As sudden and as unexpected as a lightning bolt from a cloudless sky, the Rottweiler strikes. His huge mouth engulfs my entire hand and wrist. As his mouth clamps shut, pain like hundreds of dull nails shoots up my arm. He gives me a violent shake, and just as quickly as he has struck, he lets go.
The attack happened in the blink of an eye and it happened in slow motion.
Only moments before I strolled with my brother in his back yard as he showed me his new home. I had noticed the Rottweiler in his neighbor’s back yard, lying by the dividing chain link fence. He appeared to observe our movements dispassionately.
As we approached the area where the dog lay, he lifted his heavy frame in a casual manner, his front paws draping over the fence. Paul noticed him and called him by name.
Being around dogs is as natural to me as breathing. Some of the earliest photographs of me show me with a lap full of my dad’s hunting dog’s puppies. I’ve always had dogs. So I knew that an easy approach was best for a dog that didn’t know me.
I watched Paul pat him on the head and scratch his ears. The dog gave a contented grown and wagged his short tail.
The dog then turned his attention to me. I put my hand to his nose to let him smell me and to see that I meant him no harm.
Now I find myself, blood dripping from my hand, paralyzed with the shock of what has just happened. Never in my wildest expectations did I dream this would happen. In all my experiences with dogs, none has ever bit me.
I don’t hear Paul yelling at the dog or remember him taking me into the kitchen. He shoves my hand under the faucet’s running water.
I finally find my voice. “I can’t believe what just happened.”
Paul apologizes profusely while washing my hand. My wife, sister-in-law, and daughter gather around nervously to learn what has happened.
“It’s not your fault,” I tell Paul. “I should have just left him alone.”
More of my senses are returning to me. “It doesn’t look too bad. Just a few puncture wounds.”
I resist Paul’s urgings to go the hospital. “Really, I’ll be fine. Let’s just peroxide it and put on some ointment.”
My sixteen-year-old daughter, Rebekah, watches me intently. I pitch a strong caution in her direction. “I know how much you like dogs. But I’m telling you, don’t go near that dog. He’s dangerous, and he can hurt you.”
A couple of hours later, Rebekah occupies herself in the back yard by watching Paul’s young children. From the kitchen table where I sit, I look for the Rottweiler and see him again standing on his hind legs, front paws resting on the fence. His unblinking eyes focus on the children.
In disbelief I see Rebekah walk toward the dog. She stops a couple of feet from the fence.
She talks to him.
Horror grips me as I intuit what will happen next. I know that no matter what I do or say, I won’t be quick enough. And yet I still open my mouth and yell Rebekah’s name.
As if on cue, the dog lunges and grabs Rebekah’s arm. He pulls and slams her against the fence. I burst out the door shouting.
By the time I get to her, the dog has let go and retreated.
Rebekah’s wounds are much more severe than mine and we rush her to the emergency room of the hospital. The doctor orders shots and stitches.
I will soon learn that my psyche had received a wound that shots and stitches could not heal.
Approximately three months after the attacks, I am visiting with my friend, Dwight. We are standing outside. He knows how much I like dogs and mentions that he has a new one. He whistles and from around the corner of his house a large dog hurtles toward us.
With the force of a sledge hammer, my heart slams against my chest. As if I am lying on an acupuncturist’s table, I feel thousands of pin pricks from my head to my feet. I can’t draw a breath.
All I can see is the memory of the angry faced Rottweiler with my hand in his mouth. I frantically look for a place to run and consider jumping in the bed of my pickup truck twenty feet away, but I am paralyzed.
Dwight remains unaware of what is happening to me. He rubs his dog enthusiastically and says, “Isn’t he good looking? And boy, is he smart!”
In something that feels like an out-of-body experience, I reach down and pat the dog’s head. I hear myself say, “Yeah, he’s really nice looking.”
I tell Dwight I’ve got to go finish running some errands and make my way to my truck.
With sweaty hands I grip the steering wheel and drive slowly down his driveway. My heart slows and my breathing returns to normal.
I am unnerved by what has just happened.
A panic attack. I can’t believe I just had a panic attack.
My reaction to Dwight’s dog makes no sense to me. I’ve never been afraid of a dog. The fact that I was looking for a place to run and hide seems absurd.
I try to reason my way through. I connect the dots, but the picture makes no sense. How could the memory of that one incident three months ago still have such a lingering effect?
For the next several weeks I find myself still questioning the why of my experience at Dwight’s. I find myself feeling uneasy around any unfamiliar dog. I even have nightmares about dogs.
At about this time, I start receiving physical therapy for a back problem. As is my nature, I pepper my physical therapist, Scott, with “why” questions about every aspect of the therapy.
He is patient with me and seems to enjoy explaining the mechanics of the human body.
During one of our appointments, I ask him to again explain how I could have injured myself.
Scott says, “Suppose I have a large box sitting on this table. As I lift it, you can see the strain on my face. I then turn to you and ask you to take the box. As I hand it to you, what are the first muscles that will fire in your body?”
Ah, a riddle! I love a challenge. I scan my body, trying to guess the answer. “I’m going to guess the triceps in my arm because they will need to hold the box.”
Smiling, Scott shakes his head. “Nope. The answer is, your calf muscles.”
“My calf muscles? But why?”
“Because your mind has calculated the weight of the box and how far your center of gravity is going to shift forward when you hold the box. In anticipation of that, your calf muscles fire to prevent you from staggering forward and falling on your face.”
Taking advantage of my speechless response, Scott continues. “That’s why, when you walked across your yard and stepped in that three-inch hole that you didn’t see, you injured your back. You didn’t see it coming and couldn’t prepare yourself for it. I see those kinds of injuries all the time.”
I suddenly feel as if the image in the stereogram I’ve been staring at has jumped into focus. You didn’t see it coming and couldn’t prepare yourself for it.
The dog biting me was the last thing I ever expected. The event was outside my realm of experience. I never saw the attack coming, physically or cognitively.
I realize in retrospect that at the moment of the attack I was never more stunned in my life. For that moment, it immobilized me physically, cognitively and emotionally.
I can’t help but share with Scott my new-found understanding of myself. He sees the implications as well.
“Scott, I was bitten one time in my life and it changed the way I experience my world.”
I drive home in deep thought. An infant dying of SIDS. A tornado. A car wreck. Rape. Armed robbery. Murder. All are examples of sudden and devastating trauma. I’ve seen many people whose lives were knocked off center by these experiences.
And then there are those who have experience repeated traumas in their lives. They don’t recover from one trauma before another one jumps up and bites them.
I make a promise to myself. I will be much more patient with those who are trying to recover from the effects of trauma.
And I’ll be a little more patient and understanding toward myself, too.