When I was a child, something I wanted more than anything in the world was a dog.
I loved animals and really felt a strong connection to nature. I enjoyed going to pet stores and reading non-fiction animal books. Animals were a frequent subject matter for my drawings and creations as a child, and that continued into my work as a professional artist.
Most of my relatives had cats when I was young, and I soon learned I was allergic. In my mind, cats became something to avoid and dogs grew to be a preference for me, though I seemed to less frequently encounter them. When I would spend summers in Poland visiting my grandparents, I would have more opportunities to play with dogs. I remember my cousin and I trying to catch a stray dog as children so I could take one back with me to New York (obviously that didn’t happen, but looking back I’m impressed with the resourcefulness to make dream reality).
I would lean into my imagination to help me get closer towards that dream.
I remember collecting photos from magazines (this was pre-internet) and displaying posters in my room. I would pick up “Dog Fancy” magazines from the pet store and just all-around really immerse myself in as close as an experience I could get to having a dog, without actually having the opportunity to get one. I had tons of stuffed animals that I would pretend were actually alive.
I had been asking Santa for a dog for years and I had gotten close one year by receiving a VHS tape about different dog breeds. Based on that tape, I had settled on a Yorkshire Terrier, but really I would be happy with any dog. When I was 8 years old, there ended up being an opportunity to get a Jack Russell terrier puppy from someone my father worked with. That is when I officially got a dog. I named her Jackie.
As an only child, I often felt alone and isolated at home. I enjoyed the company of pets and the companionship of animals helped me feel less isolated. Jackie was more like a sister in my eyes and in my heart. However, the memories of that time are not what I had hoped them to be. So much of that first experience got entangled with heartache, that I am not always able to excavate joy without a bit of sadness mixed in. Grief has complicated that part of my life and left a bit of a blur.
The companionship of Jackie helped me to feel more grounded through turbulent times.
My parents and I moved to Florida when I was 9. Suddenly everything felt new and different. I was uprooted from my security base—my home, my school, my friends. In a lot of ways, I was starting from scratch. My physical environment felt so unfamiliar.
The culture and climate of Florida are incredibly different from what I knew in New York. I had never experienced storms like those that occur almost on a daily basis during the summers of Florida. Having lived in apartments all my life previously, I felt really vulnerable suddenly being in a house setting where the walls would rumble from thunder. Neighbors were further away than I had become accustomed to and my parents both worked. In school, we were doing routine tornado drills in addition to fire drills.
Florida felt strange and more fear was building in me without security being reinforced. Safety felt distant, but having a dog with me at home helped me feel more secure.
About a year later, my parents began divorce proceedings. There is so much I wish to say about that experience, but to put it briefly, it was a long and drawn out process that took about two years to finalize. Jackie and I became commodities. In the end, one parent got me and one parent got her.
Losing Jackie as my dog was my first lesson in heartbreak, and it left me questioning everything and anything or anyone I allowed myself to get close to. I felt like I didn’t matter. It felt like my world was crumbling and there was nothing in my power to change anything about it. I felt silenced and unseen. I felt broken. I felt disposable, betrayed, unloved, and completely blindsided. I felt like there was something wrong with me to deserve what happened.
I continued to embody those beliefs for over 20 years and continued to funnel life through the lens of those beliefs. They became my new normal from that point, like new programming that had been downloaded to my brain, overriding whatever came before it.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I gained an understanding on the magnitude of that experience for my child mind.
It was a level of loss that I was not equipped to manage, and created more distrust between those in closest proximity to me, insecurity, anxiety, and feelings of “not-enoughness”—I didn’t feel like I at all mattered. That set me up to treat myself that way as well.
This is an example of trauma or an adverse childhood experience.
It was emotionally profound enough to carve out new belief systems for me. Jackie had a significant amount of importance and meaning in my life—she wasn’t just a dog—she was someone I loved and valued greatly.
An archive of our experiences and their emotional impact live in our brain’s limbic system. Also within the limbic system is the amygdala, our own internal watchdog or alarm system.
When the well-being of something of high value to us is threatened—be it a loved one, a sentimental object, our dreams/aspirations, or anything perceived in the same light—the amygdala will likely alarm.
Think of it as a jewel heist, with the alarm system going off when something valuable has gone missing.
In response, the brain’s amygdala activates fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses, also known as survival behaviors. This protective mechanism has a direct impact on the central nervous system. Somatic effects, or felt sensations in the body, are commonly part of grief or loss.
My amygdala in my brain got activated and I feel like it never really settled back in until more recently, through neural retraining (brain gardening).
Protective factors are often the difference between trauma and growth.
I think there is this assumption that children are naturally resilient and able to bounce back or move forward from anything. This can be true to an extent, as a child’s brain is typically quite neuroplastic, but the environment and (inner or outer) support system available to that child is very much a factor in the kind of “neuroplastic opportunity” within adversity.
If a child (or person) is still within their “window of tolerance” or the “circle of security” where safety is still within reach, there may be an effective support to counter the experience and even create growth out of adversity or trauma. Resilience may be reinforced through that kind of support, strengthening the foundation or systems that are available.
However, when an experience puts a child (or person) so far out of their zone of comfort or if the individual is limited in access to external resources that can support—or has a fragile foundation where those around are not in a capacity to support—the child (or person)’s internal protective mechanism, the amygdala, may overcompensate for the lack of safety.
If this happens for an extended period of time where support or safety is not re-established, the amygdala may become stuck in a state of alertness and the nervous system can maladapt to be sympathetic dominant. Basically, the person can get stuck in a chronic fight/flight state, and this can have vast impact on the body, its functions, and overall health. The nervous system may further try to overcorrect this through the freeze/shut-down response, or even through fawning behaviors—which create a fragmented experience between behavior and belief.
Adverse childhood experiences are linked to mental health disorders, addictions, and chronic illness/disease.
This negative experience was my foundation for limbic system impairment (or Complex-PTSD) and the starting point to chronic illness.
In the beginning, I had an extreme personality change where I went from outgoing and explorative to socially mute and withdrawn. I was described as “moody” or excused for being a pre-teen, but the changes were the direct result of increased feelings like I didn’t matter. My environmental allergies worsened and I developed more food aversions and sensitivities. I started to experience chronic pain and inflammation in my ankles and joints. I gained weight from excess cortisol, for which I was bullied, and that helped push me into a state of isolation and self-pity. The voice of my inner critic grew louder and reinforced core beliefs of being broken and not being enough. Anxiety became an increasingly present part of my world. This was just the starting point and it largely served as the blueprint for patterns and behaviors that would continue as the years went on and I experienced more range in adversities. The physical symptoms only continued to increase.
I lacked the tools I needed, and the emotional impact of these events defied the skillset I had at the time to process them.
- I felt a new range of emotions in losing who I equated to love and safety
- I didn’t have support in managing those emotions and was cut off from my previous sources of security, like my support system of friends and family in New York, and the familiarity of that environment.
- I lacked security in my immediate family environment and in what were considered my closest relationships—I felt betrayed and disposed of by a parent, plus the experience of being an only child in the middle of hostile divorce dynamics.
- Because I was still a child, my brain was still very much in development. The neocortex—the thinking brain—is not yet mature and this is typically what helps ground or filter emotional experiences. The limbic system—the emotional brain—is largely at the forefront of experience for children while the cortex continues to develop. Additionally, through the lens of polyvagal theory, the social nervous system and caregiver bonds are especially vital for well-being in this period of development.
Ultimately, I didn’t have the emotional intelligence or support at that point to effectively move through it.
So, at least part of me got stuck and created a faulty base to manage the rest of my life going forward.
This experience occurred at a pivotal time in my life and set up a foundation for how I would respond or react to loss or distrust in the years that followed.
We tend to recreate experiences that are familiar for the illusion of comfort (or safety) they bring with that familiarity. For most of my life, I can see that my amygdala has more often been in the driver’s seat than not.
Loving relationships and trust had felt so foreign and unnatural for the longest time.
I would self-sabotage anything that mimicked a loving relationship because of my embodied core beliefs that convinced me:
1) I didn’t deserve love
2) It wouldn’t last, so it was easier if I held some illusion of control to carry it out myself
Ironically, I secretly always wanted to be proved wrong to discover that maybe, perhaps, I was worthy of love. But the limiting beliefs that told me otherwise seemed to always be fulfilled. The reason for this was largely because of behaviors and habits that kept me stuck in the old patterning that was linked to such limiting beliefs.
I initially started this blog entry for Dog Appreciation Day to jump ahead to the happier part of this journey (in my present with Pixel—I’ll post a part 2 to pick up with that part of the story).
However, I don’t want to erase my past, because every bit of it led me to the place now. I can look back at it all and see the lessons and parts I have shed to find myself without holding onto those protective layers that kept me stuck.
I feel like the past is a necessary part to include in this recount of my journey to help promote healing for others, because it’s a more accurate representation of the journey. Often times we hear the “victory” without knowing the bumps in the road that happened to get there. The bumps are the teaching points.
This was one of my bumps in the road.
Looking back now through all the skills and tools I’ve used to sift through this experience, I still can feel grief.
That doesn’t ever really go away, but the anger has been diffused. The depression has faded. I’ve eventually learned to accept what had happened. I’ve even gained some understanding and compassion, which was entirely unexpected. But it wasn’t a simple shift into that place—it was a journey. Anger and depression were at the forefront of my experiences for a long time.
The thing that has made the biggest difference is how I choose to go back into the timelines where I felt powerless. The feeling I carry with me to those points, to meet my underlying needs, is love—so much love for that little girl—my younger self. I look back and I see her. I validate her. I hear her. I provide the nurturing and unconditional love that was once absent.
This is how I carry myself as I move through timelines to reprocess events of my past.
It’s not about re-experiencing them as I knew them to be at the time that they happened. It’s not about replaying or about re-traumatizing, but re-processing.
Yes, the past can be reactivating, but slight reactivation of old pathways can be a way to guide the brain out of those engrained subconscious patterns and into conscious choice and decision-making. When we carry the tools we’ve gained since those experiences, we can also bring healing to those wounded areas by applying what wasn’t available then.
Now I carry the love that I needed with me through my higher self.