Family dog, 2006-2020

It pains me to think about how much of my late family dog’s life was being alone and doing nothing, occasionally interrupted by jarring experiences going out in public or having people over. He never got a gentle introduction to meeting people and dogs, and got quite agitated around both.

My parents didn’t know better about socializing him well and early. They also didn’t know better about socializing me well and early. Some of my earliest memories are of being shy around strangers, and feeling insecure about the friendships I made in gradeschool. I can’t remember a distinct reason why – did I have a bad experience with meeting another kid? or a family friend? I’m not sure, but the persistent uncertainty I felt around other people lasted well into my teens.

In an isolated suburban household without frequent visitors, a dog misses out on valuable desensitization. Ours developed an overexcited, unpredictable reactivity towards visitors. He was obviously interested in new playmates, but was easily spooked and irritated by unfamiliar noise and physical closeness. I had to warn people to be careful around him in case he bit them. He did bite a guest’s ankles once, so we locked him in the laundry room during parties after that.

Honestly, we did nothing to fix that. My parents were busy at work, stressed at work, busy at home making dinner and doing chores, tired at home watching TV. As I grew up, I could see that the dog shouldn’t be so fearful and wild, but I also wasn’t sure what to do about it. I was only in middle school. Then, I was in high school, and I had depression. (Probably also anxiety but I didn’t know it then.) It was a daily struggle just to get up on time, let alone re-design the dog’s life. It wasn’t that bad, usually. The vast majority of his days were morning pets, waiting, then evening pets and maybe a walk, after-dinner playtime, and visiting each of our bedrooms until we all went to sleep.

I also did okay. It’s not like I couldn’t make friends, or was bullied at school, or stood out painfully. I could swim with the other little fish and that was a blessing. But man, I wished so badly that I had more friends, or I could connect with my current friends more deeply. But somehow I could not. The longing was so deep, and left unfulfilled for so long, that it sometimes took up the whole sky of my little world back then. 

There was simply no time to figure out how to meet that social need. My parents said: school first, then weekend school (math and chinese), then extracurriculars (sports or music), and with the leftover time you can see your friends in a relaxed setting. Unsurprisingly, there was never any leftover time. It wasn’t enough just to see family friends every 3 months at a hose party–nice to see you, goonight, next week will be the same isolation and boredom as ever. 

Towards the end of his life, my dog deterioriated quickly. He became intensely afraid of little things – a truck beeping outside a few blocks away; rain (because there might be thunder). He’d shiver uncontrollably and I’d hold him, sad that I didn’t know what else to do. But he was brave during the last weeks of being deathly sick, taking tiny steps at a snail’s pace on the sidewalk in front of my house despite being extremely weak. Soon he was dead. Losing him like that made me realize that I don’t really have the time to be mentally unwell. Even if I don’t know how to be totally mentally healthy all the time, I needed to win back the years of my life I knew would be wasted if nothing changed. After college, I started going to a therapist regularly and began sinking many hours a week into improving my social life.

I’ve gotten a lot better due to the urgency I feel to live a good life. The void of my social life gradually became a not-void, and nowadays I can count many people who like being my friend, my acquaintence, my coworker. And I like them too! It’s everything I dreamed of and more. 

Often, I run into obstacles and feel like giving up on pushing myself to acquire and deepen friendships and other relationships, but I still haven’t. I’d look back and regret it. My dog lived a good life but after he died I felt a lot of doubt about how we did with him. At some point I guess you have faith that it was good enough, but I need to know that I tried hard to make it that way.