6. Rock-Bottom? Maybe. Stray? Never. (5/3/14)

Pups!  With this post, I return to blogging about pup play, kinksex, and service after too long of a hiatus.  Today also represents the beginnings of a very personal rebirth.  My post delves into the challenges I have faced over the past several months, why we should permanently replace the word “stray,” and how a few loyal packbrothers and sisters saved my life.  This is the story of how I am re-learning to overcome adversities, make choices that honor who I am, and, once again, find hope.  I have long remarked that pup play is a “journey of the soul.”  As I heal, I am becoming aware that this journey will not end, but instead renew itself in cycles as does life itself.


The image accompanying this post (below) is actually an altered photograph of me with my best friend and loyal house cat, Adderall (“Addie”).  The resulting image reminds me of a David Hockney painting.  Its subjects seem almost as one - at peace - quietly sharing affection amidst an echoing sense of fate

When traveling, I often give benefit photos as a fundraiser for local groups.  With each photo I strive to find a pose or clever interaction befitting the uniqueness of each donor.  There are plenty of options; pups and handlers play in so many different ways.  Every now and then, though, a kitten will come forth.  I confess that my initial internal reaction is usually, “WTF do I do with that?!”  As a matter of personal proclivity, I don’t chase pussy (ahem).  My only other point of reference for this scenario is the memory of our family dog getting his inquisitive nose hooked on the claw of our cranky, old family cat and running away with his tail between his legs – not much of a photo op.  How then, did I ever come to a point where I believed Addie was the only friend I had left? 


The truth is that, over the past year, I have confronted the first major health crisis of my life coupled with an extended emotional trauma, sometimes referred to as a “mid-life crisis.”  At age 42 (incidentally, the favorite number of Lewis Carroll, a hero of mine), I found myself thrust into the Looking-Glass.  My values, my body, my sense of purpose, my tastes, my dress, even my allergies, all changed.  My preferred snack foods used to be salty, now they are sweet.  I used to take showers, now I take baths.  I scrutinized everything anew: my job, my career, my relationships, my Doms, and, most dramatically, my husband of 16 years.  I discovered that patterns of behavior I had taken for granted for years were no longer sustainable.  I simply didn’t have the energy to continue on in the same way anymore.

At the same time, my entry into the world of Leather Titleholders on November 10, 2012 finalized what I have come to learn was my “individuation” – that moment I became my own man.  Revolution is an understatement for what happened from that point forward.  While I found a deep sense of joy appearing at pup events across the country, I was also reconsidering decades of compulsive “people-pleasing” through which I routinely put others' needs ahead of my own.  I began living two lives simultaneously, ignoring the steep personal cost of doing so.  Upon witnessing a traumatic theft during a teaching trip to Washington, DC in February 2013 matters were further complicated.  I became angry and disassociated.  I worked and worked without purpose and no longer took care of myself.  I became numb.

In May of 2013, I had something akin to a nervous breakdown.  At the urging of my employer, I entered wholeheartedly into a new world of therapists and psychiatrists.  They taught me words and concepts that I had never even heard before, much less considered.  Mood-altering prescriptions were tossed at me in hopes that one might make me whole again.  I remember continually being frustrated that these professionals rarely seemed to be listening to me.

During this time, I began to reject the life I had been living for years.  From early adolescence, my goal had always been to get a Ph.D. in music and find gainful employment.  Having accomplished this, I became bored.  The routines of daily living were no longer satisfying, nor was my husband’s  rejection of my renewed interest in BDSM and kinksex.  I began to discover profound joy in helping our community as pup-and-handler organizations sprang up across the country.  By organizing regular public events, these groups have allowed us all to play, learn, socialize, assert ourselves, and make our stories known.  Together, we have formed the genesis of a universal pack brotherhood.


So, it turns out that they don’t tell you a lot of things in “Man School,” but there are two particular concepts I find to be key in understanding gay men. 

Individuation: This “growing up” usually happens in early adulthood - during college, for example.  Gay men, though, may individuate much later in life.  Void of traditional sexual rituals such as dating and the societal approval of such, we often repress our sexuality along with our self-confidence and bury our noses in our work, perfectionism, or familial care.  We may take on the role of the “dutiful son.”  We give of ourselves in a way that one who has individuated would not.  In doing so, we sacrifice our core beings in exchange for the approval of othersIndividuation is about confidence.  It's about finding one’s place and people - people who know your good, bad, ugly sides, and still celebrate you.  It’s about love.  I starved myself of this kind of love for the first half of my life.  When I talk passionately about pups bonding together as one pack, it is because I have seen how that kind of fellowship can change, and even save, lives.

Mid-Life Crisis: Despite various comic depictions in the media - the European sportscar, the trophy wife, the implants (hair for the men and boobs for the trophy wife), and so on, the mid-life crisis, which most men encounter during their 40’s, is no laughing matter.  It can destabilize or destroy everything you once took for granted.  It can deplete both your physical and emotional well-being, leaving you feeling exhausted and depressed.  And, if it goes ignored, it can cause chronic unhappiness and a gradual withdrawl from society over the remainder of your life.  And no one prepares you for it.

To the psychologist Jung, the mid-life crisis was a "wake-up" call for men to embrace their classically feminine sides (not to be confused with effeminacy, so take a breath, Leather Mary).  It is a physiological response to a culture out-of-balance where men are "over-taught" to strive for independence, material and career success, and dominance over others.  Eventually, the imbalance becomes unbearable and, upon gaining a sense of the finite time we have left to live, our instincts shift.  The mid-life crisis is a critical period when men have the opportunity to become more aware of their feelings, discuss intimate hopes and fears, heal emotional wounds, and collaborate and cooperate, rather than dominate, in decision-making. 

Put this way, the mid-life crisis is symptomatic of a poisonous culture.  Women undergo a similar transformation, but perhaps because our culture is less rigid regarding women’s roles, the change is not as radical.  In contrast, middle age is a time when even the most stable of men can become erratic and destructive.  Substance abuse and other compulsive behaviors, outrageous expenditures, and chronic escapism are all possible.  Social circles may change quickly and drastically, reflecting an extreme shift in values.  If Ebeneezer Scrooge teaches us the dangers of ignoring the mid-life crisis, Elvis Presley teaches us the dangers of being consumed by it. 


From December 2013 through April 2014, I routinely collapsed from the stress of my crises.  Day after day, I felt a constant “weight-of-the-world” on my shoulders to the point where I pieced together a combination of dangerous behaviors to distract myself.  I found myself physically and mentally exhausted and without effective treatment.  For the first time in decades, I felt alone.  Substance abuse and thoughts of suicide weren’t far behind. That’s when my best friend, Addie, entered my pupspace.

Pupspace is an exercise in living in the present.  It takes time and often coaching to overcome the hurdles of self-awareness and self-criticism (“Am I actually naked on all fours barking?”) to achieve total pupspace, but when we do, our puppies become fully realized.  We begin living instinctively and intuitively, if only for a few minutes at a time.  How ever you may describe your personality, those words will likely not apply to your pup-sonality.  Our puppies tend to provide us balancePupping out is not a time for self-help theories, reliving the past, or even planning the future.  We pups play in a highly physical way with limited or no speech, causing us to renegotiate our needs through sound and gesture.  It’s easy to see how pup play is a suggested therapy for anxiety, ADHD, and autism.  Pupping out is not a time for worry or regret.  It is a time to thoroughly and joyfully explore ourselves and our relationships not as we think we ought to be, but as we are. 

The translation of puppy play into self-acceptance leads to improved health and happiness - all this while having fun and maybe even getting off.  It's magic!  When I coach new pups on finding their pupspace, my advice inevitably leads to one, core truth: “Your puppy is you.”  We pups are not into escapism.  Our goal of living in the present is quite distinct from the carelessness of living for the moment.  Axel has been telling me for some time what months of pain and a new health care team only recently revealed: I am recovering from PTSD and, more substantially, I have ADHD.  For 42 years I was able to manage or hide these conditions through goal-setting, physical exercise, and varied friendships.  But now, having accomplished the goals of my youth, I am prone to boredom.  I'm still emphatically searching, yet my body is slowing with age.  Add in a little bad luck, and the flood gates burst open. 

Amidst these months of turmoil and self-destructive behavior, I found myself without a Dom and at odds with my husband of 16 years.  I had entered into these relationships as someone else and now, I had little choice but to embrace change.  I had increasing guilt about my substance abuse, wayward lifestyle, and the possibility that I was terminally out of control.  In denial, I withdrew.  I convinced myself I was now a “stray.”


Pups, listen up!  We need a new word.  “Stray” doesn’t work.  Crazy old Southern ladies poison "stray" dogs.  It’s toxic.  Addie can sense when something is seriously wrong and discerns that from the occasional daily doldrums.  She directs attention where she instinctively feels it needed.  In contrast, pack animals tend to banish the weak and infirm to preserve the strength of the unit.  In this way, "stray" may imply illness, injury, old age, or disrepute.  I remember stray pups being tagged with bright orange wristbands at the entrance to “Woof Camp” at last year's IML to encourage befriending.  Despite best intentions, no one should ever have to walk up to a doorman, greeted with the phrase “Are you a stray?" and, upon answering in the affirmative, tagged.  (Also, lest it should ever slip our minds, construction-worker orange is hideous!)  Nowadays, because so many pups and handlers have organized, "stray" is, thankfully, becoming obsolete.  As men and women, our instincts are to be both empathetic and compassionate.  We attempt to embrace, save, and strengthen those in need. 

In honor of the many pup-and-handler organizations I have visited around the country over the past year and the abiding sense of fellowship I have felt in their midst, I propose the following axiom:

If you will tell your packbrothers and sisters in all honesty:

-who you are
-what you are going through
-what you need, and
-where you want to be

you will never be a stray.

The weekend I hit “rock bottom,” a few members of our pack saved my life.  Pup Scott, a recreational therapist in Fredericksburg, VA, insisted that with appropriate treatment I should not feel as depressed as I did.  Pixie Fyre, a domme and handler in Portland, OR, calmed me down, provided daily “wellness checks,” and has supported me every day since.  Pup Dakota of Minneapolis, MN, though he is far away and we have only met face-to-face a few times, consoled me via text messages and follow-ups that called on his own experiences.  He wrote the exact words that I needed to read.  With this help, I stopped beating myself up, found new doctors, and have started to learn how to nurture myself in the way I've been nurturing others.  While I still have tough days, I also have a new, brilliant therapist who understands me.  I have a new psychiatrist who listens to me and works to reinforce my therapy.  When I went to my primary care provider, swallowed my guilt, and told her everything I could, she put this team in place.  She told both me and my soon-to-be ex-husband what we needed to hear.  She offered no judgment, only a desire to heal.  She gave me hope for the first time in nearly a year. 


Reread my axiom: note that while many can open the doors to a better place, you alone must choose to walk through.  My friends and my doctors were heroic.  I will always remember the dark days and those who helped me transcend them, but I will also not forget that I am my own hero.  Because I barked out, I have the chance to be truly happy and whole for the first time.  I have lived primarily as an empathetic and compassionate person, but I err when letting others’ needs supercede my own.  Because I barked out, I am more aware when I am being taken advantage of.  Over the past 18 months, I have given generously to our cause through commitments of time, resources, and energy.  It has not always gone appreciated.  In my opinion, both puppy competition organizations, IPC and ITPC, must do a much better job of supporting titleholders.  I am currently deciding whether I will continue to endorse any competition without seeing an improvement in both moral and financial support for our future International Puppies and Trainers.  We are, after all, volunteers who choose to work for these organizations.  We deserve praise, gratitude, and respect from our parent organizations, our producers, and our entire community.  Because I barked out, I have also been given a chance to find myself.  Where I once focused on the fulfillment of long-term goals and the approval of others to establish my identity, I now represent myself as I am with no regrets and no holding back.  Because I barked out, I am breathing easy for the first time in my life. 

I am inspired daily by our community – individuals both experienced and novice who I might not have noticed were it not for a first sniff, a WOOF, and a desire to share stories.  Our perennial leaders have accomplished much and I am thankful for their tireless work, but I feel many of them have forgotten how to listen. I believe some no longer identify firstly as our brothers and sisters.  In a cowhide-covered sea of meetings, elections, events, and egos, it is all too easy to start ignoring the very inner puppies that first set us free.  As pups and handlers, we are distinct.  With each passing month, our universal pack grows larger and stronger.  I call on all of us to reflect on this joyful, quirky path we’ve chosen.  In the coming year, I challenge you, my packbrothers and sisters, to dare to define our community based on values, and honor, and love, much as our Leather brethren have.  Pup Tripp, Daddy Rose, Pup Riley, Trainer Don, and Pup Luckey, are bound with me in a spirit of service and international community and this year we will welcome new men and women into our fold.  Pups: we have bright prospects ahead for our play and our personal growth.  Our best days are yet to come.  When approached thoughtfully, pup play promotes fun not only during a session, but throughout a lifetime.  As my Big Bro Tripp says: “I am always a pup, whether on two feet or four.”

Packbrothers and sisters: I’ve been quiet for too long.  I am sorry.  But during this difficult time, I have learned to know and love the power of my bark as I once learned to know and love my place as a submissive.  I won’t take it for granted again.  That’s a promise. 

We are one pack, always.