Perry Champion is speaking on the phone with a perspective rescue parent. “No, P-E-R-R-Y. Like Perry Mason or Perry Como,” he emphasizes each word as I begin to understand the lapse in communication. “You know who Perry Mason is, right?”
I scratch behind Ginger’s ears. Ginger, Perry’s service dog, is always at his side, a few bounds ahead, or a few steps behind, as needed. I know she senses my frustration, mitigated by hope; which translates into anxiety that perhaps only poets and dogs can detect. I think to myself that invoking “Katy Perry” might be a better mnemonic for this Millennial, but Perry has the situation totally under control.
He has been rescuing and training service dogs for over a decade. It is his passion and his mission to save shelter dogs and train them to rescue and assist people with medical conditions. Saturday January 18 was my first day working with the pack, or as we say in Yiddish, the “mishpachah” (i.e. “tribe.”) I knew upon meeting Perry at a charity event in the fall that I had met my dog mentor.
I am currently on a mission of my own. I want out of the Social Security Disability System in which I became mired in 1983, five years after my parents dragged me to the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, where I was promptly diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and major depression. I fired my first psychiatrist after three months. He insisted on calling my mother “Mom,” while referring to my dad by his honorific, “Doctor,” and the disparity in respect infuriated me.
When I called to fire him, he had sussed me out; accepted my termination of his services with the caveat, “I think you have serious issues with men, it may help you to speak with a woman therapist.” He was only partly correct. I have a problem with abusive, patronizing people, and an even bigger problem with professionals who are defensive because while they have a string of initials after their names, I consider myself the expert on what ultimately works for me.
I jumped through enough hoops to graduate valedictorian from my high school class of over 900 students, but I crashed and burned by age 17 from the pressures of juggling a dysfunctional family and unresolved trauma issues. I never learned the life lessons my peers learned because I spent so much time in hospitals between the ages of 17 and 35, so at 50 I am playing catch up , learning to fly under the radar, and that “normal” is a matter of perspective and statistics.
I never learned how to tolerate phoniness, injustice, hypocrisy, and competition for competition’s sake. I was repeatedly hospitalized, stays that lasted from two to ten months, between 1982 and 1998. Between 1980 and 2011, I was given nearly every stigmatizing misdiagnosis the psychiatrists at the teaching hospitals were trying out in the clinical trials for DSM approval. I came to the conclusion that I had educated enough medical students, and paid for the psychiatrists’ children’s college and graduate school. I was done being fascinating. I knew something was terribly wrong, I just needed someone to meet me halfway to help me fix it.
In 1997, when I first started my research into psychiatric service dogs, the medical community derided their effectiveness and refused to give them credibility. Those of us who knew the powerful bond that grows between a person and an assistance dog were seen as whack jobs who wanted an excuse to take their “pets” everywhere. So, like I did when I was fourteen, I waited for the medical community to catch up to my conclusions.
Please don’t mistake my tone for arrogance. I have been humbled and humiliated enough times in my life to write a treatise on my “strengths and weaknesses.” A bullshit job interview question, by the way, a trick question the answer to which few people really want the truth, so it becomes an oxymoron of sorts, at least for people like me who see my weaknesses as opportunities to learn. At this point, I don’t care what assumptions people make about me. I do my best not to make assumptions about anyone or anything. They are often wrong, downright rude, and can be avoided by asking the right questions. Asking the right questions is integral. Not easy, but critical to problem solving.
The first of many lessons I learn from Perry is that an adoption is not complete until the dog is settled in its forever home. As I proceed in my sixth decade, I realize I am still looking for mine.