Behind the big house on the hill
By Mary H. Behind the big house on the hill, east of Austin in Manor, Texas, the lawn slopes downward and opens toward a clearing that looks out over the northern sky. There is a small garden where they grow okra and basil and different kinds of peppers. When I was a resident at BRC Recovery, we had two dogs Thelma and Louise – black labs and crazy as hell. We loved them, my friend Ashley especially. I remember Ashley always struggled with spirituality and the notion of God. She admits that she still does today. But she can pinpoint moments when she first became aware of something outside herself. She says the dogs were a part of that discovery for her. After a particularly emotional fifth step, Ashley laid down in the garden for meditation, between the rows of vegetables and herbs. She remembers closing the latch of the gate and setting the timer for an hour. Somewhere in that space and time, she became aware of Louise lying down next to her. Ashley’s still not sure how she got into the garden. But she remembers that Louise was calm and tranquil and very much unlike her usual wild self. When she got up after an hour, Louise stood right up with her and walked out of the garden by her side. “It was a moment that took something I was so at odds with, so uncomfortable with, like spirituality and placed it in something I was comfortable with,” Ashley said, remembering Louise fondly and recognizing her spiritual nature. “I think animals and little kids know something that we don’t know or have forgotten,” she said. I remember Ashley telling me this story two years ago, in the Up North bedroom of our little house. We were both in tears. She told it to me again this morning at Quack’s over coffee and cupcakes. A University of London study published in Animal Cognition journal shows that dogs are more responsive to a person crying than the same person humming or talking. Science is starting to show us that animals, particularly dogs, are aware of our pain. Maybe that’s why BRC Recovery is home to so many animals – a space where hundreds of people have come and left their pain over the years. Ashley and I tried to remember all the animals that shared the hill with us. There were a lot of them. Some were staples of the property, others were like visitors that needed rest and healing and went on their way. One of the first sounds I heard when I came on property was a chirping bird. He was in a makeshift cage in the RCA office when the staff checked my bags. Two weeks later, on a summer day, we set him free. I remember he didn’t want to go, and Paige had to prod the bird to fly away. Not long after, I found my own freedom. I was a lot like that bird when they told me it was my time to go – I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I think most of us leave that way. The dogs, the cats, the bunnies, the birds – their presence was a part of our healing process, and they are just as much a part of BRC Recovery as any staff member. Treatment professionals recognize that animal-assisted therapy has physiological and psychological benefits. According to the Addiction Recovery Guide, patients who interact with animals report lowered blood pressure and heart rate, decreased stress levels and improved social functioning. These interactions also reduce feelings of anger, hostility, tension and anxiety, while increasing feelings empowerment, patience, trust and self-esteem. This could account for why many BRC Recovery alumni continue to feel a strong connection to animals and place a deep sense of value on their relationships with their pets. We invite you to tell your stories about how animals have impacted your recovery, and send us pictures of you with your pet. Cherish the quiet voices that have sung for your recovery and stood loyally by your side. Mary H. has been sober since April 17, 2012 and is a grateful alumna of BRC Recovery. She studies journalism and government at the University of Texas at Austin and plans to graduate fall 2015.