Nicholas’ Story, by his mother Carla Morgan
Prior to being adopted into our family, our son Nicholas lived in a Russian orphanage where he experienced under-stimulated, neglectful, institutional care. When he came home at 18 months, he fit pretty comfortably in 6-month sized clothing, the side of his head was misshapen and flat from spending too much time lying in a crib as an infant, and he had such severe rickets due to malnutrition and lack of access to daylight that his little, knobby knees knocked together when he walked. The physical manifestations of the neglect he navigated through those most vulnerable months of his babyhood were fully resolved over time with a lot of human contact, a little Vitamin D, some play time in the sunshine and a lot of groceries! He’s healthy and growing strong. But, he was left with scars that aren’t physical; that can’t be seen really at all outside the context of an intimate relationship with him. And, given he’s still a child; his intimate relationships center around the six members of his immediate family – me, his dad, his three younger siblings, and his dog, Purdue, who has been rocking our world in the most wonderful ways since June of 2015.
When we’re asked why Nicholas has a service dog we certainly understand the confusion. I think people assume that dogs are predominantly prepared to aid with more visible, physical needs on the whole and that’s not what we’re dealing with.
There are two general curiosities to this question, really:
1) The first is about Nick’s specific need – His diagnoses include Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These diagnoses play out in a variety of ways, but the primary dynamics we deal with surround relational connectedness and trust. His infant brain wired up to survive neglect, so family living has been awkward, uncomfortable, vulnerable. He is more comfortable keeping relationships at a distance than he is leaning in to them and experiencing emotional connectedness. Though he longs for that, it’s terribly frightening to practice it. So, he seeks safety through dissociation, essentially retreating from human connection for extended periods of time.
2) The second curiosity is then, how can a dog help? Dogs offer a wonderful opportunity for unconditional, raw connectedness. They present themselves in relationships as a wonderful combination of old soul and perpetual dependent; thus, soliciting care behaviors required for survival while offering us the wisdom of pure, relational forgiveness and vulnerability that we often cannot access or even offer in our human relationships. Our hope from the start has been that a service dog would offer Nicholas a safe, consistent platform through which to practice relationships – and we have witnessed that in such incredible ways in the ever-evolving relationship between Nicholas and Purdue.
Purdue meets a number of Nicholas’ needs in our home, such as: offering relational feedback, practicing eye contact, celebrating Nicholas’ successes, offering him sensory input, interrupting tantrums, facilitating care-taking behaviors, and helping to regulate his emotions when he’s having trouble expressing himself. But primarily, we experience Purdue as a “comfort dog” placed in our home to help support Nicholas’ healing process – with hope that the relationship they navigate will show Nicholas first-hand that, while relationships are tough and complicated, they are worth the effort and worth the risk. Though there are clear and tangible ways that he serves our son, the impact of his presence in our home is entirely unquantifiable.
The first day Nicholas and Purdue spent together was quite remarkable to witness. They seemed to know each other instantly and gracefully – like two old souls effortlessly accessing familiarity. Overtime, their relationship has evolved deeply. Nicholas was immediately smitten with his pup and a certain novelty drove the establishment of their relationship. But, it didn’t take long for Purdue to worm his way into Nicholas’ heart and that initial shock of love caused him to recoil a bit; as intimacy is frightening, unfamiliar and threatening. They navigated a storming phase during which Nicholas postured with boundaries, while Purdue either nudged around them or rejected Nicholas’ more unpleasant moments outright. Nicholas worked pretty hard to maintain his distance, but Purdue has proven impossible for him to resist and a couple years into their relationship Nicholas’ resistance has completely fallen away and he has truly settled into his love for his dog. With love, of course, comes the threat of loss and Nicholas’ abandonment fears have been quite intense in regard to the likelihood that his dog will pre-decease him.
Not long ago, he told me that he fears having to grieve his dog and shared that he doesn’t know what he’ll do without him. Purdue is more than a companion to Nicholas at this point. Nicholas is relying on him for safety and security. He explained that he feels like he’s suffering in a battle where arrows of fear and sadness and confusion and anger are being shot at him and Purdue offers him a shield and helps him up when he’s been knocked down. Each step in this relational process has grown our son tremendously (and, tumultuously!) and have ultimately offered him a safe and gentle forum through which to process his wounds and access deeper healing.
ICAN handlers have a mantra that “slow is fast.” And, growth in these relational and mental health arenas can feel like a painfully slow journey at times. But, Nicholas is still very young. Processing the depths of our struggles and the painful impacts of our histories is difficult even for grown-ups. Our desire as his parents has always been to afford him developmental opportunities to process along the way; to show him through our words and actions that all of his thoughts and feelings and experiences are welcome in our home, in our relationships. In this regard, parenting Nicholas has been an exercise in persistence in hope for his future. And, Matt and I have come to depend on Purdue as an indispensable teammate – serving as someone with whom Nicholas practices intimacy and love in the absence of the rejection and abandonment fears he harbors in his relationships with us. He lights Nicholas’ path in a way that we have not yet been allowed, all the while modeling that we are safe and can be trusted and it’s okay to lean into his love for us.
More recently, the healing Nicholas has accessed has been revealed to us in some poignant and tender ways. No doubt these two beautiful souls have more work to do, but we remain hopeful and confident that Nicholas can turn toward his human supports with a similar love and connection and reliance that he has accessed with his dog.
We are so grateful and indebted to all who pour into ICAN’s mission and specifically to those who had a hand in preparing this remarkable dog for our remarkable son. – Carla Morgan