The word “love” makes me uneasy. I consider myself to be a caring, loving person, but I don’t always feel comfortable talking about it or even showing it for that matter. Some people say it freely and often. Some show it with such ease. I have always envied that emotional freedom. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy or appreciate hearing it, or that I don’t mean it sincerely when I say it, just that it doesn’t come as naturally to me as it appears to for some.
This is something that alcohol “helped” me with. A few drinks made the anxiety attributed to that word all but disappear. I wasn’t an “I Love You Man” drunk, I was more of a box of chocolates type, only 50% of the box was actually just little pieces of shit dressed up like chocolate. But alcohol made it easy to express emotions, including love, or a feeling I assumed was love. What wasn’t easy was determining real emotion from chemically induced emotion, and when making that determination I would always defer to the latter. It’s easier to not care about things or people. It’s easier to tell yourself “that was just the booze talking.” It’s lonely and hollow, but simple. Emotions complicate things.
When I stopped drinking, I had a lot of trouble feeling any emotion at all. For my entire adult life I had used alcohol to enhance basically every emotion. If something made me happy, I’d drink to celebrate. If something made me sad, I’d drink to forget. If I was angry, anxious, scared, excited, or depressed, I’d drink. It’s an accepted way of dealing with human emotion. Unhealthy, but acceptable.
Without the chemical boost, I didn’t feel anything for a while. When I did start to feel emotion, it didn’t have the same intensity that it had when I was drinking. As an alcoholic, everything felt so dramatic. As a non-drinker, my wife will occasionally become upset with my calm demeanor during intense situations- just another example of an absolute flip in my personality. More important than the lack of emotion (which I think eventually comes back to a normal level over time) was the lack of ability to deal with it. Without drinking, how would I handle emotion? How would I celebrate or grieve? How would I express love or cope with emotional pain? Maybe it was a blessing that I wasn’t feeling emotion early in sobriety, as I was not equipped to deal with it.
On my very first attempt at sobriety- days into it- I decided I needed a dog. I needed something to be responsible for. I needed a best friend. I was on the heels of a breakup and may have been having an early midlife crisis. I decided to stop drinking, buy a Jeep, and get a dog. On their own, none of these are bad decisions, but as a plan to get sober, it lacked depth. I completely underestimated my addiction. Still it was an incredible first step.
I lived in a duplex at the time so I needed a relatively small dog, but I wanted it to look like a bigger, tougher dog. I didn’t want a little lap dog- that didn’t fit me at all. After minimal research I decided on a puggle. After deciding the breed, in a “meant to be” moment, I found a litter of dogs for a very reasonable price only a few blocks from my house.
Within 2 hours I was picking out my first dog. I remember it clearly: 5 dogs were at my right foot, crawling over each other, tumbling around, biting my shoes. Then there was one little guy hanging out by himself near my left foot. He had gotten ahold of my shoestring and was untying it. That was the one. On April 1st, 2009 I purchased Mookie Blaylock. A co-worker had helped me come up with the name just a couple hours earlier when I made the decision to buy a dog. It’s the name of a former NBA point guard and Pearl Jam’s original name before a record executive at Epic convinced them to change it. In an odd coincidence, the real Mookie Blaylock was involved in a car accident that killed a mother of 5 in May, 2013. Mookie was intoxicated. It came to light that he had a problem with alcohol, and ended up being convicted of vehicular homicide. It’s not lost on me how easily that could have been me just 2 years prior.
It took some convincing when I sent out the picture to my family of baby Mookie, that I really bought a dog and that this wasn’t an April Fool’s joke. It took no convincing for me to know that I loved him. That came very naturally and without any trepidation. I remember the overwhelming feeling of love and responsibility I felt when I sat him in the front seat of my car and started to drive. I felt like I needed to drive a bit slower and more cautiously. I had to protect this little baby puppy, no matter what. I was entirely responsible for his well being, which at the time was a real crap shoot considering I wasn’t doing so great with my own well being.
I had no idea how to take care of a dog, but I learned. I taught Mookie the basics. He was a handful, and I didn’t provide the most stable environment. In case you hadn’t done the math, I didn’t sober up for good until 2011, so there were 2 years, Mookie’s most formative years, that I was very inconsistent for him. There were good times for him, like the time I drunkenly ordered 55 dollars worth of McDonalds by myself (I think I was mumbling something about wanting a #4 or a #5 but ended up getting 5 #4’s.) In the morning I realized that I hadn’t eaten any of it, but I did give Mookie at least one whole order of french fries. There were also really bad times for him, like when I parked my Jeep in the front yard and tied Mookie to it so I could go inside and pass out on the living room floor, for who knows how long. That time my parents actually drove by and saw the scene (I lived on a busy road) so they put my Jeep in the garage and took my dog to their house. Like I said – I wasn’t doing great at taking care of myself.
Mookie and I got through all that shit somehow. Oh the stories he could tell. (Thank God he can’t talk.) He moved in with my parents for 4 months while I lived at the Fort Des Moines Correctional Facility, but since that time his life- and my ability to care for him- have greatly improved. I got him a dog mom (like really the best dog mom I could have gotten him) and a couple brothers. Eventually, we even got him a HUGE fenced-in yard so he can run and run, and never have to worry about cars or strangers. To say he is spoiled now and living his best life is an understatement. He is 9 now and he is a good boy. Bossy, but a good boy. There are many people who visit the house and say that Mookie is their favorite of the 3 dogs. He couldn’t care less about being your favorite though – which is kind of an endearing trait. Where the other dogs really want to make you happy, really want to hear “good boy” – Mookie doesn’t give a shit. Maybe he is part honey badger. He just wants a treat and if you can’t provide it, well you aren’t his favorite, that’s for sure.
In March, we found out that our little bossy, independent buddy has diabetes. It’s not a death sentence- we give him 2 shots of insulin a day now…well my wife gives him the shots (did I mention she is the best?) but it does come with complications and shorten his life expectancy. I had planned on him living to the age of 14 but as a diabetic, we will be lucky to get 2 more years and it wouldn’t be shocking if it were much less. One of the complications is cataracts which of course, cause blindness. That complication hit Mookie hard and fast, starting in June but becoming severe right around the 4th of July. As of today, I believe Mookie has lost 95% of his vision. It’s been a terribly painful thing to watch. This is a dog who was so full of life, a dog who would burst through the dog door on the porch to chase a ground squirrel or rabbit all the way to the fence. A dog who could catch any treat out of mid air. Now he struggles to get around the house. He sleeps a lot. He can’t find his food and water bowl without assistance. His body is becoming weaker, and his will becoming less. I can only imagine what it must be like to be in the dark. I can understand the lack of desire to play, or even wake up for that matter. We still hope that he will improve and become better at being blind, using his other senses. We also are realistic with the idea that we may not have a lot of time left with him.
And that is where I bring it back to the beginning of this post. Real emotion. Real love, real heartache, real pain. I have felt all of those over the past couple of weeks at different times. They came on strong. Mookie has been through so much with me. Now watching him struggle, watching him in pain, watching him become frustrated with his blindness, watching him stand in front of a wall with no idea how where he is – it CRUSHES me. It’s these types of emotions that I would have immediately numbed with alcohol. That’s no longer an option. So I am having to cope with things. I am learning to deal without booze. I am finding gratitude in the pain. I know that the pain I feel is love, and that the love I feel is real. I also know that I didn’t fail Mookie as his guide. I would have undoubtedly failed him had I not made the change.
And maybe Mookie is now the one doing the teaching. He is teaching me how to live and love and deal with difficult emotions. It reminds me of something the great Ron Burgundy once said “You’re so wise, you’re like a miniature Buddha covered in hair.” It’s a lesson I need to learn, an ability I need to possess – and who better to teach me than Mookie. Some day it won’t be my dog that is in this situation, it will be my grandpa or a parent, or a friend, or worse. It’s something we all have to deal with, it’s part of life. The last part. Because of Mookie I will know that I can get through it sober.
It also reminds me of another line from a movie, a line that truly sticks with me during times of loss. “Benjamin, we‘re meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?” (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Isn’t that true?
But Mookie is still here and we are still making the best of it. He is still and always will be my first dog. The OG of the Brown Dogs Farm.
I love Mookie – and that’s easy for me to say.
Maybe I’ll become more comfortable with these emotions as time goes on. I know I am still learning how to live without alcohol. For now – this is where I am at and I am okay with it.