(dogboxstudio via Shutterstock)

How dogs rescued me from an eating disorder

For years, I stuck my hands down my throat. Working in a shelter showed me a peace in my body I'd never known


Shannon Gusy
February 23, 2014 4:00AM (UTC)

When I was a small child, I would roar and meow and quack and moo. My father, years before alcoholism destroyed him, would film me while I got on my hands and knees and pretended to be a dog or beat my chest like a monkey or puckered my lips like a fish – without self-conscious reservation. I wanted to be Jane Goodall when I grew up. Near my bed, I kept a picture of her touching the fingertips of a chimp. On my shelves, I kept all her books. No one called me crazy.

I never dreamed of growing up to become a rock-bottom bulimic, a person swallowed by a ceaseless desire to fill up and get empty. But I suppose the only future in a child’s dream is a good one.

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When I first stuck my hands down my throat at 17, I wanted to lose some weight. Animals couldn’t make the guys I liked like me back. Animals couldn’t make me fit in with the popular girls. Animals couldn’t keep my father sober. Animals couldn’t give me the things I needed to be OK.

I believed power and love accompanied a thinner body. But the things you believe can be a choke chain. They can steal from your dreams, your dignity, your ability to care for yourself and others.

What you believe can steal your life.

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When I was 18, I participated in a homemade bikini contest in Springfield, Mass., dead sober, at a club called, strangely enough, the Hippodrome. My best friend Alicia was doing this contest, and in my eyes she had the perfect body, the perfect face, the perfect style. I wanted to be just like her, so when asked to sign up, I didn’t flinch.

The emcee introduced Alicia as “One Yummy Treat,” and she strutted on-stage in front of a crowd of a hundred club-goers, with just a few Reese’s Pieces wrappers taped to her naked body. She doused herself in whipped cream, squatted down and smacked the floor with her hands. The audience went wild and panic came over me. I was wearing two cupcake wrappers taped over my nipples and one over my crotch, nothing covering my ass. My legs, freshly shaven and covered in oil to make them glisten under the spotlight, wouldn’t move.

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“Birthday Surprise,” the emcee called, and a woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re up.”

The stage vibrated beneath my feet while speakers boomed Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” Pink and blue lights beamed like lasers around the room, and the crowd whistled and hooted, and the louder the crowd became, the more their desire exhilarated me, the more I could grind and shake my ass.

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I came in second. I beat the girl who wore just a garden hose over her body and a sunflower in her hair. I beat the one covered in liquefied chocolate, and I was thrilled. I went back to the prop room beaming with pride. Looking good, without a doubt, was worth it.

The prop room was small and dimly lit, filled with piles of fake flowers, glitter, whipped cream cans and pinwheels. While I unpeeled the cupcake wrappers from my body to get dressed, a colony of black ants swarmed around some cake crumbs in the corner of the room. Other girls took shots and pictures, put their six-inch heels back on. I watched a dozen inky black specks trek in a single file line with cake crumbs on their backs. They disappeared and reemerged from a small hole in the wall, focused only on their mission, clueless about their fragility, how they could drown in a wad of spit or be smashed by a finger in two seconds. They didn’t have wings, just wiry legs carrying them in and out of the darkness.

Where were the ants putting these crumbs? And why were they always in search of more?

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When I think back to the girl in that prop room, I wish I could tell her to find stable ground, to stay away from anything that told her the size of her body mattered, whether in a magazine or in a crowd of throbbing dicks and clapping hands at the Hippodrome or anywhere in the known world. I wish I could tell her to stay close to things she loved. Find joy, I would say. Feel alive.

But I didn’t know how. My father drowned in seas of vodka and denial. I stuck my fingers down my throat and reached all the way to my heart and tried to yank it out. I didn’t know that the dark hole in my life was deep inside me, an endless urge for more. I didn’t know that in five years I would be hospitalized and living in a rehab center with women who were too thin to walk and only allowed themselves to eat things like computer paper and carrots. I didn’t know that I would wake up with raw knuckles, bloodshot eyes and the feeling that my throat was on fire, and that would be normal. For eight years, I grew sicker and sicker until I was vomiting up to 20 times a night.

Every morning, I believed I could make a choice to be sane around food and eat like a normal person. I believed I could make a choice not to lie or hurt the people I loved. I vowed to do better, for my mother, for my sister, for myself, but by noon those promises were in the toilet. My whole life was.

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When I was 25 and two years out of rehab, I worked in the marketing department for a local humane society. During the night I would gorge and vomit and self-loathe, and during the day I would escape from my desk to be with homeless pit bulls, labs, poodles, chihuahuas and mutts of every kind.

There, somehow, I could face the truth: I was hungry for more than food. I was hungry for the world to work according to my rules. Hungry not to feel pain, discomfort, fear. Hungry, as a person is, to be wanted and liked. As much as I claimed I wanted to get better, I was afraid of going back to rehab, afraid of change, afraid of accepting how powerless around food I’d become. I hungered for the familiar, even if it was sick.

Part of my job was to put adoptable animals on TV, to hold them while explaining their personality and needs to news anchors. One morning before the sun came up, the sky purple and the full moon still visible, I went to the oldest part of the humane society to retrieve a 5-month-old gray pit bull puppy. I wore jeans I couldn’t button, a wrinkled T-shirt and heavy make-up to cover the bags under my eyes. I’d slept only three hours, having emptied my kitchen of all things drenched in sugar and salt. I had gorged and vomited all night.

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Concrete kennels with metal bars lined the outdoors, and the puppy scheduled for TV trembled in the back corner of her pen. No one was around this early in the morning, and I unlocked her door, entering her space. The  heavy metal clanked shut behind me. The dogs all around us wailed and cried and lunged at the bars. I squatted down low and plugged my ears from the noise, prepared to wait however long it took for the dog to feel comfortable, to decide I was safe. Sometimes, they never did.

After a minute or so, however, she approached. She was tentative, cautious. Her floppy ears moved back and forth like antennas. Her short, stocky body was more plump than muscular. She probably weighed 40 pounds.

She came into my lap and nestled her head into my stomach. Her face reminded me of a hippo, that wide muzzle and all those wrinkles of silvery gray fur around the nose. She had bubble-gum pink paws, tender and smooth like they hadn’t touched the world yet. She smelled like minty soap, and her fur was soft from a recent bath.

I petted her in my lap while I tried to memorize the details about her past from a piece of paper: Five-month-old female, history of separation anxiety, owner relinquished, spayed and up to date with vaccinations. She could have been any frightened dog at the humane society. Suddenly, she grabbed the paper from my hands. She held one end of the page in her mouth and set her paw down on the other. She tore the paper in half, and then playfully ripped it into shreds. Her tail wagged in circles while she tossed the pieces in the air, pawing at them and catching them in her mouth.

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A smile crept across my face. I figured I didn’t need the page anyway. Nothing I could say about her past would be the reason someone would take her home. It would be her presence and authenticity, her eagerness to find joy and companionship. It would be her genuine personality, what she did in the here and now.

After she had thoroughly demolished the paper, she came back into my lap. I sat cross-legged with my back against the concrete wall, and she nestled herself into a ball. When I took a deep breath, she lifted her head. Her green eyes were wide open and glistening, no past or future, no limited sense of self, no stories of shame inside them.

So many stories lived behind my eyes. I carried the people I hurt, the lies I told, my sick relationship with food wherever I went. My mind was rarely grounded in this moment. My past was heavy and constant, my thoughts wouldn’t leave me alone.

I kept my distance from people. I didn’t want anyone to know the things I did in the night and in the dark hole inside, how I was never satisfied, always seeking more.

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But when I was with the dogs, I didn’t have anything to hide. I wasn’t bulimic or unlovable or fat or a liar. I didn’t need much, just a dog to hold in a colorless space. I was an observer, I felt human again. I mattered to someone, and what existed behind my eyes fell away.

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It has been four years since I last stuck my hands down my throat. Not long ago, I volunteered at a local animal shelter on a Saturday morning. I brought a black pit bull to the play yard behind the shelter, which wasn’t really a play yard, but a slab of urine-stained concrete surrounded by pebbles and bushes. The dog didn’t have a name since she came in as a stray, but I named her Midnight.

Her rear wagged so forcefully that it moved her lower half from side to side. I opened the back door and unleashed her into the yard, and she took off in a full sprint. She rocketed from one end of the small space to the other, galloping back and forth and sometimes leaping into the air. Joy radiated from every ounce of her muscular, black body. She was a force of wild energy, an intensity of aliveness, for a good 10 minutes.

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“Midnight, slow down, girl,” I said while she charged past.

“Hey, don’t go too crazy!” I yelled, and she stopped in her tracks. She turned her head back to look at me as if to say, “Don’t you understand? This is all there is!”

She began to run in wide circles around me with her tongue out, lips pushed back, ears flapping in the wind, without an ounce of complaint or fear in her eyes.

The temperature was in the 80s, and her chest was heaving, so I unraveled the hose. I turned the water on, and Midnight trotted over to slurp up the stream. When she was finished, I put my thumb over the spigot and the water frayed like a fountain, the mist glistening in the sunlight and landing on her black coat.

She stood there so still, utterly delighted, her neck tilted up, eyes closed and mouth open. She let each drop of water fall onto her tongue as if they were snowflakes falling from the sky.

That night I dreamed of Midnight and that I was a child again. My hair was long and blond, my face was pink with excitement, my body was beautifully unimportant.

Midnight was the size of a horse, and I lay on her back with my arms wrapped around her neck, my head pressed against the top of hers. She ran across a sunflower field and I slept on top of her. In my dream, she ran and ran and ran until her coat turned yellow. I didn’t wake up until she stopped running and tilted her nose to the sun, chest heaving like it had in the play yard, her nostrils working overtime, her tongue out and mouth wide like a smile.

The next time I went to the shelter, I found out that Midnight was gone. She had been euthanized.

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A dog’s body communicates in the most honest language I’ve ever known. If a dog wants to be left alone, she keeps her distance. If she is afraid, she trembles. If she wants love, she pushes her nose through the bars and reaches for it. She leaps into your arms. She greets you with an enthusiasm that seems like it doesn’t belong in such a dark, barren place.

Midnight knew that she didn’t belong in a cage, separated from the sights, sounds and smells of the world that made her feel alive. You wouldn’t find her owning her captivity or making herself comfortable. You wouldn’t find her pretending that things weren’t so bad or accepting how small her life had become. You’d find Midnight at the front of her pen, pushing her nose through the bars, saying, I was meant for more.

I never thought that I was meant for more. Sometimes I still don’t. My hands are out of my throat, but I can look at my body and call it fat. I can get swallowed up in depression. I can think, You’re 30 and don’t know what you’re doing with your life. You are too old to miss your Dad as much as you do. I can think, You need to be stronger. Braver. You need to change your life.

But then I put on a pair of ripped jeans and a t-shirt and wash the makeup off my face and pull my hair back. I go to the shelter, which sometimes feels like the only part of the earth that sustains me, the only place I can lie down in the dirt and say, “I’m not ready to change. I’m not ready to change.”

The dogs don’t judge me or give me a motivational speech. They don’t rush me to heal or grow. They don’t talk me up or put me down. They sit in my lap and lick my face and make me feel chosen.

And sometimes, it hits me hard that I’m doing the exact thing I say I cannot do. Changing.


Shannon Gusy

Shannon Gusy is a San Diego-based writer and hardcore animal lover. She is working on a memoir about eating disorders, pit bulls, and the courage to change everything.

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