Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Memoir with Recovery (and Dogs) Included

Remember how a few months ago I wrote a post about the absence of recovery stages in memoir?

Not long after, I picked up a copy of The Education of Will by Patricia McConnell. I auditioned it through the library (which I often do, before being sure I like it enough/will loan it enough/it has enough valuable passages) and then bought it.

I was very surprised to find that it not only satisfied my desire for covering the more "boring" aspects of recovery, it also is a memoir about far more than dogs. Which is good. Cuz really, I am a cat person, and have, for the most part, avoided memoirs about dogs (minus Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, which is also not just about dogs).

Patricia McConnell is a famous dog behaviorist, whose counsel runs across the NPR waves from little ole Wisconsin, where we both live. I hadn't heard of her, but many folks bought the memoir expecting more "dog" and got "too much personal"; I was unattached, and was glad for the more personal aspects. Overall, it's a lovely balance of the journey of her recovery and her dog's recovery, multi-layered with skillful writing and lovely scenes of southwestern Wisconsin.

But what I find most satisfying is how she is not shy about how long it took her to recover from her PTSD and what was needed to do it. She details the therapist visits (though not ad nauseum), and how she got worse before she got better. She is clear that it was not a single uphill journey with her dog's behavioral issues; more like the hills and valleys of the rural area in Wisconsin where she lives.  This honesty alone is worth it for me; it so happens the writing is also very strong and clear.

Here are some great passages - various selections showing her powerful language and giving us a sense of how long it takes/took:
Once my story spilled out to Anne (her therapist), I felt as though I'd slammed into my past at a million miles an hour, as if into an impenetrable wall...The term "fell apart" had an entirely new meaning for me now. It felt like "I" -- whoever that was -- was strewn about in the water like the result of a dramatic crash...I blurted out to the people in my face that I'd be raped -- that was the easiest story to describe...I found myself unable to speak after having finally given voice to much of what had happened in my past...
Then, in mentioning Will, her current traumatized dog's uncle, Luke, she hints at the length of recovery:
(he) lay beside me night after night, licking my face, curled up against me. His warmth and his love helped me to pull out of the high-speed emotional spirals, staying alive one breath at a time.
It's powerful to me that the word "recovery" is most often used in the addiction world. But it has a strong parallel with surviving from trauma, and that last passage, "staying alive one breath at a time" really captures that.

Finally, she gets down to the direct brass tacks about how long - and how much courage - healing takes:
I would like to tell you that after the truth about my past came out, I was soon able to process it and move on. On the contrary, all of my fears became conscious ones...As Anne told me in one of our talks, "There is a reason why people repress things."
And she shows us the work, like a good math student - journaling, exploring her inner voices, Hoffman Process, yoga, and more...only to say (with 60 pages still left in the book):
I doubt there is any one thing that can help those who are recovering from multiple traumas. But accepting everything that was inside of me, especially the fear I had squelched for decades, made life profoundly easier. It was only one part of what I did during my recovery -- yet it helped. A lot. 
However, life continued to remind me that you never close the book on dealing with your past. You just keep reading the chapters over and over, until you begin to understand them on a deeper level.
Finally, near the end, McConnell states again clearly how long it takes, how the work is never quite done:
Recovery is an ongoing process that requires courage, honesty, and a kick-ass support system. Whatever happens to you during and after a trauma doesn't disappear as if it never happened. It just gets easier to deal with, if you know how to face it. Stuff comes up - it will always come up - and you have to look it in the eye and back it down, like a dog standing nose to nose with a ram. But you can do that if you've done the work before hand, if you have a good support system, and most important, if you have faith that what you need is inside you. You just have to take the risk to find it. 
Lesson learned: I will never finish dealing with trauma. But when I take the risks necessary to face it, I get better and better at it.
There's more - much more - especially when it comes to McConnell discussing how dogs and other animals deal with trauma and recovery in parallel to understand human lizard brain experiences and recovery. It's a strong book. If you want some honesty about recovery, it's a good place to go, and she nurtures us with the dogs just like they have - and do - for her.

Speaking of local authors made big, one of McConnell's therapists in the book is Mare Chapman, who has an amazing new book out called Unshakeable Confidence, which is a mindfulness for women book. Check it out and get some of the tools McConnell used in her recovery!

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