George WankeI am losing one of the biggest supports in my life today.

It’s hard for me to look back to who I used to be, to the scared, angry, insecure woman I was when we met. I didn’t know how to communicate effectively back then. I yelled and screamed more often than is comfortable for me to admit. I literally didn’t know how to relate to others any differently at that point. I finally found someone who believed me.

George has been my counselor at the mental health center in town for a very long time. We have had weekly sessions for the last eleven years. It is safe to say that with the exception of my service dogs, nobody in the world knows me as well as George does. He might even know me better than I know myself. For personal family reasons, he recently got a job in Topeka. Our last session is scheduled for this afternoon.

At one point in the beginning, during one of our first sessions, I told George that I didn’t like yelling and screaming at people, especially my caregivers. Yelling and screaming was not a characteristic of the person I wanted to become. George nodded in understanding and told me that if I was willing to work very hard, then we could make things a lot better for me and that I wasn’t a bad person. I wasn’t sure I believed him on either count, but I was intrigued enough to keep meeting with George.

As time went on, and I continued working with caregivers, my experience told me that I had some that were great, some that were average, and some that simply sucked eggs. For a few months, I was working with one of the ones in the latter category. She was willing to be a caregiver as long as she didn’t have something better to do, and fell into a bad habit. I would make out a schedule a month in advance, and whenever something that she thought was more important came up, like going out with her friends, she would take herself off the schedule without getting the shift covered. Therefore, she would leave me alone for hours, or full days at a time, which wasn’t good for me physically or emotionally. I wasn’t very assertive back then, so when she would take her name off the schedule I didn’t say anything about it for several weeks.

One morning she came to walk my service dog while I was still sleeping. When I woke up, I noticed that she had taken her name off the schedule again for a shift that week. She was supposed to come back later that night, so when she did I tried to talk to her about it. I told her it wasn’t acceptable to simply erase her name from the schedule without getting the shift covered. She told me for several minutes that her social life and the meetings she had to go to were much more of a priority, and she considered her time with me to be “just a part-time job.”

She was pushing EVERY button I had, magnifying my fears of being a burden and unimportant. So I lost control, and I yelled and screamed intensely for quite a while. We had a really negative interaction, and she quit without notice. Without going into detail, I can say that was one of the lowest points of my life.

A few days later when I went in for my appointment with George, I told him I was scum, that I was a no-good, horrible, terrible, very bad person, and that I might as well go crawl down a hole and eat worms for the rest of my life.  I just didn’t know how to be effective when I was interacting with people.  George let me talk negatively for about five minutes, and then without judgement, he very gently asked me if it would be okay if he asked me a question. I was ready for George to ask me what triggered me or why my reaction was so intense. But George didn’t ask any of those things. He knew how fiercely I loved my service dog. His question caught me off guard.

He asked, “Why does Marshall love you?” After I looked at him like he was an alien from outer space, I asked: “What are you talking about George?” George requested I indulge him for a minute, and then he repeated: “Why does Marshall love you?” At first, I said, “Because I feed him.” George wouldn’t have it. “No, if I could give you $100 for every plausible answer you come up with, what are some reasons Marshall loves you?”

I said “because I talk to him all the time and I make sure he has everything he needs, and I cuddle with him, and I tell him that he’s important, and I tell him that we’re going to do whatever we need to do to make him comfortable and that the two of us are a team, a family.”

And George said “okay, do you ever get mad at Marshall?” I said, “of course.” George then asked me what kind of things made me mad at Marshall. I said “Well, he’s a dog, George. Sometimes Marshall runs away and he gets into the trash or gets food off the counter. And sometimes he runs  outside and plays in the mud and then comes in and jumps all over my bed.”

George said, “Okay, what happens when you’re mad at Marshall?” I said“I yell at him, I let him know what he did wrong, and then I put Marshall in doggie time out in the corner of my apartment. I don’t talk to him or pay attention to him for about 10 minutes.” George said, “Okay, what happens after doggie time out?” I answered, “Marshall wants to run right back, give me kisses, and make friends.” George repeated that. “After you yell at Marshall, he wants to run right back and make friends, right? ” I nodded affirmatively.

At that point, George said “Lorraine, you have a psychiatric illness which means that your emotions can overwhelm you and be incredibly intense. The way that manifests sometimes is that you yell and scream. So when that happens—because it’s going to–why don’t you give yourself the same love, respect, care and compassion that your DOG does?”

Wow. George’s comments put lots of things in perspective for me that day. He made me understand that my physical disability means that I can’t climb a tree and my psychiatric disability means I can’t always control my emotions. Those are both conditions I live with and neither are a negative reflection of who I am as a person.

I had a former caregiver call me a few nights back.  She said she just wanted to check in to see how I was because she missed me.  She worked for me nine years ago.

Through every heartache, loss, struggle, and victory George has supported me for a long time. Now when I have days when I am more emotional than I wish I was, I do my best to give myself the same love and respect, care and compassion that my dog does.

Eleven years. You have profoundly changed my life, George.

I will always be grateful beyond measure!