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I am Cookie Dough

We started re-reading the Hebrew Bible from the beginning last year in the bible study class at my synagogue. When I first joined the class, eight or nine years ago, they were already deep into the prophets (the really really boring prophets), so it’s been exciting to go back to Genesis, which is chock a block with crazy stories. And right away, with the stories about the creation of the world, I found something I’d never understood before: God doesn’t create the world in Genesis; God looks out at the chaos and begins to separate things out and name them: light from dark, land from sea, male from female. And I realized, that’s what I’ve been trying to do, within myself, since I started therapy so many years ago. I saw myself as chaos, and I started to separate things out and name them, in an effort to make sense of what was already there. I didn’t need to, or want to, create a new self in therapy, I just wanted to organize the self I already had.

            Many theorists have attempted to organize the self in general: like Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego, or Erikson’s Stages of Development, or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are theories that focus on the structure of the brain: with the reptilian brain running on instincts, and the limbic brain running on emotions and social behavior, and the rational brain/neocortex running on thoughts, language and reflection. And all of these general theories of the mind/self are attempts to acknowledge the multiplicity of the self, while also controlling it.

And yet, most of us don’t fit neatly into any of these paradigms; they are all imperfect and incomplete, and I needed to map out my own chaotic self, in my own way, in order to feel seen.

“I’m here! See me!”

            Mapping out the various aspects of the self is hard enough, but for a survivor of childhood abuse the process of recognizing the different parts of the self is complicated by the dissociation and fragmentation the mind uses to survive the abuse. Some survivors have thick amnestic walls between parts of the self, that in someone who has had no childhood trauma would be much more fluid, and some have endless slivers of self that can’t speak for themselves. Each abusive situation is different, and each survivor survives in his or her own unique way.

“I eat chicken.”

The paradigm of having multiple different parts of the self, without being limited to the ones named by the experts, has helped me to identify many different feelings and internal conflicts within myself, but the further along I get in the work, the more I see the parts blending and blurring at the edges, like sticky slices from a roll of cookie dough. Even after so many years of work, I still feel like there are parts of me that are left unclear or completely unseen, and I believe that my lack of ability to see them, or to tolerate them, is part of what keeps me stuck. It’s possible that I’ve got a handle on eighty percent of who I am, or fifty percent or forty. My best guess is that I’ve mapped out about sixty percent of who I am, and who I was, and what happened to me, and how I felt about it; but I don’t know how to get to the rest of it, and I don’t know if the rest is just blurry or still completely unknown.

            Part of the confusion is that it often feels like I’m starting from scratch each day, going through all of the same internal conflicts and trying to remember how I resolved them yesterday. Sometimes my memory for the work I’ve done in therapy is very clear, and sometimes I have to rely on my notes to remember that I went to the supermarket this morning, but mostly it’s somewhere in between.

“You did not take us out five minutes ago.”

            And yet, strangely, I’m a pretty consistent person in how I act, and in how I seem to other people. No matter how hard I have to fight with myself every day to resolve each internal argument, I tend to answer them all the same way I did yesterday. I exist as the same person every day, seemingly, but sometimes I see myself clearly and sometimes I see myself through a distorted mirror.

There are times when my memories are so richly detailed that I can figure out what time of year something happened, and how I felt, and how the people around me looked and sounded, and I can even remember the furniture in the room; and then there are times when those same memories are trapped behind a thick veil and I’m squinting to make out who’s who or why the memory is even important.

            The study of psychology, is, like me, still cookie dough. We are very early in our understanding of the brain, and in our understanding of how the anatomy of the brain and our life experiences create our individual senses of self. We cannot fully map our brains, yet.

Now that the bible class is (finally) moving from Genesis into Exodus, I’m wondering what new things I will discover, both about ancient ideas of God, and even more important, ancient ideas about people and how they acted, and why. And maybe going through the Exodus from Egypt again, but more slowly than we do it at the Passover Seder, I’ll find more details and clarity in the chaos than I’ve found before. Maybe that’s just how it is: understanding comes with repetition, and with a willingness to look at the same book or the same self over and over again from different perspectives, so that the picture gradually becomes clearer, though maybe never complete.

“You can study me, Mommy!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Why am I still struggling to write fiction?

            For a long time now I’ve been trying to be practical: I went out and got a social work degree because I thought I needed to have a practical career, and I discovered that wanting to be practical and being able to do those practical things is not the same at all; and then, or even before then, I tried to be more practical about my writing, and focus on what other people wanted me to write, instead of trusting myself and writing what I needed to write.

            I spent most of last summer working on essays about psychology and trauma, because that’s what I thought I should do, because it seemed more practical than writing fiction, and more likely to get published. But, while my therapist was somewhat happy with my efforts (nothing I write is quite how she would write it, so…), I found the writing difficult and frustrating, and alienating, and the rejections kept coming anyway.

“Oy.”

            Back when I went to school to be a writer, the message was always that there is a right way to write: there are rules you have to follow, and styles and techniques that you have to master. But four years of graduate school (two masters degrees) didn’t teach me how to be that writer, they just instilled a lot of stop signs in my brain, telling me what not to do, and who not to be (basically me). And then came all of the rejections from the publishing world, for work my teachers thought would get accepted. It’s demoralizing to be rejected both for who you are and for who you aren’t. It doesn’t leave many options.

            But it would be unfair to blame my fiction block solely on those rejections. I haven’t felt safe writing fiction for a while now, partially because of the external voices telling me that I’m writing all the wrong things, but even more so because I’ve been afraid of the truths that will come out if I allow my imagination to run free. At least with memoir writing, I only have to deal with the things I was willing and able to do in my real life; in fiction I would be opening the door to all of the forbidden thoughts: all of the dreams and ideas and impulses I’ve refused to act on.

            The thing I’ve always loved about writing fiction is that I don’t have to worry so much about the truth. I don’t have to worry if I’m misquoting or mischaracterizing someone (or capturing them exactly as they are, but as they don’t want to be seen). I can play. As a kid that meant that I could write wish-fulfillment stories, and send my characters to exciting places and give them of all the money and friends and good looks I could ever want. But even then I discovered that letting my imagination go where it wanted to go meant that other things came up too, darker things that I didn’t want to deal with. I’d try to write my version of Fantasy Island, where everything was supposed to be perfect, and monsters would start climbing up the walls and crawling out from under the beds.

“Monsters?!”

            I kept writing fiction, but I found ways to keep a lid on my imagination, listening to all of the No’s in my head, from teachers and family and friends and writing around all of those stop signs. Each story or novel took forever to write, with all of those interruptions, and the process was not fun, and I became more and more discouraged.

            But I can’t stop writing; that’s not one of the options. I want to be able to convince myself that the rejections are irrelevant, and that instead of writing what I think I am supposed to write, I should write the things I need to write. But even if I can overcome the first set of stop signs, I’m not sure I can convince myself that it’s safe to write whatever comes into my mind. I want to trust myself. I want to be ready to just write and let the chips fall where they may, but what if those chips explode in my face?

“Potato chips?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Ellie’s Magic Carpet

 

For a year now, Ellie has struggled to jump up onto the living room couch. It seemed odd, since she can easily jump up onto my bed, which is significantly higher off the ground, but Mom pointed out that there is a rug surrounding my bed, and no rug next to the couch (because when Ellie first moved in she peed through the rugs in the living room and hallway to the point where we were afraid to replace them).

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“Oops.”

But it’s been a year, and we were at Costco recently and saw a (very) cheap area rug that would fit right in front of the couch. It wouldn’t be a terrible loss if the flood of pee returned to wash it away, but, maybe, we thought, it could be the magic trick to allow Ellie to jump up onto the couch instead of needing the Mommy elevator (that would be me) every time.

I was not especially optimistic: one, because Ellie still pees on the exercise mat in my room on occasion, and two, because I didn’t really understand Mom’s logic about wood floor versus rug as effective transport up to the couch. But it was worth a try.

We got home from Costco too exhausted to set up the new rug (this is a constant. I always look forward to going to Costco and I always come home feeling like I ran a marathon in cement shoes), but later in the day Mom set out the area rug, trapping it in place under the coffee table (or whatever you call a low table on wheels that sits in front of the couch and holds all kinds of miscellaneous tchotchkes).

At first, Ellie didn’t seem to notice the new rug. She saw Cricket sitting up on the couch and came over to me, as usual, with her front paws up in the air, asking for the Mommy elevator. But Mom said not to lift her up. “Encourage her to do it herself,” Mom said, sounding loving and sweet despite the horrible cruelty she was asking me to carry out.

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“But why, Mommy?”

I got distracted by something (dinner, TV show, news alert, whatever) and then noticed that Ellie was stretched out next to me on the couch, with Cricket looking extra grumpy next to her.

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“Harrumph.”

And that was it. The magic carpet had done its job! Ellie has been up and down, with no help from me, dozens of times since then. She still can’t figure out how to jump up onto Grandma’s bed – which is no higher than mine and surrounded by a fluffy rug – but I think that has more to do with Cricket’s dirty looks. It is, after all, Cricket’s bed. She kindly allows Grandma to sleep on it, out of noblesse oblige, but that courtesy clearly does not extend to her sister.

There have been no pee puddles on the new rug so far. It’s possible that Ellie has finally figured out that wee wee pads and carpets are not the same thing. Now if only that knowledge could extend to exercise mats…We’ll have to see how things develop.

I might also have to carry a piece of rug with me to place next to the car, so that Ellie will remember that she can jump onto the backseat by herself. Usually she only jumps in after she’s seen her sister doing it, but maybe the rug could work its magic there too.

 

In the meantime, I started to think that this metaphor might fit me too. Just like Ellie only needed one extra, small step to allow her to make a big step forward, something to help her feel a bit more secure and supported, would the same trick work for me?

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Will it work for Platypus?

I’ve been struggling with the social work job search ever since I passed my licensing exam in the spring. I’ve written cover letters and sent out resumes like a good girl, but inside I’m terrified that someone will actually offer me a job, or even an interview, and call my bluff. This next step just seems too enormous to me. Internships and classwork and graduation and the licensing exam were all big things, but they seemed doable. This next jump feels more like jumping off a cliff.

 

But after watching Ellie’s transformation into a jumping bean, I started to think about what could serve as my area rug, or magic carpet, to make the next step in my life seem more possible. And then I got an email from one of the rabbis at my synagogue, asking if I’d be interested in teaching in the synagogue school this fall. They’d only need me for two hours a week, to teach Hebrew language and Jewish holidays, and I thought about it, for maybe a second, and wrote back: Yes!!!!

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“Yes!”

I couldn’t believe I’d written that, and I was even more shocked when I went in for my meeting with the rabbi and couldn’t stop smiling. Teaching? Me? Children?

 

It’s only two hours a week, so that explains some of the doable-ness, but I think the real magic is that the job is at my synagogue. That’s my safe place. I’ve always been able to do things there that feel impossible everywhere else.

Of course, after I accepted the job, the anxiety flowed in and I started feeling like I had to write out all of my lesson plans for the year within the first twenty-four hours, and all of my internal monsters had to have their say: about what could go wrong, and how badly I could fail, and who would hate me, and on and on. But, surprisingly, but I still wanted to do it. How strange!

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“Very strange.”

It’s possible that some part of me is thinking that this two hour a week job will be instead of a part-time/twenty-hour a week job in social work, but I think it’s more that a deal has been struck internally, if I can have this, then you can have social work. I didn’t even know I wanted to do this, or that I could do it. Just like Ellie didn’t know she needed an area rug to get up onto the couch.

I don’t know where any of this will lead, and it’s possible that I will need a few more metaphorical area rugs to get to the long term goal of becoming a therapist, but now I think they might actually be out there, waiting for me to be ready for them, or waiting for me to imagine them into existence.

We’ll have to see. But for now, I really need to memorize the Alephbet (Hebrew alphabet) song, and practice my Hebrew print writing, and figure out what a lesson plan might be. Wish me luck!

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. Izzy’s father then sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

Personality Disorders

 

In my Assessment and Diagnosis class last semester (for graduate school in Social Work), I had to spend a week studying the personality disorders. These are, at least for now, seen as the enduring pathological character traits people live with in their daily lives. The personality disorders are separated out from other mental health disorders because of their lifelong nature, and because, usually, the patient doesn’t see his or her behavior as problematic, which makes them very hard to treat. But more often than not, the personality disorders are used as epithets, by lay people and clinicians, to describe people who resist therapeutic help. The current list of personality disorders is broken into three clusters: the not-quite-schizophrenia-but-still-odd-and-occasionally-psychotic personality disorders; the criminal-manipulative-lacking empathy-selfish personality disorders; and the fearful-avoidant-dependent-obsessive-compulsive personality disorders.

 

 

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“Are you diagnosing me, Mommy?”

This small strip of the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has come up recently, in our public dialogue, as people struggle to explain the president’s behavior. We don’t know if he has dementia, or some other mental illness or medical diagnosis, but we can certainly see traits that fit Narcissistic (grandiose and exploiting of others), Histrionic (melodramatic and attention seeking), Paranoid (preoccupied with doubts of loyalty in others), and Antisocial (lying, intentionally harming others, and lacking empathy) Personality Disorders.

The value of the personality disorders is that they give us categories to put people into when they consistently behave in abnormal ways, and categories can help us feel like we have some control, and some understanding, about what’s going on around us. But, are personality disorders actually mental illnesses, or something else? The personality disorders attempt to describe the perpetrator of domestic violence (Antisocial personality disorder), and the victim (Dependent personality disorder), as equally ill, and/or equally character disordered. Meaning that as a society we have as little compassion for victims as for perpetrators, something that is objectively true, but still horrifying. Other personality disorders are just lower level, and more persistent, versions of mental illnesses we already have in the book, like Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, which is seen as different from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (and, yes, that’s weird).

The personality disorders are the most extreme example of what’s wrong with the DSM: it focuses only on the negatives, the weaknesses, and the disorders of human beings, and never on the strengths that mitigate illness. The same person who has Major Depressive Disorder may also have a great support system that keeps her going. The same person who obsessively washes his hands or checks the lock on his door, maybe also obsessively study or work or create and accomplish great things. The same person who lives daily with Social Anxiety Disorder may have an even stronger need and desire to connect with other people, which allows her to reach out despite her fear.

Miss Cricket has her own reason for thinking that the personality disorders are unnecessary: she knows, in her gut, who to spend time with and who to avoid, and she doesn’t think she needs a diagnostic manual to help her. For her, it’s all about a complicated internal set of calculations, based on how much you smell like someone who gives out chicken treats (she is doing her best to teach Miss Ellie this wisdom as well). I have seen no mention of generosity with chicken treats, or any other positive character traits, in DSM 5. Clearly they have more work to do for the next edition.

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(Cricket transmits a lot of information through her butt. Who am I to judge?)

 

MSW

For the past few years, I’ve been taking psychology courses, to see if I liked them, and to work towards applying to a PhD or PsyD program in psychology. My therapist, an MSW, has spent a lot of her career being bossed around by people who had nothing like her level of experience and expertise, simply because they had doctorates, and she wanted better for me.

Sometime in the fall of 2014, though, it became clear to me that a doctoral program, of any kind, would not be possible right now. I would have to commit to full time coursework, plus field work, and my body just can’t take it, and neither can my mind. So then the question was, do I continue to float, taking more undergraduate psychology classes at the community college, or do I accept my current circumstances and apply to a social work program, most of which can be done part time, and after which I would be able to work in that field. (A Masters in psychology, at least in New York, wouldn’t qualify me for a job. This is a “social work state.”)

Cricket would prefer that I work towards a degree in Cricket Care. We could do three hours a day of training exercises, massage and physical therapy, plus an hour long walk at the beach. She’d be willing to give me a degree for that, or at least a certificate. I think Butterfly would rather we fostered dogs from the animal shelter, or set up a doggy hospital in the apartment, so that she could help nurse them back to health. The idea that I’ve chosen a course of study that doesn’t involve her, or make use of her talents, feels very selfish.

Cricket's exercise plan.

Cricket’s exercise plan.

Cricket’s walking plan.

Starting in December, after my last undergraduate psychology class ended, I put all of my energy into my application for graduate school in social work, including: writing my essay, asking for recommendations, and requesting transcripts from the different schools I’ve attended over the years. I kind of hoped I’d be rejected, though, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. The whole idea of preparing for any career that isn’t writing really bothers me. I know it’s the most practical option – since years of hard work have not yet led to becoming a published author, and because I have a deep interest in psychology and social issues. But, down to my core, I’m a writer. I’m a novelist and a memoirist. I write because I have to, and because I love it, and because it’s the most necessary thing in my life, next to breathing. Sometimes before breathing.

Butterfly understands. Sometimes ducky gets in the way of breathing too.

Butterfly understands. Sometimes ducky gets in the way of breathing too.

The program I chose accepted me for fall 2015, and it will take me four years to finish, instead of two, and the course work will be online, to leave me energy to do the field work in person. But I’m worried that the coursework will be boring, or even antagonizing, and bring on despair about the state of the world that even the puppies won’t be able to joy me out of. I’ve already started reading one of the textbooks and it is full of gobbeldy gook. Anything you could say in five words must be stretched out and twisted into fifty pages of verbiage. It’s a rule.

Maybe I should give my textbooks to Butterfly.

Maybe I should give my textbooks to Butterfly.

The girls are not readers, it’s just not their thing, and they see no value in collecting degrees, but they would love to spend more time each day learning and doing things. We have a new community garden at our co-op and four of the five plots haven’t been claimed yet. Cricket would love to have a plot of her own to work in. She’d probably end up planting chicken treats and chewy bones in her plot, but still, the digging would be very satisfying.

The social worker idea has grown on me over time, especially during the past three years at my synagogue, where, to a certain extent, social work is their religion, but I think both dogs have helped lead me here, too. Nine years of working with Cricket’s psychological issues has taught me tolerance and patience. She has taught me that even if someone will never be fully healed, you still do your best to help them live their best life. I would have wanted perfection for her, and Cricket has taught me that there is no such thing, or if there is, it’s really boring.

“Hi Mommy!”

But, but, but…I still don’t want to go. I want to write this blog, and walk my dogs, and revise my novels over and over again (okay, maybe not that last one). I want the life I promised myself, the life I recognize myself in. I’m afraid I will have to be a completely different person to succeed as a social worker, and I don’t want to be a completely different person. I kind of like who I am.

“We love you just the way you are, Mommy. Where are the treats?”

DSM Puppy

I took a class in Abnormal Psychology this past semester, and we learned about the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM is similar to a field guide to birds, without the map to tell you where to find each colorful creature.

DSM-5_3D

There was a lot of excitement, from the teacher, about the new DSM 5 arriving in May, and I began to think, what would a DSM for dogs include?

My incomplete list of disorders:

Hyperbarkia – a disorder in the quantity of the barking and/or the level of hysteria. An occasional woof-woof to mark the passing of a neighbor, or a more persistent bark to note a stranger at the door, can both be within the normal range. Whereas an unending barking spree, lasting twenty minutes or more, or rising to operatic levels, can be a sign that the need-to-bark meter has jammed.

Bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you-disorder is self explanatory.

Cricket, a case in point

Cricket, a case in point

Foreign object eating disorder – eating rocks and sticks and plastic toys, because those trips to the vet are just so much fun!

Vacuum phobia – when dogs believe that the vacuum cleaner is a giant roaring monster, ready to devour every toy, treat, and dog in its way.

Mailman paranoia is the belief that the mail delivery person is coming to massacre the family, and the only thing standing in his or her way is a tiny barking dog. (I worry that this puts undue stress on Cricket’s heart.)

"Mailman! Mailman! Mailman! Mailman!"

“Mailman! Mailman! Mailman! Mailman!”

Scratching Addiction is when a dog can get hours of scratchies at a time and never feel like it’s enough. Having an endless void inside of you, that no amount of scratchies can fill, may lead to other addictions, like chicken. Not to be confused with a genuine allergic skin condition.

Butterfly, a borderline case of scratching addiction

Butterfly, a borderline case of scratching addiction

Bone hiding disorder – this can be a normal reaction to a sibling who steals bones, or it can be a miscalculation on the dog’s part, imagining that the humans would steal that dirty, spit covered nylabone, if only they could find it.

PGSD or Post-Grooming Stress Disorder results in flashbacks and tremors at the sign of clippers and the sound of bath water. This can be incredibly disabling and creates the false impression that dogs prefer to be dirty. They do not. They just believe that the process of becoming clean will kill them.

Cricket hates being wet

Cricket hates being wet

Overly Selfless Dog Disorder is common in Golden Retrievers and other therapy dogs. This disorder can result when a dog is so focused on pleasing her humans, or other dog siblings, that she doesn’t stand up for herself. These dogs can be so good natured and non-confrontational that others take advantage of them or ignore their needs. (Butterfly started out this way, refusing to fight with Cricket over food or leashes or toys. If Cricket wanted something, Butterfly would stand back and leave it to her sister. But she’s getting better at elbowing her way to the food and speaking up when she wants to go outside or eat Grandma’s chicken wings.)

Butterfly: "Who me?"

Butterfly: “Who me?”

Jumping Bean Disorder – Some dogs have this need to bounce that can’t be repressed. Jack Russells are known for springing so high into the air that they greet human visitors at eye level. (Butterfly has not managed this feat, but she is trying.)

a serious case (not my picture)

a serious case (not my picture)

Fear of Thunderstorms is very common. I imagine thunder sounds like a huge, unnaturally ferocious, dog standing outside of the house and barking to get in. (Butterfly gets very anxious. Usually she sleeps on her side of the bed, with maybe a paw stretched out to touch me. But during thunderstorms, she climbs on my chest and shakes. Cricket has no fear of the sound of thunder, but she doesn’t like to be out in the rain and get plinked on the head by rain drops.)

Flibbertigibbet Disorder is an unrelentingly positive attitude towards going outside for walks that causes the body to hop and twirl and race around in aimless circles, preventing the attachment of the leash.

Small Dog Syndrome is when dogs under fifteen pounds believe they can intimidate full sized humans, by growling. This is also assumed to work on Fed Ex drivers.

This is my incomplete list of disorders. Clearly further revisions and additions will be needed. This shouldn’t take more than twenty years.