A Normal Reaction to Normal Circumstances (and a puppy)

This is the story of how I got the first canine roommate of my adult life.

It was Sunday. I was up before sunrise, as usual. Checked through the news. Put on a movie — one of those light classics everybody always talked about that I’d managed to miss. I turned off the light and rolled out the exercise mat to do sit-ups and curls while I watched, stretching out the problem areas in my back as much as I could.

I paused the movie at 0800 and took the chain off the door. The plan was to step onto the porch and check the sky. But before I could go through, a little brown blur had whizzed past my feet and into the apartment, moving so fast I thought it was a wild rabbit.

When I circled the countertop dividing the living room from the tiny kitchen, the open doorway’s gray light revealed a body capped at one end by eyes big enough to be a Disney cartoon, and at the other by a frenetically whipping tail.

“Friends?” was all those big eyes said as they bored into my face.

I hadn’t seen this dog around, but plenty of my neighbors had pets and the lion’s share ignored leash ordinances as a matter of routine. Figuring she lived with someone, I started the movie playing again and lay down on the mat. The open door would let her leave when she was ready, and would let us both hear if someone started calling for her.

She exited the kitchen and plopped down on my chest. She spent the rest of the movie carefully perched there, licking my nose. When the movie was over, I put another one on and she resumed her position, resting from nose-licking only occasionally to roll onto her back for belly rubs.

Three hours later she had made no attempt to leave, and no one within earshot had called for her. I decided we should take a meandering walk by as many of the neighbors as we could manage, but no one showed signs of looking for her.

I decided she could stay with me, in violation of my lease, while we continued to seek her people. I got dog food, poop bags, a harness, and a leash for our walks. It took a long time to get a good photograph of her, because all she wanted to do was play. I called the animal shelter after practicing a little speech about letting her stay with me until her home was found. The speech was unnecessary; the first thing the lady told me was that they were definitely not accepting animals. I sent them the photo, and I circulated it on lost-dog groups. I called the landlords in the area.

I kept some details back about her (gender, tail shape). Anyone claiming a prior relationship would have to supply these if they wanted her back, but no one ever came forward to say they knew her. I turned down several offers that began “If no one claims the dog…”

And, after some time — two weeks? three weeks? — I decided the trail was cold and finders keepers, dangit. I went to the apartment office and told the blonde woman behind the desk that I wanted to add a stray dog to my lease.

“OK,” she said. “What people do is get a note from their doctor saying they need a pet, and then we can’t charge you.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “I brought the money for the deposit.”

“It’s non-refundable.”

“I know.”

“And your rent goes up. Every month. It adds up to a lot of money.”

“Yeah…”

“You just go to the doctor and tell ’em you have anxiety or something. It can be anything.”

I flashed back to an ex-girlfriend, now a psychiatrist, casually stating years after we broke up that I obviously seem to have PTSD. Thought about the nights I wake up screaming, or bolt out of bed to take up a defensive position.

“Eh,” I said. “I’m more comfortable doing it this way.”

I pulled the deposit money from my pocket, $200 if memory serves. She ignored it to rummage through a filing cabinet. Came back up with a piece of paper that she banged onto the desk in front of me.

“This is the form,” she said. “They can give you a letter or whatever, it just needs to make sure to have, like, this phrase in it so it’s illegal for us to up your rent.”

And with that, she swiveled in her chair to work on something else.

Eventually, I said, “Well, OK, I guess I can call my doctor and see what he says…”

“Anxiety,” she said.

I took the form and left.

When I’d been to the doctor a few years earlier, some blood work came back borderline for autoimmune issues and I got a note, which I had studiously ignored, saying that I needed to re-test. Now, I made an appointment.

I spent the 40-minute drive to the clinic debating if I would even bring up the dog thing. I didn’t want to game the system, but I also didn’t really want to pay all that money. As far as I was concerned, it was nobody’s business whether a dog would help me or not. Dogs can help everybody, right?

I waited in the exam room, having concluded I was going to get the blood test and get out. Suck it up and pay the extra rent. The nurse came in with my chart and raised an eyebrow when she saw how long it had been since I’d last come in and how long since the original blood draw. She asked a couple questions. Was about to leave when she asked if there was anything else.

“Um,” I said.

“Yes?” she said, suddenly paying a great deal more attention to me than she had prior.

“It’s nothing,” I said, waving a hand for her to go set up the re-test.

She moved away from the door and sat down.

“Well,” I said, “I, um. I have an ex who has… suggested… that I miiight… have PTSD.”

“Do you think you have PTSD?”

“No,” I said, hearing confidence return to my voice.

I proceeded to mansplain that if we take PTSD’s name at face value, specifically the disorder part, that my life wasn’t disrupted and so I couldn’t qualify. Nothing was disabling me, so it couldn’t be a disorder. And anyway, I only mentioned it because I was really wanting to get a dog, and my apartment complex had asked for some kind of paperwork saying that I needed a dog, and yadda yadda yadda, I thought that was dumb because if I try to get special treatment it dilutes the whole meaning of PTSD and takes away from the people who really do need a little help, and anyway, let’s just forget the whole thing and get on with the blood work shall we?

I’d been looking down and to the left for pretty much the whole spiel, unusually afraid of any sort of eye contact. When I looked up, she was studying me.

“Let’s try it this way,” she said. “Do you think you have post-traumatic stress?” Intentionally leaving off the disorder.

I sighed.

Paused.

“Probably,” I said, with a forcefulness I thought would convey that having post-traumatic stress had no particular merit in itself. “But, I mean, everybody has stress.”

“Yes, they do,” she said, following it up with some but’s that have fled my memory. I think she even uttered the magic words “normal reaction to abnormal circumstances,” which I took as a cue to again try to explain why I shouldn’t qualify for special treatment.

“Everybody likes to say that PTSD is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances,” I said. “But people destroying people has been the norm throughout human history, and if it looks abnormal to anyone it’s because they’ve lucked into a bubble where people have attractive enough incentives not to.”

So see? Why should I benefit from just seeing the world as it truly is? Go give your magic, dog-granting pieces of paper to people who really need them.

We likely ping-ponged back and forth a bit more before she finally rose and said she was going to find the doctor. I heard her in the hall, indistinctly, forcefully punctuating some of our conversation to the doc.

He came in and asked a couple of questions, his eyes glistening with pity as they scoured my own. He said something about believing in God, then told me the office would email me some boilerplate about recommending an emotional support animal.

“I like dogs myself,” he said. “You could get a rabbit or a hamster or a snake or whatever, but I think dogs do a lot of good.”

The blood work, he said, we could skip — high rate of false positives on those things, my numbers were borderline on only one out of several tests, and if I did have an autoimmune problem the treatment would be drugs and he knew I’d never take them.

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