It was 2005 when I decided to get a dog. I named him Otto. I had never had a dog of my own before. I also didn’t grow up with family dogs. He was my first, a mini schnauzer, all black and the sweetest thing I had ever met. It was love at first sight for both of us. My life was relatively stable. I had a boyfriend. I was living at home with my parents and working for my family’s business after graduating college. Drinking wasn’t an important part of my life. Yet.
The first year of Otto’s life was pretty normal. My world kind of revolved around him. My boyfriend was off hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Otto and I would drive or fly to meet him along the way and we would hang out on trail town stops and do really cool stuff. Otto was the center of both our worlds— except our worlds turned out to be polar opposites. After seven months, my boyfriend completed the trail and returned home. Then we broke up.
I was devastated. Otto, almost a year old, stayed by my side (literally) and got me through the darkest days I had ever experienced. Little did I know, that was nothing compared to what the next decade was going to entail. At the time I thought my life was over, but I had Otto. If I was sleeping, he was sleeping. If I didn’t eat, he didn’t eat. If I didn’t get out of bed all day, neither did Otto.
In 2006, Otto and I moved across the country to San Francisco. My lifestyle wasn’t very conducive to taking care of a dog. I didn’t really give him the kind of life he deserved. Drinking, partying and traveling became my priorities. So, when I would go home to North Carolina to visit, I would leave him there for weeks. Sometimes months. I knew he was getting treated better and was safer with my mom and dad. You know those parents who take care of their grandchildren because their kid is off doing God-knows-what. Yeah…that was me.
When I moved back to North Carolina in 2008, I regained full custody of Otto. He still spent extended stays with my parents. My drinking had gotten bad by this point and selfishly I wanted and needed Otto with me. He was the first person (and yes, I considered him a person) to whom I ever admitted I was an alcoholic. He saw me at my absolute worst. He knew things about me that I probably don’t even know (or remember) about myself. And not once did that sweet dog judge me. He just loved me and I needed that. I certainly didn’t love myself.
I was horrible mother to Otto during my years of active addiction. I didn’t want to be, didn’t mean to be, but I was. I didn’t take care of him the way he needed. I’d leave him at home longer than I should have. I’d take him to bars and pass out on couches with him by my side. I’d forget to feed him and give him water like a normal mother would. It’s amazing he made it through.
When I got sober I got a second chance at everything. That included being a good mom to Otto. When I got to Steps Eight and Nine, Otto was at the top of the list. I even had a formal sit-down amends with him. I’m not sure he understood exactly what I was saying, but I’m confident he saw a difference through my living amends.
Otto was actually the first “person” I tried out the whole amends thing on. I’d never made amends before. I didn’t quite understand what it meant, but I slowly learned from being a better mom to Otto on a daily basis that an amends wasn’t an apology. It was about righting my past wrongs with changed behaviors and actions. It was easy to do that with Otto. I could clearly see how shitty I had been to Otto because he was innocent in the whole thing. Through my living amends with him, I learned how to make living amends with other people I had harmed. I learned the see the difference between an apology and an amends because Otto didn’t understand “I’m sorry.” That meant I had to show him and, eventually I was able to do the same with others that didn’t have four legs and fur.
Our pets are more than just cats and dogs, they are family. But more than that, they are family who don’t judge or hold grudges. They just love. And not to sound too out there, but Otto helped me come to understand the love that God has for me. That unconditional love that forgives without hesitation or resentment when you do something wrong. For four years, I got to make it up to Otto. I got to be the mom that I should have been his entire life.
A few weeks ago I received the devastating news that Otto had hemangiosarcoma—rapidly growing, highly metastatic and malignant tumors covering his spleen, liver and lungs. I’ve dreaded having to say goodbye since the day since the day I got him. It was a nightmare but I was sober and I had a clear mind to make some hard decisions. I had a peace in my heart that I had been a great sober mom to Otto for the past four years. And in the almost 12 years I got to spend with Otto, he taught me more about love, life, relationships, forgiveness and making amends than any human ever could.
Photo of Allison Hudson and Otto by Kenesha Facello; used with permission.