blog · Mental Health · self care

You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Those three precious doggies in the photo above are all mine. Macie, the small, white dog, is 7 years old. Noel, the brown and white pup, is almost 2. Bentley, the wolf-like wild man with his tongue always hanging out is 10 months old. I do not have children of my own yet, but these are my babies.

This quarantine has been tough on humans and pets alike, as as their routines have been just as scrambled as ours have been. In my home, I have noticed things have been the hardest on Macie. She has been extremely anxious, panting, shaking, hiding under the bed, and pawing at me to pick her up. While her breed (part chihuahua, part poodle) makes her an anxious dog by nature, she has been much worse than usual, especially over the last month or two.

This past week, my husband and I were itching to get out of the house, so one late afternoon we took the dogs to the dog beach. I was hesitant to take Macie because her anxiety has been so severe and I did not want to further stress her out by having her be around a million unfamiliar dogs. Normally in unfamiliar situations, Macie panics and clings to me. I thought the beach would be a nightmare for her, especially because she hates water. But then again, she has been cooped up for so many months just like the rest of us. Normally, during this time of the year she is used to car rides, day trips, family gatherings, etc., so I figured “Ah, what the heck – the beach might be good for her.”

Within 30 seconds of being at the beach, she turned into a totally different dog! She was hyper, playful, social, and completely fearless! She splashed in the water, chased after dogs that were ten times her size, and rolled around in the sand without a care in the world. It was a drastic change from the anxious dog I had been so worried about over the last few months. She was so care-free!! It was such a joy to watch her step back into the playful pup she has always been. 

But I’m not here to talk about Macie all day (although I could). I’m here to tell you that one of the most important lessons I have learned from Macie, from my patients, and for myself is that it is never too late to discover something new about yourself, to change, to heal, to recover, to accomplish your goals. Lately I have found myself talking with a lot of people who simply feel like it’s too late for them:

-“I’m already married with kids – I missed out on my time to learn who I am outside of my “mom” and “wife” identity.

-“I’m retired – I spent so much time working that I never found “the one” and it’s far too late for me to learn how to be in an intimate relationship.”

-“I’m a recovered addict, there is no way I am going to be able to make a career and a life for myself.”

-“I’m divorced, a survivor of domestic violence, it’s too late for me to be able to trust anyone again.”

My response to all of the above? No, no, no, and NO. 

Our brains were once thought of as being a relatively static organ – unchangeable. But man oh man is that SO WRONG. Our brains are ever-changing, adaptive organs. The brain can rewire itself at any point in life, not just in the developmental/childhood stages. So it truly is never “too late” to do that thing you always wanted to do, or to be that person you wanted to be, or to find that significant other you have been searching for your whole life. 

Personally, there are many times when I have felt like it is too late for me. I know, I’m only 28 years old, but still – I have battled crippling anxiety my entire life. At times, my anxiety takes over my whole body and I feel like I have no control. As a perfect example, I had a dentist appointment this week. What should have taken all of 30 minutes ended up taking 3 and a half hours. I, of course, had to wear a mask in the waiting room, which I sat in for 90 minutes before finally being called back. Having the mask on for that long threw me into a panic attack that left me crying in the waiting room (not my proudest moment).

I felt so embarrassed and defeated when I got home. I remember thinking to myself “I’m going to be crippled with fear and anxiety for the rest of my life.” 

But this is just so not true. As we were at the dog beach later that evening and I was watching my 7 pound chihuahua splashing around in the waves and digging in the sand with 70-pound dogs, I realized that it is never too late to overcome your fears, or to do the thing that you never thought you could do. After all, Macie, who has spent her whole life cowering in fear when in new environments, acted like a fearless, care-free puppy this week.  

And now when I reflect on what happened at the dentist, I realize that I, too, am changing. I normally would have walked out and not gotten my teeth taken care of because the anxiety felt like too much. But this time, I stayed. I sat through it, I reached out to my supports, and I ultimately did what I needed to do in order to take care of myself and my pearly whites! This is huge progress for me – my brain is slowly but surely rewiring itself to be able to endure unpleasant feelings, and I know that one day, these unpleasant feelings will be even easier for me to manage.

The bottom line is this: 

It isn’t too late, regardless of what the thoughts in your head are telling you. Healing and happiness and recovery exist whether you’re 7 years old or 70. So let me ask you this: What is it that you’ve been wanting out of your life but feel like it’s far too late for? 

Go get it! If my 7 year old chihuahua can do it, I know you can too! 

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