I’ve Been Thinking … Letter to a Shelter Dog
There you were, standing on your hind legs with your two giant paws up on the kennel door, like you’d been waiting for me. Perhaps you knew I’d just binged on a stale, two-day-old birthday cake in the break room of the San Diego Humane Society, where I worked and you lived.
Perhaps you knew I was desperately trying not to throw the cake up, to rid myself of the shame I felt for having binged yet again. Perhaps you knew that at twenty-four years old, I was convinced my life was over because all these ways I’d tried to heal–rehab, hospitalization, medication, therapy–had failed. I had failed. Sometimes, I purged up to ten times a day.
Full of failure, I opened the door to your kennel and kneeled down on the linoleum floor. You climbed into my lap like you were a five pound Yorkie, not a seventy-pound pit bull. Your face reminded me of a hippo, that wide muzzle and all those wrinkles of white fur around the nose.
You had bubble-gum pink paws, tender and smooth like they hadn’t been harmed by the world yet even though they had. You were only a year old, but so much had already happened in your short life. You’d been hit by a car, rescued by a good Samaritan, and now you were here, at the Humane Society, in my arms.
I loved everything about you: your floppy white ears, your soft whiskers and strong jaw, the brown freckles that gathered around your nose, and your enormous, complicated eyes. I loved how your energy shifted from something electric to calm, how you sat panting in my lap with your mouth wide open like a smile, as if you were this big-bellied, white Buddha, not merely a shelter dog.
I loved how I could tell you anything, and so I told you how I ate the cake until I couldn’t breathe, how the waistband of my jeans now pressed hard against my stomach, how awful it felt to be ruled by a sugary baked good.
I scratched your chin and told you that all I wanted to do then was throw up. I was shocked I hadn’t. But something strange had happened after I licked that last morsel of vanilla frosting off my fingertips and headed to the bathroom. Suddenly, there was this quiet but profoundly strong pull in my chest. Go to Paloma, it said. And most remarkably, I turned around and listened.
You tilted your head as though you understood every word, your ears moving back and forth like antennas, your eyes glowing with affection. I was certain I didn’t deserve eyes that glowed like that, but you didn’t mind what I believed. For the next thirty minutes, you sat with me while I wrestled with urges to empty myself. You loved me through the physical and emotional discomfort. You stayed in my lap and grounded me to the earth when I wanted to get up and run to the toilet like I’d done so many times before. You helped calm my mind, until my desire to purge eventually softened and receded.
I didn’t know it then, but my life changed that day. I may not have been able to feel myself turning into the woman I was meant to be, but it was happening. I wouldn’t recover from bulimia overnight, but soon, I’d start nourishing my body and abstaining from the behaviors that were killing me. I’d begin telling others (human and animal) my innermost secrets. And eventually, I’d recover.
A decade later, I’m writing to you because I want you to know that you not only changed my life but the lives of other women like me. I created SoulPaws Recovery Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, in your honor. With the help of some amazing therapy animals (including pit bulls), we practice what you taught me in your kennel that day. Patience, courage, and love.
Sweet girl, I don’t know where you are now, or even if you are still with us in this physical form. I’m grateful that you were adopted by a loving family, and I hope they cherished and pampered you all the days of your life. It’s what every dog deserves, but especially, Paloma, a dog like you.
A rescuer like you.
Shannon Kopp is an Eating Recovery Center National Recovery Advocate and the best-selling author of Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life, published by HarperCollins.