of me. I knew what we had to do, but just then the image of Zee entered my mind and I croaked, “Do you remember my dog Zee? The blind one?” He said he did and I told him then how she had died. “You won’t stay here then while I give her the injection?” he asked already knowing the answer. I shook my head no. “She will not feel any pain,” he said, “I’m going to give her an injection to help her relax first. Then once that has taken effect I will give her the injection that will make her sleep and she just won’t wake up.” My eyes started to tear up. Felipe filled a syringe with the relaxant and smoothly injected it into the skin between her shoulder blades. She didn’t even seem to notice. The only thing that stopped me from losing it was that she did not make eye contact with me the entire time we were in the examination room. That would have been too much. Felipe carried her out to one of the little cages then and I was left in the exam room to gather myself. I was, I believe, in shock that my optimism had been so far off the mark.

Felipe returned and I asked him if anyone was working to help the dogs that are always dumped at the municipal landfill where I’d found her. I could tell that he was sensitive to how emotional this had become for me and didn’t want to turn me out of his office without giving me some time. We discussed what was being done and how the Los Cabos Humane Society regularly goes there to pick up dogs. Not wanting to take up more of his valuable time and aware that I was now very late for work, I asked him what I owed him. As I reached into my wallet I realized I only had 24 dollars. I handed it to him and he thanked me and said, “It will go towards paying the man who will bury her.” The word “bury” stabbed at my heart. I thanked him for his kindness and quickly exited the building past a group of people waiting with a strapping, big, black dog. The contrast between this dog’s glistening coat and that of the little girl I’d just left seemed a cruel final blow from the Universe.

On the way home that night, as I approached the turn-off to the landfill, a group of adult dogs lay gathered together for warmth and companionship on the road. As they got up and scattered in response to my approaching car, I thought, “At least they have each other…” Then I pictured the little girl as I drove past the spot where she’d stood alone and hungry earlier in the day. No longer could I contain the emotions that had been building since that morning  – the floodgates opened letting them pour forth.

Caged Creativity

The safety zone has moved. Conformity no longer leads to comfort. But the good news is that creativity is scarce and more valuable than ever. So is choosing to do something unpredictable and brave: Make art. Being an artist isn’t a genetic disposition or a specific talent. It’s an attitude we can all adopt. It’s a hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map. If you do those things you’re an artist, no matter what it says on your business card.

Seth Godin in The Icarus Deception

 I’m writing this on the island of Maui where it seems a different kind of conformity exists. I cannot help but notice, as we drive to the beach at Ho’okipa on the North Shore and especially in the little town of Paia that people here try oh-so-very-hard to be unique, to stand out from the crowd, to be non-conformist. Picturesque Paia is a magnet for surfers, bohemian-types that some might call neo-hippies, spiritual seekers, artists, and some folks who are a mix of all of these things. What I can’t help but notice is that the measure of non-conformity here appears to have shifted to something more extreme, that people apparently feel they must go further to stand out from the crowd. A visual illustration exists in the surprising number of people who sport tattoos over most of their bodies – not just their arms and legs, but entire chests, backs, and necks are covered thickly with images that have been scratched into the substratum of their skin. In some cases the ink has crept up onto their faces. It’s as though the one-upmanship of tattooing has reached its zenith. What will they do when they run out of blank canvas? [I also shudder at what all those dyes and inks are likely doing to their livers, but that’s besides the point.]

When I see these and the people trying so hard to be bohemian that they have eschewed the use of soaps, razors and hair brushes, I question whether they get any pleasure out of their quest for uniqueness or if all that inking and body odor is ultimately just unpleasant and depressing. Ultimately the question that arises in my mind every time I see someone who seems to be trying awfully hard to be different is whether this is an authentic form of self-expression or just another form of conformity within the ranks of the non-conformists. It just doesn’t look “real” to me. It smacks of an act.

Long before she wrote her famed memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “The Last American Man,” a true story depicting Eustace Conway’s choice to live life in a back-to-nature, non-conformist, non-materialistic way that bucks the “norm” of modern American lifestyle. In one scene Gilbert describes the affect Conway had on a group of “loud, disrespectful, shoving, shrieking, laughing” teenaged boys:

Eustace was supposed to get these kids all excited about nature…[he] walked across the stage and toward the microphone. The shoving and shrieking and laughing continued.

Eustace stepped up to the microphone with his hands in his pockets. He stood there, thin and serious, for a long moment. Then he said, “I am a quiet-spoken man, so I am going to have to speak quietly to you tonight.”

The shoving and shrieking and laughing stopped. I swear to God. The jerky teenage kids stared at Eustace Conway, absolutely riveted.

When Gilbert inquired later, Eustace confirmed that this was not an uncommon occurrence. She asked him why he thought they responded to him the way they did and he replied:

“Because they recognized right away that I was a real person, and they’ve probably never met one before.”

Eustace Conway and the tattoo and dreadlock-festooned Paia hippies drove me to wonder, “How many “real” people do I actually meet in a day, a week, or will I meet in this lifetime?” Then the more pertinent question I needed to examine hit me square in the frontal lobe:

Am I living authentically?

When I question what people will think about what I write here or in my memoir and then allow it to influence the creative process, I’m not being authentic. When I allow external factors to alter how or what I create I am not being who I was put on this Earth to be. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not always easy to ignore the voice in my head that warns of potentially negative reactions to what I write. Similarly it’s hard to write just for the love of it without regard for the potential accolades.  Try as I might not to, I do give a shit how many people read and comment on my posts. I am guessing you have no idea how hard it was for me to post my previous entry or how astounded I was when it exceeded all the others in the number of hits it received (Really? Profanity was all that was necessary to get you to read? Well, I’ll be a goddamned, shitfaced and fucking astounded motherfucker!).

Speaking from my own experience, I have to conclude that over and above the social pressures we all feel to conform, authenticity has become endangered by the effects of unlimited access to mundane visual media and marketing that reinforce the tendency to conform and make fun of those who don’t. Add to that the systematic brainwashing of youth by systems of education that are outdated, conventional and dogmatic and authenticity gets a terminal diagnosis.

It takes guts to be authentic in a world where the pressure to conform and the desire for love and acceptance are powerful forces pushing us in the opposite direction. In the face of so much conformance to non-conformity here on Maui, I found myself asking, “How much time and energy do I spend worrying about and trying to live up to others’ expectations? And what would happen if I just stopped doing that and instead started using that energy to express my own most creative ideas?”

Like Godin’s quote at the beginning of this post states, being artistic requires nothing more and nothing less than acting on the “hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map.” I believe we all possess that hunger. Courage and strength are the ingredients that will allow us to escape the cage of conformity repressing the creative artistry inherent in each of our brains. Doing that will make the world a better place.

The Joy Fuck Club

Warning: In case you missed the title, the following post contains adult content and coarse language not appropriate for children or prudish wankers.

A surfer buddy of mine who shall remain nameless sent me a joke yesterday about a materialistic woman and a fairly typical guy.

So this evening, after spending ALL day in front of the computer, I’m out running on the beach at low tide with my blind dog Zee zigzagging along behind me and I see a guy coming out of the water who’s a real jackass. I start thinking, “Oh great, Jackass is back…” when I catch myself and say, “Now Dawn, turn that shit around…” and I start telling myself he doesn’t mean to be a jackass and he’s just like the rest of us and, no, I’m no better than Mr. Jackass. Then because I’m not believing myself, I know I’m better than that jackass, I abandon reason and go with my loving kindness mantra (yeah, I really do that shit). It goes like this, “May all beings be filled with loving kindness, may they have compassion, may they be filled with joy, may they feel at peace and at ease…may all beings be filled with loving kindness…” You get the idea.

I’m running along, my breathing in sync with my internal mantra chanting and I decide to make myself smile to increase the positive vibe I’m starting to feel. That’s when my mind wanders off in a totally different direction, as it tends to do, and I start thinking about the joke my friend sent me. Suddenly, it dawns on me that following the reasoning of the joke my name would be Surffuck, as in a knighted Japanese guy, Sir Fuk. An even bigger smile breaks out on my face, and my chest inflates as I’m filled with pride at my great show of wit (delayed though it may have been). I soaked in that glow for a few seconds before returning to my mantra.

At times, when I really get into my mantra, I leave all the extra words out and just chant, “Loving kindness, compassion, joy, peace…loving kindness, compassion, joy, peace,…” So tonight I was running along and on autopilot. I wasn’t even thinking consciously about the mantra, the words just continued flowing through my mind in a stream. At one point though, when I turned my full attention back to my inner voice and this is what I was chanting:

Loving-kindness, compassion, joy, fuck, loving-kindness, compassion, joy, fuck.

Well, I started laughing right there on the beach in the dark. That last mile was over before I knew it and Mr. Jackass was completely exorcized from my mind. Then I realized I’d abandoned more than the mantra, I’d left my poor blind dog in the dust about half a mile back.

Mercy

Artword by Erika Ashley

The following is an excerpt from the memoir I am writing about my first three years living in Baja, Mexico.

It was a cool April evening in 2002 and I was visiting with Kani and Barry in their palapa-covered living room when the bell at the gate announced someone’s arrival. Out of the dark Angeles, the woman from the palapa restaurant on the beach, appeared, an anxious expression on her face.

Buenas noches,” she said, a little out of breath. “I am sorry to interrupt you,” she said making eye contact with me, and then to Kani said, “But do you have an injection I can give my cat?”
Kani and Barry looked from Angeles to each other and back again with confusion. “An injection?” Kani said, “what kind of injection?”
“You know, the kind that will put it out of its suffering. Juanito’s dog Chaquira got my cat and I think he’s broken his back. He’s suffering and I want to give him an injection to stop it.”
“Oh!” Kani said, understanding that she wanted to euthanize her cat, “oh no, we have nothing like that. It isn’t legal for us to have it.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointment clearly written on her face, ”someone said you had it, from when your cat was bit by the snake.”
For some reason I interjected, “I can come and look at him for you if you like. Then we can decide if he can be saved or not.”
A look of hope flooded her face and she smiled, “Would you? Yes, please I would appreciate your help.”
Angeles and I walked back to the lot where her family’s house sat, unfinished grey concrete, the lot defined by a barbed wire fence with posts made from the branches of native trees. The moon was almost full that night and lit our way. When we entered the property Chaquira brought Juanito out of the house with her barking. He carried a flashlight and called to ask who was there, his eyes not yet adjusted to the semi-darkness. Angeles responded and he joined us next to a pile of old tires covered in tarps and some pieces of old carpeting. Angeles pulled back a tattered blanket to reveal her cat beneath it. Even in the poor light I could see he was very old. His bones were visible under his dull coat and he felt fragile like a baby bird when I reached out and touched him. I asked them to describe what the dog did and with some gentle prodding and manipulation I could feel where his spine had been broken two-thirds of the way down his back. He moaned a couple of times, the deep pathetic sound of an animal in great pain who can do nothing to retreat.
I asked Angeles if anyone in the village had a gun. While it is illegal to possess firearms in Mexico, there is an exception for ranchers who need them to protect their livestock from the ubiquitous coyotes and occasional cougar.
“Yes, my uncle – he has one.”
She wrapped the cat in the blanket taking great care as she lifted him into her arms and together we retraced the path we’d just covered a few minutes before.
At El Caballero Angeles called to her uncle and spoke to him in Spanish. Pelon, as he was known, or Baldy, had a coarse face with a crooked and hooked nose, presumably the result of run-ins with bulls, horses and perhaps, I thought, the occasional man. He wore blue jeans, a white collared shirt, cowboy boots and a belt with a shiny silver belt buckle. In one hand he held a can of beer and, I noticed as he came to the doorway from which Angeles had called him, he was not too steady on his legs using the door jam to steady himself. He regarded me suspiciously, with a look that I interpreted as, “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my backyard?”
Angeles explained why we were there and he barked an order to a young tall boy in the restaurant, who scurried off and quickly returned with a rifle. We were soon joined by another man, with a greasy and pitted complexion and a soft chubby body visible under his ill-fitting white t-shirt and cotton pants. Pelon remained in the doorway appearing strangely aloof in his drunkenness and continued to bark orders at the two men and Angeles. I had no idea what he was saying.
It occurred to me that as the owner of the cat Angeles should not be present when the men killed her cat. It would be too traumatic and it suddenly occurred to me, what if they weren’t successful with the first shot? I suggested that she leave and promised I’d stay there until the deed was done and would return with the cat so she could bury him. Her face flooded with relief. She related the plan to her uncle, placed the cat in a curved depression on a broad tree trunk that was growing along the ground and left.
Pelon issued another order to the young man standing there in the semi-dark who now looked overwhelmed and intimidated by his charge. He held the gun out to the chubby man, who sat on the crooked tree trunk next to the semi-conscious cat. The chubby man shook his head drunkenly and dismissed this idea with his right hand. Then he said something that sounded like words of encouragement and pointed at the cats head.

The young man cocked the gun and pointed it gingerly at the cat’s head. The muzzle moved up and down uneasily. Pelon barked at him again and laughed. His laugh was a harsh and cutting sound. Bullied to proceed, the young man pushed the muzzle up against the side of the cat’s head. I steadied myself for the retort, stepped back in anticipation of the noise.  He pulled the trigger.

Pffflluut! came the flaccid sound of air pressure released. The cat moaned. This was not the loud bang of a rifle cartridge.

It was nothing but a pellet gun.

The realization horrified me, but before I could try to intervene, Pelon was issuing more commands. And by the way he was waving his arm toward the cat, he was telling the young man to shoot it again. The look on the young man’s face indicated he was as horrified as I, but Pelon persisted and the cat moaned again. Perhaps out of compassion for the cat, he hunched his shoulders and cocked the gun, pushed the muzzle against the cat’s head, and pulled the trigger. Another moan, this one slightly higher pitched – the cat was clearly in great pain and each attempt to put an end to it was only making matters worse. Pelon and the chubby man were now both egging the young man on to try again. I couldn’t let this continue and begged them to stop. “Alto! Alto!” I pleaded. They regarded me like a fly. The chubby man now stood and took the air gun, cocked, pointed it, and pulled the trigger, three times in quick succession. The cat moaned and then began to yowl a wail that pierced my heart. I was on the verge of tears. The poor animal was still not dead despite the five pellets sitting somewhere in its head. The men shrugged, Pelon turned, and with the chubby man in tow, walked back into the light of the restaurant. Only the young man remained, looking uneasy, but with a hint of compassion in his dark eyes. That’s when I knew I had to do something to put the poor animal out of its misery. How much more life can it have left in it? I thought.

As gently as I could, I took his skinny neck in my hands and squeezed. The young man regarded me curiously. I’d expected the cat to go limp in my hands, for the life to drain from him effortlessly, for his body to jerk slightly as he gasped for the breath I denied him. His neck felt so skinny, I could have used one hand. But I miscalculated. This cat, despite a broken back and head riddled with pieces of metal, still had life in it. He did not “go gently into that dark night.”

As I tightened my grip, his muscles contracted, and his neck seemed to expand against my hands. The cat sputtered. Had his body not been destroyed, it was clear he would have fought me, but he had no body to fight with. I knew I couldn’t stop. It had to be done. After what seemed like a very long time, the muscles in his neck relaxed and I felt him go completely limp. I didn’t release my hold on him right away. When a good minute had passed and it was clear he was truly gone, I finally let go, relief washing over me. My hands and fingers ached with the effort and I squeezed them closed and open again. As I did so, I looked up saw the young man looking at me with concern. He said something quietly that I interpreted to mean, “It’s done.” I nodded and proceeded to wrap the cat in the blanket. I stood and walked back into the darkness along the dimly moonlit path towards the road that would take me back to Angeles’ house.

I called to her out of the darkness when Chaquira’s barking made me stop short at the gate. In response to Angeles’ wrinkled brow, I told her it was done.

“Do you think he suffered?” she asked.

I lied. “No, it was fast. He didn’t feel any pain.”

It was a cool April evening in 2002 and I was visiting with Kani and Barry in their palapa-covered living room when the bell at the gate announced someone’s arrival. Out of the dark Angeles, the woman from the palapa restaurant on the beach, appeared, an anxious expression on her face.

Buenas noches,” she said, a little out of breath. “I am sorry to interrupt you,” she said making eye contact with me, and then to Kani said, “But do you have an injection I can give my cat?”
Kani and Barry looked from Angeles to each other and back again with confusion. “An injection?” Kani said, “what kind of injection?”
“You know, the kind that will put it out of its suffering. Juanito’s dog Chaquira got my cat and I think he’s broken his back. He’s suffering and I want to give him an injection to stop it.”
“Oh!” Kani said, understanding that she wanted to euthanize her cat, “oh no, we have nothing like that. It isn’t legal for us to have it.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointment clearly written on her face, ”someone said you had it, from when your cat was bit by the snake.”
For some reason I interjected, “I can come and look at him for you if you like. Then we can decide if he can be saved or not.”
A look of hope flooded her face and she smiled, “Would you? Yes, please I would appreciate your help.”
Angeles and I walked back to the lot where her family’s house sat, unfinished grey concrete, the lot defined by a barbed wire fence with posts made from the branches of native trees. The moon was almost full that night and lit our way. When we entered the property Chaquira brought Juanito out of the house with her barking. He carried a flashlight and called to ask who was there, his eyes not yet adjusted to the semi-darkness. Angeles responded and he joined us next to a pile of old tires covered in tarps and some pieces of old carpeting. Angeles pulled back a tattered blanket to reveal her cat beneath it. Even in the poor light I could see he was very old. His bones were visible under his dull coat and he felt fragile like a baby bird when I reached out and touched him. I asked them to describe what the dog did and with some gentle prodding and manipulation I could feel where his spine had been broken two-thirds of the way down his back. He moaned a couple of times, the deep pathetic sound of an animal in great pain who can do nothing to retreat.
I asked Angeles if anyone in the village had a gun. While it is illegal to possess firearms in Mexico, there is an exception for ranchers who need them to protect their livestock from the ubiquitous coyotes and occasional cougar.
“Yes, my uncle – he has one.”
She wrapped the cat in the blanket taking great care as she lifted him into her arms and together we retraced the path we’d just covered a few minutes before.
At El Caballero Angeles called to her uncle and spoke to him in Spanish. Pelon, as he was known, or Baldy, had a coarse face with a crooked and hooked nose, presumably the result of run-ins with bulls, horses and perhaps, I thought, the occasional man. He wore blue jeans, a white collared shirt, cowboy boots and a belt with a shiny silver belt buckle. In one hand he held a can of beer and, I noticed as he came to the doorway from which Angeles had called him, he was not too steady on his legs using the door jam to steady himself. He regarded me suspiciously, with a look that I interpreted as, “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my backyard?”
Angeles explained why we were there and he barked an order to a young tall boy in the restaurant, who scurried off and quickly returned with a rifle. We were soon joined by another man, with a greasy and pitted complexion and a soft chubby body visible under his ill-fitting white t-shirt and cotton pants. Pelon remained in the doorway appearing strangely aloof in his drunkenness and continued to bark orders at the two men and Angeles. I had no idea what he was saying.
It occurred to me that as the owner of the cat Angeles should not be present when the men killed her cat. It would be too traumatic and it suddenly occurred to me, what if they weren’t successful with the first shot? I suggested that she leave and promised I’d stay there until the deed was done and would return with the cat so she could bury him. Her face flooded with relief. She related the plan to her uncle, placed the cat in a curved depression on a broad tree trunk that was growing along the ground and left.
Pelon issued another order to the young man standing there in the semi-dark who now looked overwhelmed and intimidated by his charge. He held the gun out to the chubby man, who sat on the crooked tree trunk next to the semi-conscious cat. The chubby man shook his head drunkenly and dismissed this idea with his right hand. Then he said something that sounded like words of encouragement and pointed at the cats head.

The young man cocked the gun and pointed it gingerly at the cat’s head. The muzzle moved up and down uneasily. Pelon barked at him again and laughed. His laugh was a harsh and cutting sound. Bullied to proceed, the young man pushed the muzzle up against the side of the cat’s head. I steadied myself for the retort, stepped back in anticipation of the noise.  He pulled the trigger.

Pffflluut! came the flaccid sound of air pressure released. The cat moaned. This was not the loud bang of a rifle cartridge.

It was nothing but a pellet gun.

The realization horrified me, but before I could try to intervene, Pelon was issuing more commands. And by the way he was waving his arm toward the cat, he was telling the young man to shoot it again. The look on the young man’s face indicated he was as horrified as I, but Pelon persisted and the cat moaned again. Perhaps out of compassion for the cat, he hunched his shoulders and cocked the gun, pushed the muzzle against the cat’s head, and pulled the trigger. Another moan, this one slightly higher pitched – the cat was clearly in great pain and each attempt to put an end to it was only making matters worse. Pelon and the chubby man were now both egging the young man on to try again. I couldn’t let this continue and begged them to stop. “Alto! Alto!” I pleaded. They regarded me like a fly. The chubby man now stood and took the air gun, cocked, pointed it, and pulled the trigger, three times in quick succession. The cat moaned and then began to yowl a wail that pierced my heart. I was on the verge of tears. The poor animal was still not dead despite the five pellets sitting somewhere in its head. The men shrugged, Pelon turned, and with the chubby man in tow, walked back into the light of the restaurant. Only the young man remained, looking uneasy, but with a hint of compassion in his dark eyes. That’s when I knew I had to do something to put the poor animal out of its misery. How much more life can it have left in it? I thought.

As gently as I could, I took his skinny neck in my hands and squeezed. The young man regarded me curiously. I’d expected the cat to go limp in my hands, for the life to drain from him effortlessly, for his body to jerk slightly as he gasped for the breath I denied him. His neck felt so skinny, I could have used one hand. But I miscalculated. This cat, despite a broken back and head riddled with pieces of metal, still had life in it. He did not “go gently into that dark night.”

As I tightened my grip, his muscles contracted, and his neck seemed to expand against my hands. The cat sputtered. Had his body not been destroyed, it was clear he would have fought me, but he had no body to fight with. I knew I couldn’t stop. It had to be done. After what seemed like a very long time, the muscles in his neck relaxed and I felt him go completely limp. I didn’t release my hold on him right away. When a good minute had passed and it was clear he was truly gone, I finally let go, relief washing over me. My hands and fingers ached with the effort and I squeezed them closed and open again. As I did so, I looked up saw the young man looking at me with concern. He said something quietly that I interpreted to mean, “It’s done.” I nodded and proceeded to wrap the cat in the blanket. I stood and walked back into the darkness along the dimly moonlit path towards the road that would take me back to Angeles’ house.

I called to her out of the darkness when Chaquira’s barking made me stop short at the gate. In response to Angeles’ wrinkled brow, I told her it was done.

“Do you think he suffered?” she asked.

I lied. “No, it was fast. He didn’t feel any pain.”

Paradise Lost

A couple of the healthier dogs living at the dump.

Half-way between the coast where I live and the city where we shop sits the municipal dump. El Basurero Municipal. Before the miracle of garbage collection came to Vinorama, we used to take our garbage directly there on our way to town. But we had to stop. The trip to the dump had become too much for us. I’d often leave the dump in tears.

As we approached the dump, windows were rolled up, air conditioning turned on. Flies, moscas, increased in number the closer we got. Entering, we made our way to the area for domestic refuse. Here the flies buzzed in huge clouds everywhere, seemingly flinging their little black bodies at the car windows in a frenzy. Despite Tony admonishing, “Don’t look, just look straight ahead, don’t look around!” I could not help myself.

On this occasion there were several people climbing about, over, and through the mounds of garbage. Right in front of where we parked our vehicle, a chubby man sat in a large pile of garbage. I watched in horror as he opened a bottle of yogurt drink, sniffed the contents, and, cocking his head, gulped it down. The scavengers were naturally filthy, but what was unsettling was that they appeared to be asleep, moving about like the walking dead. Hunger aside, I wondered what possessed them?

Dumbfounded by what I’d witnessed, I got out of the truck and put myself to the task at hand. While Tony unloaded the garbage, I opened several cans of dog food and poured them onto paper plates. Together we walked to where a large group of dogs waited and laid the plates on the ground. The dogs did not run over, despite the fact that their noses detected something other than rotting garbage on the plates. And if we moved too fast, they retreated in abject fear.

I focused on a brindle-coated puppy of about seven months, old enough to already be fearful, but still more trusting than the older, wizened hounds. Satisfied that we’d done what we could, our supply of dog food almost exhausted, we departed the tragic scene. We could only take so much.

But this time, just outside the gates of the dump, we were assaulted by another sight. A large honey-colored dog trotted down the road towards the dump. She held her head low, a furrow on her brow and, in tow, were eight puppies. They were carbon copies of their mother, the only variation being a small white patch here or there on a foot or chest. They couldn’t have been more than seven weeks old and were skinny, so skinny. Their mother was skin and bone too. Her teats hung flaccid and empty.

Stopping the truck, we jumped into action. “Get the food open! Get the food open!” Tony urged, “so they smell it before they run away!” The mother had already retreated into the dust-laden bushes, a look of horror on her face. Several puppies followed her, scrambling over mounds of dusty garbage that hadn’t quite made it to the dump. A few of the braver pups were looking at us curiously, their noses moving, heads perked and ears turning this way and that, conscious that mom was telling them it was not safe.

They detected something…something that smelled too good to ignore. A bowl with clean, fresh water and a plate of canned dog food were placed as close as possible, but well off the road. Encouraging noises were made. Thankfully no trucks had come and we worked as quickly as possible, while trying not to frighten the wary dogs.

One pup made contact with the food and dug in, energized by the realization of what heaven was. Her litter mates, sparked by her reaction, came running. Pushing, jostling for position, they gulped the food down in great bites, barely pausing for breath. A second plate was prepared and the puppies encouraged to eat their fill.

Mama dog watched, clearly still very frightened, but her pups were now oblivious to her fear. A truck was coming, we had to move. Reluctantly we departed, leaving them there, on the side of the road, mother watching, not eating, staying a safe distance away.

We pulled away slowly and the tears welled up. Through them, I expressed my dismay. Tony was angry and upset too. Frustration came from understanding what could and couldn’t be done, from knowing that the mother would not be easily caught, that the pups would run away too. Homes for puppies were getting scarce and fewer still were willing to take a feral dog like the mother. And we already had eight dogs. This situation had played itself out far too many times over the course of our stay in Mexico.

More and more organizations crop up with the goal of making a difference in the lives of animals here, but at the cultural level the issue of animal overpopulation and mistreatment gets little attention. Among Mexicans, there is great resistance to animal sterilization based on traditional religious and cultural beliefs. And it is not purely the uneducated and simple who resist. Even some well-educated and wealthy Mexicans revile the act.

I’m thankful that we no longer have to go to the dump, but the images of the frightened mother and countless other abandoned animals are imprinted indelibly upon my memory. It is in images such as these that paradise is lost.

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For information or to make a donation to one of the animal welfare organizations working in San Jose del Cabo, Cabo San Lucas or Los Barriles, please click on the following links:http://www.bajasafe.com/donate.htmlhttp://www.humanesocietycabo.com

http://www.almacares.com