It was too cold for April. The heat had to be turned on that Monday morning and already smelled like it had been months since it had run. Wool socks and house shoes weren’t enough to entice me to want to step on the cold tile floor of the kitchen. It was still dark outside; the coffee was yet unbrewed and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself for having to be out of my warm bed.
The dog’s nails clip-clopped on the floor to announce her arrival in the kitchen. She is a little thing, barely 10 inches off the floor with stubby legs, and a wagging tail. Tentatively, she stuck her nose through the doggy door and quickly pulled back in, shivering. Her shivering continued as she ate her breakfast and moved back into the living room. She hopped up on the couch onto a blanket that had been left there, unfolded, the night before.
I watched as she turned around three times to the right, pawed at the blanket a few times and then turned around three times to the left. Finally satisfied, she curled her tiny 12-inch-long-self into a ball the size of a golf ball and buried her head into the center of the ball. Her shivering continued, and I was overcome with pity.
There was a similar blanket on the love seat and I picked it up to place it over and around the poor, shaking golf ball. Tucking it in carefully so that she could breathe easily, my face was close to hers and then
SHE. BIT. ME! Her sharp Jack Russell teeth sunk into my nose and cheek. I yelped and pulled away to find my face bleeding.
Manda is a rescue dog. We brought her home to live with us almost 6 years ago when she was just a puppy. She had been found starved, flea-bitten, and wandering around an access road some three months before she came to us. Manda is a Jack Russell/Shih Tzu/Who Knows What Else mutt that has clearly endured some abuse in her past. She is afraid of baseball bats, fly swatters, men, vacuum cleaners, plastic bags that blow onto the front porch, men in baseball caps, and any other human who doesn’t normally live in our house. When we have company, we put her in her crate, in the most removed corner of the house, so that she doesn’t try to go for their jugular or bark them deaf. At night, she sleeps in her crate, covered in a sheet so that she can’t see outside because she barks at every leaf that blows by a window. Manda is anxious most of the time.
Our best guess is that Manda’s first contact with humans was painful.
The stories that surround us often are out of our immediate awareness. We live invested in, overwhelmed by, and suffocated by our own stories. Consequently, when others invade that space without warning, we feel forced to react! Other people’s behavior seems rude or hurtful or out of line because we don’t know the context they are moving in.
On that cold April Monday morning, Manda bit my nose out of trauma. Don’t get me wrong: I was mad! And bleeding. And my nose was swelling.
But, something in her said that this was a dangerous situation and she had best defend herself from it. When you are a tiny little dog, your teeth are your best defense.
I know a few people like that, too.
They have been hurt, deeply hurt, by someone and will strike out to protect themselves from experiencing that kind of hurt again. Their words are their best defense and emotional distance the safest thing they can imagine. Those privileged few in close relationship with them know what is happening when they misbehave, overreact, strike out. Those outside of that inner circle have no idea what just happened. We might be left mad, and bleeding emotionally, and maybe even swelling up to meet the challenge thrown down.
What if we who have been bitten could stop the fight or flight reaction in us? What if we could stop and wonder for a moment? It is possible to find compassion. It is possible to breathe in and out until we find God with us. It is possible to ask, gently, for clarification. It is possible to create and hold healthy boundaries that allow for continued relationship.
What if we who have experienced trauma could notice the fight that welled up in us? What if we could stop, breathe, get present, and acknowledge our overreaction? Without telling every detail of our story, without flashing back, could we ask humbly for forgiveness with some appropriate context offered? It is possible to find healing. It is possible to experience true relationship again. It is possible to ask for boundaries that feel safe while still allowing for relationship to grow.
Trauma affects more than half of any given population of people. If half of the people whom you meet on any given day have experienced trauma, that means that you might get “bitten” multiple times a day. Being trauma informed doesn’t excuse someone else’s bad behavior; being trauma informed invites you to offer a healing presence in order to establish deeper relationship. Healing, and therefore transformation, take place in the context of relationship. So maybe being the hands and feet of Jesus sometimes means getting our noses bitten so that we can embody restorative love.
I’ve learned not to wake the dog up with my face close to hers; I’ve learned to respect her space. She can’t tell me what happened to her before she was ours so that I can help her process and heal. She can only react.
You, and I, can do the hard work of healing emotionally, physically, and spiritually from trauma.
You, and I, can learn to respect the space that others need in order to feel safe.
You, and I, can grow in compassion to embody Love.
Rhesa Higgins is a spiritual director and experienced retreat leader. She holds a B.S. from ACU in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of HeartPaths, a three-year program in spiritual formation and direction. Rhesa serves as the founding Director for eleven:28 ministries (www.eleven28ministries.org) in Dallas, Texas, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the spiritual vitality of ministers. Rhesa is also a partner with Hope Network. She is married to Chad and together they are raising their three kids. Rhesa loves good coffee, dark chocolate, baseball, theatre, and most any good book.