I have angry dogs in my head.
That’s how my internal voice manifested in therapy. (This recent post details where these angry dogs came from and what they sound like, without using the dog imagery.)
It’s interesting, because the angry dogs in my head have little to nothing to do with how I react to real dogs in real life, but I’ll get to that later.
All day, every day
Having angry dogs in my head means my goal in life on a day-to-day basis is to escape or avoid those headdogs.
The easiest way to avoid the headdogs is to hyperfocus on something else. Anyone who knows me well (not many people) knows I’ve always been good at obsession. If I can find something external to obsess about, or just get into in a really intense way, I’m capable of wholly ignoring the headdogs’ rage. It’s not that I don’t hear them, or that they’re not there anymore; it’s just that I can face away and pretend they don’t exist for a while.
The easiest ways to avoid the headdogs are activites that lend themselves to the exclusion of any minor thoughts, e.g. video games, books, television and movies, even writing sometimes. When you’re into a really good story, the kind that suspends disbelief, your real world fades into the background. I seek that fading action constantly.
Sometimes the headdogs are so loud and angry, the only way I can sleep is to fade into a hyperfocus while tired, until blessed unconsciousness arrives on its own, e.g. watching television or listening to a podcast while lying down.
When the headdogs first showed up, I couldn’t even do that. They used to try to kill me in my sleep. Now, at least, once I’m asleep, they usually leave me alone.
The most basic actions of day-to-day life and self-care are not headdog-avoidant. In fact, they are headdog-provoking. The dogs want me dead. The dogs think I am a monster. When I take care of myself, when I dare to accept who I am and acknowledge that I deserve to take up space on this planet, even if I just pause to eat, my headdogs froth with fury, snapping and barking with bared teeth right in my face. I know they’re not going to kill me anymore, but that doesn’t stop them from trying anyway, every minute I’m awake.
On good days, I can manage a few chores, maybe a shower, before the headdogs become just too much to deal with. All that blasting rage in your face all the time, being tensed up from being barked at constantly, being afraid you might come to harm, it’s exhausting.
In opposition, hyperfocus that successfully causes the rage to fade into the background is pure relaxation. Turning on a video game, any video game, actually has a physical effect on my body. Every muscle relaxes in relief as the rage in my head is muffled, and I find I’m suddenly able to breathe, when I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding my breath before.
On bad days, I find a game; or if that’s not available, a TV series; or if that’s not available, a book; and I use that hyperfocus from the moment I wake to the moment I manage to fall asleep again. I’ll avoid doing anything else, so I can avoid the angry dogs in my head. I won’t even stop to eat, because that just makes them louder and angrier. At my worst, that need for hyperfocus can go on for weeks.
(My baby is actually a pretty good at fading my headdogs, until I get physically tired, which unfortunately happens very quickly with a toddler, and I’m finding dealing with both raging headdogs and a baby who needs anything at all is difficult at best.)
I’ve been living with these headdogs for over a decade, but it’s only the past few weeks that I’ve been able to consider them as an entity within myself, rather than just an inexplicably broken and frustrating part of my reality.
The next step in therapy is to find out what the headdogs want, what the part of me that is a pack of angry headdogs wants or needs.
My immediate gut reaction is to say they want to kill me. They want me dead. Of course, they do. They’ve been trying to kill me for years and years. That’s why they’re so frightening, so intense, and so difficult to deal with.
But there’s something to that immediate reaction that doesn’t sit right. And that goes back to real dogs.
There are people out there who are terrified of dogs, especially angry dogs. Some people see a dog that isn’t angry, and just the possibility that it might snap terrifies them.
I’m not like that at all. I’m really not. I’m only afraid of dogs to the logical degree anyone should be. I wouldn’t want a dog to bite me. That would hurt. But if there were no active risk to myself, if a completely rabid, out-of-its-head dog were well restrained, I would have no fear of it whatsoever. I could sit next to an angry, snarly, barking dog and have a cup of tea and a sandwich without any qualms. I can even interact with aggressive or angry dogs as a trainer or student of animal behaviour without so much as flinching.
So why did the first image that I applied to the self-directed rage in my head end up being angry dogs?
It always goes back to childhood, doesn’t it? Story time: When I was a little girl, I lived at a boarding school for a couple years. The custodian’s family lived behind the school, and they had a lovely, friendly dog. The dog broke its leg and had it in a cast for a few weeks. One day, I was by myself, playing with the dog behind the school. I gave the dog a hug, which I had done many times before, but that day, I leaned on his recently broken leg, and he snapped at me. It was a yelp, and a growl, and a bark, and a bared teeth snap in my face. I freaked out and ran away, crying. The dog just limped away in the opposite direction, watching me run.
The dog didn’t touch me and never had any intention of harming me. He just needed me to get off his sore leg. His reaction, however, scared the everloving daylights out of me. The sound and expression he made were the source of nightmares for some time after. Even though I had come to no harm and no harm had ever even been intended, that dog’s “get off of me!” face became the quintessential image of something to fear in my mind, apparently for the rest of my life.
It happened again once since then. I was petting a different older dog, and as he moved away from me, my fingers caught a sore spot. He turned and snapped at me, and suddenly I was a little girl behind the school in the woods all over again, crying from fear. Again, the dog had absolutely no intention of harming me. He just needed me to let go of him.
The reason I’m focusing on these tales is this: If the dogs from my real life that have become symbols for this self-directed rage never wanted to hurt me, never actually did hurt me, why am I so convinced that their symbolic versions do want to hurt me? Why am I so sure that my headdogs want to kill me?
Are my headdogs hurting, too? Am I leaning on their broken leg? Is that why they don’t stop snapping? Have I been applying pressure to my own wounds for thirteen years, and some part of myself can’t stop yowling because I won’t stop hurting?
I’m not sure yet where that train of thought is going. It’s something I still have to work on. But the line of thinking is itself a far cry from fading into a video game to escape angry dogs. I can’t hold onto it for long, but it’s something, something other than my continuous hunt for nothing that sent me to therapy in the first place.