When I first started working at the San Diego Humane Society, I was twenty-four and fresh out of eating disorder treatment. By some miracle of the universe, my job was essentially to love on the most adorable shelter dogs—one of which was Stewie, a miniature poodle mix.
Our Humane Investigations Officers rescued Stewie after his owner threw him into a tub of scorching hot water at just six months old. Officers saved him before he died of his burns, and then rushed him to our veterinary department for surgery.
While Stewie would make a full recovery, he would never look like a normal dog. Soft, fluffy white hair covered his face and legs, but the center of his body would forever remain a sheet of raw, red skin, sensitive to touch and prone to injury.
In some ways, Stewie was the precise physical expression of how I felt after treatment: achingly raw, tender, and exposed.
Through endless hours of therapy, I had learned there was more love and pain inside me than I knew what to do with, but like a shield of skin—a first layer of defense—my eating disorder had kept me from feeling it all.
Due to the severity of his burns, veterinarians were unsure if Stewie would survive. For months after surgery, Stewie recovered in the Humane Society’s veterinary suite. The slightest movement caused him discomfort, and usually a vet was coming to change his bandages or give him an injection. But still, Stewie grew closer to them. He whimpered and squirmed to the front of his cage, resting his head in their white-gloved hands as one might lie on a pillow.
The first time I met Stewie, I placed my fingers through the delicate bars of his cage and took a deep breath. He was asleep yet, with his eyes still closed, he lifted his muzzle and sniffed the air (perhaps it was the aroma of pizza on my fingers, a lunch I’d — minutes before — forced myself to eat?). Then his eyes opened and he looked at me. His tail, or what was left of it, beat steadily against the side of the cage.
As Stewie began to wriggle towards my fingers, he let out a small cry. It was soft and high-pitched, almost a whisper. Pain, but also resilience.
Stewie had moved through his pain, in order to feel something else.
For a long time, I wondered why I couldn’t move forward and through my pain, as Stewie did. That lens of compassion I held up to every animal I encountered went pitch black when it came to me. In my mind, I wasn’t a person struggling with a serious (but treatable) mental illness—I was a failure. I was a woman who couldn’t stop using the nearest drive-thru and toilet to cope with life.
But eventually, even as I swore I couldn’t do it, I began coping in new ways. With the help of my eating disorder treatment team and shelter dogs like Stewie, I faced my pain head-on. The pain of growing up in an alcoholic home, of losing a friend who died all too young, of regretting the years I lost to my eating disorder.
Moving through these uncomfortable emotions then created more space for joy:
- The joy of living free from food and body obsession
- The joy of simple, ordinary moments
- The joy of marrying my best friend and starting a family
And now, the joy of joining Eating Recovery Center as a National Recovery Advocate. The joy of connecting with my sisters and brothers who are doing the brave, heart-opening work of recovery.
Sometimes, I show my recovery family a picture of the puppy who survived being burned alive. I tell them how Stewie had every reason to cower in the back of his cage, but how he decided—with scabs and scars—to live.
I know we can, too.
*Stewie was adopted by a loving, retired couple. He recently wore a tuxedo and made an appearance at the Humane Society’s annual fundraiser: The FurBall.