Toby Israel Ph.D.

Design on My Mind

Women by Design: Transforming Home, Transforming Self

Black Dogs, Secret Room

Posted Nov 06, 2015

Do you like dogs? Well if you do, that’s great. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the pet gene in my DNA.  For whatever reason, I’ve always been uncomfortable around dogs.

So that was the problem.  Sam, my boyfriend, had a big, black dog.  At first I didn’t know he had one. Sam kept the dog locked up in the garage way down our back lane. Whenever I went swimming at the local lake, I’m sure he walked that dog and gave it lots of love.  But, why didn’t he tell me about “Spot” or whatever it was called?

I guess Sam was afraid I’d yell, “Black Dog!” and leave him flat. But, what was he thinking? Once I moved in, I had to question, “Why are you always in the garage?” and “Do I hear barking?” I lived with Sam for a month, when the image of a dog devouring my question mark somehow popped into my head. So out of my mouth came, “What’s with you in that garage?  Do you have a dog?”

Sam hesitated but then came clean.  He knew there was no point introducing me to “Spot.” Say the word “dog” and sensory discomforts like a dog’s wet tongue licking my face, the sound of slobbering, the smell of fur like stale rags all come to mind for me.  

It’s not that owning a pet is bad. It’s that Sam didn’t tell me about “Spot” from day one. Hey, if ‘Must Love Dogs’ is on your list and your partner dog-demurs, well maybe things aren’t meant to be. But if it is true love, and you keep secrets, that secret-keeping alone may slowly lick the life out of your relationship. 

As the months went by Sam spent even more time in the garage. I sensed he might have dogs with an ‘s’ not just “Spot.” Was I crazy? Were there actually two dogs? Soon I suspected there might be three big, black dogs  . . . Then four?  Was I imagining this? I couldn’t know for sure because Sam avoided all discussion of his dog collection.

When I finally confronted him, Sam stood his ground saying, “What’s the big deal?” Maybe it wasn’t a big deal. Or was it? My mind began to spin like a gerbil on a wheel as I tried to grasp what that locked up pack was all about for him and for me.  I just knew I disliked secrets even more than dogs. Every week I heard more and more barking but said nothing.   

Meanwhile news reports like “Co-pilot in Germanwings Crash Hid Mental Illness from Employer . . .” kept reminding me that secrets never end well.  Just as I was wondering about Sam and his dogs, speculation was mounting about that co-pilot who locked the pilot out of the cockpit and then deliberately crashed the plane killing all onboard.

Hearing the news of all those deaths I began to obsess. I was sure Sam wouldn’t hurt anyone, so why was I getting overwrought? Deep down something seemed very wrong. As I often do, I tried to untangle my confusion by understanding it in terms of people and place.

In my mind’s eye, for instance, I could hear that pilot banging desperately on the locked steel door, begging the co-pilot to open up.  I could imagine the co-pilot stuck to his seat, breathing “normally,” entranced, locked up, perhaps, by his own secret demons, determined to crash down.

The horrifying space of secrets seemed familiar . . . then suddenly it came to me. Years ago I had a tiny, secret room in my head with a door I kept tightly locked.  Dark, windowless it had only slight slits through which I viewed the world.  In the corner of this cell was my imaginary gerbil of racing thoughts circling frantically on a wheel, trying to escape the secrets I held for myself and others. 

Let me stop being vague: I was only 14.  The secret was that my father was dying.  (Or was he?) No one was telling me or him the truth but (animal instinct) I just knew. Still, not being told the truth was crazy-making. Later on, my husband was unfaithful. (Or was he?) Run gerbil run as denial fed my gerbil. 

Finally I crashed - -not shockingly on a specific date or time. There was no obvious fireball or smoldering wreckage. But smoke gradually filled my mind’s tiny cell- - the smoke and mirrors of those trying to hide the truth from me and often from themselves. My psyche’s gerbil, overwhelmed by years of secret-keeping, choked and finally just crawled off the wheel. With support from my friends and family, I managed to pry open my locked door.  Once outside in clear light and fresher air- - I recognized that secrets produce an often invisible but lasting trail of debris. Thus I understood why Sam’s dog secret-keeping caused anguish (perhaps for him) but definitely for me.

Then, too, Sam began spending even more time with those damn dogs. When he wasn’t with them, he got jumpy and edgy and he barked at me. We stopped traveling since “Spot” and the gang had him on a leash. If Sam went too far from home, he growled at me, heeled and then scurried back into the garage. When he visited the dogs, he was soothed.

 “What is it about those dogs that soothe you so?” I asked Sam.  He seemed pained and struggled to explain but dropped back. I struggled to pry open his locked door as others had for me with their love and understanding. Sam remained shut up.

“Only we can release the demons that crawl in our own dark spaces,” I thought trying to understand but then I rationalized, “Well maybe he just likes dogs.”

But denial had been my interior décor for too long and by now I’d learned that living in a room of secrets causes damage. I had to be honest and ask myself, “How do I want to fill my space?”

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure.  I loved Sam deeply.  He was my best friend and never tried to rein me in. He’d made me feel # 1 until, outnumbered by the dogs, I felt shut out and could feel myself withdrawing. To keep my unease at bay and clarify what I wanted, I envisioned my ideal room:

MY IDEAL ROOM has many windows that welcome in bright light and fresh air. It is a calming, comfortable, nurturing and inspiring oasis where I can enjoy life and love with my partner as we learn, grow and thrive - - not just survive.

‘Notice that my vision definitely did NOT include secret canines. Above all, I knew that a lasting, authentic space could only be built on a solid foundation. Thus, I worried, “If things keep going like this with Sam, will I end up in a living room filled with smoke and mirrors, herding black dogs, forever picking up gnawed bones and retreating to an attic filled with whirling gerbils- - again?  

In the end, I (and you) always have a choice to circle and howl alone or walk out of any secret room to a healthier place.

Copyright Toby Israel 2015

Source: Toby Israel
Gerri Generous
Source: Gerri Generous