Learning Lessons from Lydia

Prone to panic attacks, an Ohio woman used prayer and a puppy to calm her fears.

- Posted on Sep 29, 2011

Patty Huntsman and Lydia, who helped to bolster her faith and calm her fears.

The teacher stood at the head of the class and took attendance. I surveyed the room nervously. It felt like my first day of school all over again. New faces. New lessons to learn. But I wasn’t the student, my six-month-old retriever mix, Lydia, was. And this was puppy school.

My husband, Jeff, and I adopted Lydia when she was nine weeks old. She was smart, playful and sweet—she even knew a few commands. But lately she’d been acting up. Okay...she was on the verge of being totally out of control.

High-spirited. Mischievous. She ate almost anything in her path: mulch, grass, small rocks and sticks (her favorite). I practically had the vet on speed dial. The more she got into, the more I wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into. I tried to keep a sense of humor about it but even that was wearing thin.

When my grandson was having problems with relationships in a new job, I knew right where to send him—the Guideposts website, where he’d be able to read the work of Dr. Norman Vincent Peal. My grandson is finding it helpful not only at work but in his relationships in general.                          - JANE C., Cumming, Georgia

I gripped Lydia’s leash. Would this class really be okay? Would I?

Growing up, Mom and Dad nicknamed me the “worry wart.” Sometimes I was a happy-go-lucky kid. Other times I got caught up in pretty big fears—getting sick, dying, something terrible happening to my family.

Faith was big in our house, so I turned to God to help me calm down and visualized happy things to squeeze out my scary thoughts. Sometimes, though, I’d go into full-blown panic mode: struggling for breath, breaking into a sweat, feeling paralyzed with fear. It was terrifying!

“Try to relax, Patty,” my parents said. “You’ll grow out of this.”

I didn’t. As I grew, my anxiety did too. Once, in my early twenties, a blizzard was headed for my town. What if I’m stuck in the house for days? What if I go bonkers? Panic welled up in me.

I went through my craft stash and pulled out supplies to make a miniature Amish quilt, hoping that working on it would stave off my worries. And it did! I was so proud of that quilt I hung it on my wall as a reminder that I could turn my fears into something wonderful. That didn’t always work, though.

A few years later I hurt my back while I was working out. What if this never heals? Even when my back felt better I worried I’d hurt myself again. I always seemed to be in “what if” mode.

One day I went to the library and looked up my symptoms in a medical book. “Panic attack: a period of intense fear with abrupt onset. Symptoms include trembling, shortness of breath and choking sensations.” Yup, that was me!

Yet knowing what they were didn’t stop them from happening, and worrying about an attack was almost as bad as having one. I was having panic attacks about my panic attacks!

Despite those attacks, by the time I met Jeff, the man of my dreams, I’d accomplished a lot. I was optimistic about life and financially secure. I’d even gotten my pilot’s license.

Then, I lost my job. My back started aching again. Those “what if” feelings drifted back and I took to projecting the worst possible outcome when it came to whatever I was anxious about. Like when we moved from the city to our beautiful country house. I was so excited! We’d budgeted to live on one income since I was out of work.

Still, I hoped to find a job. Months passed. Nothing.

“Don’t worry, honey. We’ll be fine. We’re careful with our spending,” Jeff said.

Deep down I knew that was true, but having too much time on my hands wasn’t a good thing. My worries spun out of control. Our first winter in the country was brutal. I was terrified I’d slip on ice and break something.

Then I got hit with the flu. One night my fingers tingled and my vision blurred. I shook uncontrollably and could hardly catch my breath. My heart hammered in my chest. Oh, God! A heart attack! “Jeff, call 911!”

The second I saw the ambulance, I stopped shaking—as if a light switch had been flipped. “You have a fever,” the medic said. “But the rest of your symptoms sound like a classic panic attack.”

Talk about embarrassed. I finally made an appointment with my doctor. He gave me anti-anxiety medication to take when I felt an attack coming on.

One day Jeff sat me down.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “It would be good for you to have something other than your fears to focus on. Like...a puppy.”

A puppy? I couldn’t wait! We’d talked about getting a dog before, but never had the space. Now we had a big yard. Perfect.

I searched the web and it wasn’t long before I saw her: shiny black fur, floppy ears, part cattle dog, part retriever. Her name was Lydia.

“She’s the one,” I said to Jeff, pointing to her mile-wide smile.

On the drive to meet her, my mind raced. Oh, Lord, what if Lydia doesn’t like us? What if we’re not ready for a puppy?

The second I saw Lydia, my fears vanished. She wriggled her black-button nose and smothered me with sloppy puppy kisses. It was love at first sight.

At first Lydia was attentive and easygoing. She slept through the night and stood by the back door when she wanted to go out. A dream pup!

That didn’t last. Soon she turned into a whirling dervish. She even chewed up my Amish quilt! That was the last straw. I called the vet for advice.

“A tired puppy is a good puppy,” he told me. “Exercise her more! And try not to worry.”

Not worry? That’s all I could do! Jeff had a coworker whose wife was a dog trainer. She lived too far away to train Lydia, but I knew she’d have some tips.

“A lot of pet stores have puppy classes,” she said. “Try one.”

There was one at a store down the road—a 12-week course. We enrolled Lydia right away.

Now, here we were. I braced myself.

“First we’re going to work on the basic cues: sit, come, stay,” the trainer said.

What if Lydia just wants to play? What if.... Wait! I had to stop. All this time I’d been dumping my worries onto God, but I hadn’t stopped to listen for his answers. All right, Lord, I prayed. What if I put Lydia, and my fears, into your hands? I trust you.

As the trainer announced each cue, Lydia followed perfectly, just like when we’d first adopted her.

“You have a very intelligent, eager-to-learn puppy there,” the trainer told me. Was she really talking about my Lydia? I looked at her, sitting perfectly at attention. “Good girl,” I said, scratching her head.

Slowly, we got into a routine. Puppy class once a week, then we practiced at home each night. As the weeks passed, Lydia went from totally boisterous to a model puppy pupil—and a bit of a class clown (no surprise there!).

The more time I spent helping her, the less time I had to worry. I hadn’t felt so relaxed in years. As I watched Lydia’s transformation it struck me that not all problems get worse. In fact, my projections were almost always worse than the reality.

Before I knew it, it was graduation day. “C’mon, girl, you can do this,” I whispered to Lydia. She aced everything on the final exam—basic manners, socialization, relationship-forming. I was so proud. I must’ve taken a million pictures of her in her little mortarboard hat.

Lydia will be two this winter. She’s as sweet as ever and stays out of trouble (she still loves chewing on sticks though). As for me? I haven’t found a job yet, but Jeff and I are doing fine. I still worry. I still have an occasional panic attack. But thanks to a rambunctious puppy now I know who to trust with my fears.


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