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Saved by Gracie

She didn’t need anything else to worry about. Especially a dog—or so she thought.

Jan Dunlap with Gracie

Shelter-dog-adoption day. Most people came hoping to go home with a new pet. I had an ulterior motive.

I’d agreed to come with my husband, Tom, and our 16-year-old daughter, Colleen, only because I thought it would show Colleen that a dog was too much work and responsibility. And that there was absolutely no way we were going home with one.

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But the second Colleen paused in front of a big black mutt, the scariest looking dog there, a volunteer exclaimed, “Oh, this Lab mix is so friendly!” She handed the leash to Colleen. “Go on, take her for a walk.”

“Don’t even think about it,” I started to say. Too late. Colleen and Tom were off with the dog. They came back all smiles. The Lab might have been grinning too, but its sharp teeth made me look away.

Colleen knelt beside the dog, stroking it. “She really is sweet,” Tom said.

I glared at him. “We are not getting a dog,” I said.

“I’ll take care of her,” Colleen said. “I promise.”

“I think it would be good for Colleen to take on the responsibility,” Tom said. “And maybe having a dog will help your anxiety.”

Really? When nothing, not even my faith, had helped so far? And when my terror of dogs was one of my biggest anxieties to begin with?

I’m not exaggerating when I say “begin with.” My phobia went all the way back to birth. My parents had to give up their dog because he became aggressive toward their new baby—me.

It must have made an indelible impression on my subconscious because I’d been afraid of dogs as long as I could remember.

So afraid that even though Tom was a dog person and every one of our five children begged for a dog, I refused to give in. This was the closest I’d ever let a dog get to me. Colleen was our youngest.

Had my resistance weakened over the years? No, I had to stand firm. I didn’t want or need a dog! I had enough to worry about.

Again, no exaggeration. Worry had taken over my life, ever since that day four years earlier when I woke with crushing chest pain. I was only 51, didn’t smoke, rarely drank, exercised regularly and got good numbers on my yearly physicals. But my mom had heart disease.

What if I was having a heart attack? Tom rushed me to the ER.

It wasn’t a heart attack, but the doctor was concerned about the results of my stress test. He suspected a blockage in my coronary arteries and sent me to a cardiologist for an angiogram.

I couldn’t get to sleep the night before my appointment. I kept checking my pulse, afraid I’d drop dead at any moment.

Nothing turned up on the angiogram. The cardiologist determined that there had been an error on the stress test and sent me home with a clean bill of health.

Something else came home with me. Worry. If doctors could mistakenly think I had a heart problem, couldn’t they err in the other direction? What if they were wrong about me being fine?

I was a college professor, teaching English composition. I was prone to overthinking. But this was worrying to the point of obsession, fixated on my health and safety.

I stopped driving long distances—what if I fell asleep at the wheel and got into an accident? I could no longer watch the television news with Tom. Crime, plane crashes, virus outbreaks—danger loomed everywhere.

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Finally my doctor diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder. The cause of my chest pain was an anxiety attack, not a heart attack. I was relieved to put a name to what was wrong with me.

I saw a mental-health counselor. “Basically, anxiety is worrying when there’s no reason to worry,” she said. “You tend to automatically assume the worst. We need to retrain your brain to think more realistically, more positively.”

I read the books she recommended. Practiced the positivity techniques she taught me. None of it could keep my anxiety at bay. Not even my faith, which I’d thought was considerable. I had a master’s in theology and was active in my church.

Lord, please give me grace, I’d prayed every night. Free me from my anxiety. I was beginning to think my prayers were futile.

I was getting lost in my thoughts. Tom nudged me.

“Let me tell you more about this dog,” the shelter volunteer said. “She’s two years old. She was found locked in a basement, emaciated, covered in her own feces. She’s come a long way. Look how loving she is. And she’s so loyal, she’d jump a fence to get to you.”

The dog nuzzled my daughter. I shuddered. Just to be polite, I asked,

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“Does she have a name?”

“Gracie,” the volunteer said.

I’d been praying a long time for grace. But this wasn’t what I had in mind!

“Please, Mom?” Colleen asked. She and the dog both looked up at me with beseeching eyes. I found myself saying, “Okay.” And just like that, we went home with that big, scary black dog. Gracie took to sleeping next to Colleen’s bed every night and shadowing whoever was home during the day.

I coped with having her in the house. At least she was contained inside and couldn’t run off and get hit by a car. Or bite someone on the sidewalk. If only something could contain her energy!

A tired dog is a good dog, trainers say, so we gave her a lot of exercise. I was too nervous to take her far, but Tom and Colleen went on long walks with her. Gracie came home still wanting to play.

A few months after we adopted the dog, Colleen went on an extended school field trip. Tom developed plantar fasciitis, making walking painful. It was up to me to walk Gracie. Every time we went out, I was a nervous wreck. The anxiety wore me out. I was so tired I fell behind on grading papers.

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“Why don’t you take her to the dog park?” Tom suggested. “It’s fenced, so she can run all she likes. You can sit on a bench and grade papers.”

To the dog park we went. Hills, fields, trails, lots of room to run. Good. A five-foot-high fence. Better. I shut the gate behind us and unclipped Gracie’s leash. She took off. Please, let her burn off some energy.

Gracie shot down a hill. The next thing I knew, she was leaping the fence at the bottom. I ran down shouting her name, but it was too late. She was gone. What if she wandered into traffic? Got hurt or killed?

I followed the fence, thinking I might catch a glimpse of her. No luck. After 20 minutes, I trudged back to the gate. My fear had come true. I’d lost Gracie.

There were a bunch of dogs and owners by some picnic tables. I told them Gracie had jumped the fence and asked if they’d seen her. Just then a big black dog burst through the crowd, making a beeline for me. Gracie!

“She must really love you,” a man said, “to hop the fence back into the park again.”

The shelter volunteer’s words came back to me: She’s so loyal, she’ll jump a fence to get to you.

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I looked at Gracie, dancing around me, her tail whipping from side to side. I had to laugh. She was totally taking joy in the moment. Maybe it was time I did too. She’d come back unharmed. Not the worst-case scenario I’d imagined.

Could it be that all my worrying was for nothing? That God had things under control, not only now, but all the time? Getting consumed by anxiety was like thinking I had to do his job. No wonder I was exhausted!

After that, we enrolled Gracie in obedience school. She’s learned to stick by me on walks and I’ve learned to be less anxious and more like her, open to the world. A world filled with grace.


Download your FREE ebook, Rediscover the Power of Positive Thinking, with Norman Vincent Peale.

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