The Stuffed Animal That Saved My Life

In my thirty-six years of life I’ve battled borderline personality disorder, struggled with heroin addiction and was nearly shot dead in the street. One tattered toy dog has helped me every step of the way.

The Stuffed Animal That Saved My Life

Chloe pulls her right thumb from her mouth, holding me in her palm as she walks out of her mother’s basement and back into the streets. Shivering, I think, “This is it. This is the end of the ride” because she is returning to her useless friend to get more drugs. She almost shot herself in the car this afternoon, and now she fears assault or murder by the only person she has left. She unbuttons the right cargo pocket in her brown corduroy pants and lowers me in. It’s around midnight, and I can feel the chilly air through her pant leg. My permanently seated position allows me to fit, though my shape bulges forth over her skinny leg. Her muscles are all but eaten away by the drugs, yet I hang on and watch the spiral I’ve been sucked into. Sitting inside the eye of a tornado of self-destruction, I know what she’s thinking. That if she dies, by murder or suicide, she will at least have me with her…

– Puppy, May 2006

At age seventeen or so, a series of therapists diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder (BPD). The chaotic and isolating mental illness is characterized by unstable moods and behavior. BPD sufferers experience problems with regulating emotions and thoughts, impulsive and reckless behavior, and unstable relationships with other people.

Donald Woods Winnicott, a pediatrician who studied psychoanalysis and object relation theory, wrote that certain comfort items — like blankets or dolls — act as objects by which an infant can “transition out” of anxiety or into sleep. More than a comfort item, the transitional object helps the infant understand the idea of something outside of its own reality: a “not me” object.

The Journal of Personality Disorders published a study in 1997 showing that “significantly more inpatients who endorsed transitional objects during adulthood, either at home or in the hospital, had BPD.”

Enter Puppy.

Since I was one, I’ve buried my nose in the black ear of a stuffed dog that I call Puppy. That first Puppy had long black ears and a red shirt with yellow stitched words “Puppy Love” — the inspiration for his nickname. When I had to move on to new versions, which has happened five times, I’d insist on these standards: black ears and a red shirt. At age thirty-six, he rests at my right as I type — this Puppy wears a red Santa suit. He’s ready to soothe me when frustration rushes my heart or my mother texts to say she wants to die. Puppy transitions me from tense times of stress and anxiety to a more relaxed state.

I’ve had one constant in my life all these years, one thing to “return home to” — Puppy. I leave Puppy in the car while I work or go into public places. Sometimes, I still sneak a sniff of his ear when traffic gets rough or memories flood my senses and I just need to remind myself how to breathe deeply.

I found the first Puppy magically, while my mother and her mother pushed me in the stroller toward a yard sale. Were Original Puppy to tell the story, he might say, “It was a crisp and sunny late morning or early afternoon in 1979 when I first saw the family strolling toward the yard sale table, where I had been put out as no longer needed.”

“The women chatted,” Puppy would recollect, “though I couldn’t hear their words and wouldn’t have understood them if I could. In the stroller, a one-year-old girl sat with eyes searching the horizons for something to hug. I called out to her, ‘Save me. You know I can save you.’”

As my mother tells it, I leapt forth while still in the stroller and grabbed the white-furred Puppy off the table. I remember — be it through actual memory or recreated visions constructed from stories and dreams — sunlight streaming like an aura around Puppy’s red shirt and long black ears. One chance was all I had to make contact and hug him tightly enough that we would become one.

“Well, I guess we’re buying that,” my grandmother said, taking a single dollar out of her wallet to buy the one thing that would eventually signify home to me.

“The mother lets it get dirty and even smelly, knowing that by washing it she introduces a break in continuity in the infant’s experience, a break that may destroy the meaning and value of the object to the infant,” Winnicott, who first used the term “transitional object,” wrote in “Playing and Reality.”

Shari Y. Manning, Ph.D., is the founder of the South Carolina Center for Dialectical Behavior Therapy and the author of “Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.” She says she can understand a person “needing something in their life that’s stable.”

My mother wasn’t a stable soul, and I needed a filter from the world, which Puppy’s ears provided when pressed against my nose. I endured my mother’s raging outbursts and deep depressions throughout most of my childhood. When I was about eight, my mother quickly lost herself in the stress of having a child, though I wasn’t the source of that particular anxiety. It was my younger brother, who was diagnosed with Attention Hyperactivity Disorder, now known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

During the time I clutched Original Puppy, throughout roughly the first eight years of my life, I didn’t know my mother suffered from clinical depression. As the oldest of three children, I had no capacity to understand my role in the family, but I felt overwhelming pressure to heal my mother’s sadness and help control my brother’s diagnosed hyperactivity. It was too much for a young girl, and I needed Puppy’s help. He couldn’t talk, but he listened to my tearful confessions, fears and dreams.

“Often kids go for something like an animal or doll because it’s enough human-like,” Manning says. “I see it as a soothing thing.”

But Manning says it’s also a way to avoid emotion and escape pain.

“People have things like shirts,” Manning says. “I have a blanket my father gave me when I was ten years old, and on the worst of days that sucker comes out because my brain has all these positive associations.”

Original Puppy had to be replaced when I was about eight because he was little more than loose cloth around fading cotton stuffing. His skin looked flaccid. He was mostly just an ear to press against my nose.

“What happens often with people with BPD is they have a whole lot of pain and a sensitivity to pain,” Manning says. “So when there’s a cue to cause them to find pain, it’s usually sadness or shame, not anger like most people think. So they might drink or smoke cigarettes or think about killing themselves.”

I did all these things, but first I sniffed my stuffed dog’s ear.

As much as I tried to comfort Chloe throughout her life, by the time she was about twenty-seven years old, all I could do was watch helplessly as she spiraled down.

Chloe knew the local drug addicts near her mother’s house. She hung out behind a Chevron gas station and in other corners of the neighborhood, using drugs.

Tied to her in purpose and buttoned in her pocket, I collected mud and grass stains everywhere she went.

The days stretched, bent and merged together under a haze of smoke and the blacked-out blur that came with crashing from lack of sleep.

Rikki was her closest human friend, a five-foot-four-inch homeless man with long black hair.

The Chevron gas station was one of a handful of hangouts for the faceless local drug addicts. Dealers either hung out near the bench at the bus stop or could be quickly called from the payphone in the parking lot. The convenience store sold the “roses” that shape-shifted into crack pipe paraphernalia. Often, I’d wind up on the floorboard of the cars she borrowed from her brother and mother.

It had been this way since she first left home at nineteen, headed for college.

I started experimenting with every kind of drug from cocaine and LSD at age sixteen to heroin by about age eighteen. I was dating my first boyfriend throughout that time and we’d use together.

The shame I felt for self-soothing by sniffing Puppy’s ear — not to mention frequently sucking my thumb — led to more socially acceptable forms of coping. I started smoking cigarettes at about nineteen. Though actually more self-destructive than my ear sniffing, I could smoke and not be judged so conspicuously by others. Of course, I was using hard drugs too, but most people didn’t see that. Everyone saw me smoking, and saw Puppy too.

After an overdose on heroin, which I sniffed nasally, I spent my nineteenth birthday in the hospital. My mom brought me an acceptance letter to college and I finally had a chance to get away — something I’d begun to think about constantly.

I moved to a new state four hours from where I finished high school. I tried to leave the constant turmoil of my unstable relationships with family members and friends, with the excuse of going away to study. I only really wanted to learn about myself. The act of moving would surely change the scenery of my mind, I thought. My high school boyfriend and I broke up.

Of course, Puppy came with me. My mother’s voice resonated in my mind as I drove away from my hometown: “When are you going to give that thing up?” I felt torn between the forces pushing me further and pulling me down. But Puppy was all I could trust, and he sat on my lap during every trip.

Around age eight or nine, I buried the original Puppy in a shoebox, hidden on a top shelf of my closet as I reluctantly took a new Puppy. His cloth shirt had degraded to a point where my mother could no longer effectively sew new cotton into his shirt. He simply had to be replaced to be effective. He was mostly just an ear I could press against my nose as I sucked my thumb, but the emotional effect I felt was something like when loved ones have to decide to pull the plug on someone suffering without hope of recovery. I didn’t want to admit that his stuffing was mostly disintegrated, and that the yellow stitching was mostly unwound. I never wanted to move on from that one Puppy, like I had found my soul mate and replacing his dilapidated figure with another was an act of infidelity.

I remember cautiously opening the shoebox containing the original Puppy maybe a year or two later. I found moths, but to me they were maggots. Quelling my scream, I thought, “I should have known living things rot.”

I felt the part of me that Puppy represented — my childhood — had rotted. Burying him in a box yielded the sort of deterioration death brings, so I took him onto the back porch and burned him. I can still smell the charred stuffing and cloth.

When I was forced to take a new Puppy, the characteristics had to match as closely as possible. A neighbor gave me the second one; I think he was a knock-off “Snoopy.” He was a white dog in a red shirt with black ears and that would do in a pinch. He lasted through a short bout of bedwetting before needing to be replaced. He stunk. He was smaller than the original by far, but as I grew, each Puppy was smaller than the last. By the time I hit middle school I had a third Puppy, the smallest one up to that point. Remembering where he came from is difficult, but he may have been a gift from the same neighbor or another family member. People in my life tried to show they cared by buying me a stuffed dog, but they never seemed to understand that felt like abandoning the one I had. This third Puppy survived my first experiments with drugs, and his strange clown outfit, stolen from some other stuffed animal, would on occasion absorb tabs of acid. Third Puppy eventually fell out of the car on a late-night trip, never to be recovered, though my boyfriend and I drove for hours trying to find him.

The Puppy that went to college with me was actually a seated Snoopy toy, given to me by my friend Molly, shortly before the move. We met in middle school and she watched my insane emotional demise when I lost Puppy while high on LSD. Molly mailed a replacement around the same time that she admitted she could no longer watch my self-destruction. My overdosing on heroin was too hard on her and as she pulled away from her addictions, she left me to mine.

I had him through most of my twenties, for my first marriage in 2000, and he came with me to basic combat training after I enlisted in the Army Reserves. He was there for my divorce six months after the wedding and was with me when my parents divorced. Puppy watched in 2002 as I started dating the boyfriend who taught me to inject heroin — a faster and more intense high than I’d experienced from the drug before. And, I imagine, Puppy smiled when that man went to jail in 2004. I had the same Puppy on the day in May 2006 when I bought a gun, intending to end my life in a parked car at a Chevron gas station.

I was twenty-eight when seated Snoopy went missing before Christmas 2006. My mother bought me Santa Snoopy as a gift. I bought the Puppy I have now on eBay in 2011, an exact replica of the one my mom gifted. I’d guess I had to change Puppy about once every seven years, either because I lost him, which happened twice, or he just fell apart. I’ve always made jokes about the destructive nature of my love.

Sitting in the car at the Chevron gas station with windows fogged from crack cocaine smoke, I did all I could to comfort Chloe. After years of falling off her lap and into street gutters, I was dirty. It amazed me I hadn’t been lost like her previous Puppy.

I had rested on CD cases while she tried to kill the pain by stabbing needles under her skin when she should have been in college classes. By then I was usually covered in crumbs of stale doughnuts and soiled with blood. She finally quit shooting heroin when she moved back in with her mother, trading one bad influence — the boyfriend she met after her divorce in 2002, who taught her to shoot up — for crack cocaine and a new group of addicts. Fine metal fibers of Chore Boy brand scrub pad worked their way into my dingy white-grey fuzz each time I fell to the floorboard of the car, and I suffocated when she chain-smoked cigarettes.

By twenty-seven she had dropped out of school completely and was still living with her mother — when she bothered to go home at all, that is. Mostly, she hung out in the streets with homeless addicts. She walked back to steal a car or cash from her family members, and on cold nights she’d hide in the basement. Her mother never knew she’d made a copy of the key.

I could see the sun coming up behind the Chevron, the morning after the night where Chloe managed to collect enough money for a bold amount of crack cocaine and a pistol. The gun was more silver than black, and she had just a few gold-colored bullets. The weapon waited in a paper bag in the glove box while she thought about the twists and turns in her life.

Later, around two in the afternoon, most of the regulars in the area collected near the trash bins behind the gas station. Addicts paired off, taking turns ducking behind the picket-fence frame around the dumpsters, gently closing the door and sitting on soiled flats of cardboard. It was safer for Chloe to leave me in the car most of the time and take hits outside of the car. If a police officer caught her with the vehicle, it would be impounded and charges of driving under the influence and without a license would add to the possession charges. That’s assuming Chloe’s brother hadn’t reported his car stolen.

The faces swarming around the windows all looked the same. Lost, ugly, lonely people with bad teeth, speaking Spanish and sometimes laughing, but often their voices carried a nervous negativity.

The drugs fueled every action, affected every decision and came before every friendship. I couldn’t help her.

There was one time I returned home, making a four-hour trip from college to see friends and buy the drugs I couldn’t cope without. One of those friends, at the time, was still in high school and we’d drive around all night. Ivan (not his real name) didn’t know I was using drugs. When I told him, it nearly ruined our friendship.

“You drove us around while it was still dark o’clock in the morning, high on coke, which I didn’t know until you told me years later,” Ivan remembers, “and listening mostly to single-band mixtapes that I made. You would hold Puppy in your right hand and suck your thumb, while you drove with your left hand. Sometimes I think you would tell me how Puppy was feeling that day.”

Another friend told me I was “always going” during those years spent between states — both physical and emotional.

Puppy watched helplessly.

Chloe sat staring out the dusty windshield, occasionally cleaning it with her sleeve. She always wore long sleeves even when the weather warmed up because of the track marks in her arm. Even Rikki frowned when she’d asked for powder, criticizing with a tone of disgust as he said “por la sangre” and castigated, “no bueno.”

I learned from context the meaning of phrases like “a mi me vale verga,” something akin to “I don’t give a fuck.” The people who sporadically tapped on the driver’s side window didn’t want inside Chloe’s world, and they didn’t have any idea what went on in her head.

As the Toadies CD she stole from the Chevron churned through its tracks inside the car, Chloe seemed to recall her life just a handful of years earlier. When she first drove her mom’s minivan by herself, a Toadies song came on the radio. These songs, from a live recording, sounded darker, more raw.

Chloe contemplated how utterly hopeless she felt. Even Rikki didn’t realize that she’d planned to kill herself with the gun he helped her buy the night before. He started to figure it out around the time she turned the song “Doll Skin” up loud. As though she wanted to get caught, arrested, stopped, she started singing along like a madman might rant at the rain.

When she had nearly run out of crack, she decided to pull away from the thinning group of street acquaintances. She needed to find a place to go to be alone and complete the act, but her shaking hands and trembling voice betrayed her desire to be stopped.

Rikki tried to get back in the car. She pulled toward the front of the store, closer to the road. He stood in front of the car, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying under the roar of the radio repeating “Doll Skin” over and over.

“I hate these walls,” Chloe sang with tears streaming down her face. She drilled her eyes into Rikki’s face and gritted her teeth. Her motioning hands told him to get away from the car and let her go, but he climbed onto the hood of the car. I couldn’t tell if he was desperate to get in for another hit or trying to save her life.

That look in his sunken eyes made her feel more afraid that he — if he cared at all — was the only human in the world who might attempt to stop her suicide. In his gaze, Chloe saw a flash of God. She saw the possibility that someone did care. As often as she’d wished her mother or brother would come looking for the car, if not for her, they never did.

The distance between her and her drug buddy waxed as her desire to live this incoherent and chaotic life waned. And as much as I tried to be there, I kept getting left behind and lost.

The day Chloe pulled out of that gas station, she couldn’t find a place quiet enough to silence her pain. She continued doing drugs until the supply ran out and then reconnected with Rikki. He got the gun at some point, and in the small hours between dusk and dawn, Chloe feared he’d kill her. I’m not sure what changed between them, but it had been going downhill for days that mixed with nights that never ended. Paranoia and sleep deprivation created shadows on Chloe’s conscience, and in her peripheral vision she swore she saw the Devil himself coming to get her.

Around three a.m., the light started to bend as she hid like a stowaway in her mom’s basement, without her family knowing. She watched the windows for Rikki and the gun.

When he found her, he had the gun but he also had a Taser kit. Chloe and Rikki argued, but he never shot her, neither with the gun nor the Taser.

Chloe had decided not to kill herself, and from that point on her relationships with Rikki and the addicts deteriorated much faster than my stitching.

He’s stuffed, not alive. I know that the voice I give him is my voice. Puppy mirrors my perception of myself. Through his button eyes, he sees the rage from my mother that crippled my autonomy.

Rikki chased me through the streets with a gun one night, while Puppy watched through the cloth of those dirty pants. The irony was that I had recently decided to kill myself, again, and getting the gun was my idea. But now I didn’t want to get shot.

My biggest concern was the pain. I didn’t care if he shot me in the head, but I couldn’t bear the thought of surviving with a bullet in my foot, as he threatened. I hid for a while in my mom’s basement, clutching a baseball bat for protection. Rikki knew where to find me though — we had gone there together countless times that year to finish off stashes.

We argued for a while and ended up in another parking lot in the evening. The police came, and we told them to leave, even though I was afraid. We’d been fighting, screaming at each other, and he had pushed me down a hill. Puppy must have felt helpless and unable to save me from inside the cargo pocket of my brown corduroy pants. The last piece of me that believed in comfort or hope believed my stuffed dog held the connection. I held a bottle of booze in one hand, and pushed Rikki away from me with the other, but I held onto Puppy as the closest thing to me, buttoned in my pocket.

Within the diagnostic criteria for BPD is a characteristic fear of abandonment, and I felt that fear when I thought about Puppy falling out of my pocket.

I lost the seated Puppy after trusting his wellbeing to a passenger in the car when I got arrested again. She said she’d hide Puppy back under the overpass where I’d been staying, but Puppy disappeared. She did too.

My mom bought me a new Puppy for Christmas, that Santa Snoopy, the first one purchased by my mom, ever, ending one of the worst years of my life with a new chapter.

I met my future husband the next year, after finally getting back to a place where I could hold a job and assemble some self-respect. The desire for stability and love always existed within me, but I had doubted an ability to find it in someone who wasn’t permanently seated, stuffed or incapable of running away were it not for my losing him.

Much like the meaning of the song “Doll Skin,” I had no idea what my life was about.

The raging words “I hate these walls” called to me, and I grabbed my Puppy’s ear and held tight to the feelings tearing at me from inside my mind. Watching through the windshield, the people I barely knew but recognized walked around behind the gas station where I was parked. I hated the walls of my stolen car.

Years later, I’d ask my husband to listen to a handful of songs that meant something to me and record his opinion. He said he didn’t like “Doll Skin.” He had no idea, and even now he doesn’t know about the day I sat in an idling car with nothing to my name but Puppy, a dwindling pile of crack and a gun.

“The singing’s great, but the guitar in the background plays notes that don’t belong,” he said. “That takes away from the sound of the song, and the power of its lyrics. If someone took the exact rhythmic phrasing and replaced the notes with those of the chord, nothing would be wrong with the song.”

From the floor, lying next to a guitar pick, Puppy saw me choke back tears. If he could write, he could testify to what he witnessed.

“Her husband, the man who truly rescued her from the edge of sanity, had no idea what that particular song meant,” Puppy would relate. “The fact that his words created a metaphor connected a dot for her. During that afternoon, and for most of the years between age seventeen and twenty-seven, she was a note outside the scale.”

Someone did come and take that exact rhythmic phrasing and replace the notes with those of the chord. Nothing was really wrong with the song. Nothing was really wrong with me.

Manning says people with BPD need to learn how to regulate, rather than turn off, emotion. The factors leading one person to develop BPD come from nature, our biology, and nurture, the environmental reaction to intense emotional reactivity.

“People with BPD read emotions in others better,” Manning says. “They have an enormous ability to empathize with others.”

The things Puppy witnessed in my life testify to the fact that those of us with borderline personalities — I dislike calling it a disorder anymore — can heal.

Like an addict who kicked the hard stuff but still smokes cigarettes, I still carry Puppy with me. And I still suck my thumb in traffic sometimes.

“If it’s effective, use it,” Manning says. “Data shows the predominant problem with BPD patients is shame, which can be justified or not justified.”

My mother still sends texts saying she wants to die. Her words rip the scabs off old wounds and provoke within me a sense of rage and instability, but I maintain my sense of sanity and hold onto Puppy.

I call my husband and ask him to call 911 in case my mother means it. Then I return to working, writing and feeling. I start over, and suck my thumb with Puppy in my palm.