Hair of the Dog
(c) Arlene R. Taylor, PhD
www.arlenetaylor.org Realizations Inc
The first time it happened, the parents had rushed their 13-month-old son to the local Emergency Department. Eyes wide with terror, Jason had been pale, sweating, gasping for breath, and on the verge of collapse. “Stung by a bee?” was a first question. The answer was no. “Food allergies?” was the next question. The answer there, too, was no. Gradually the child’s breathing had stabilized, his heart rate had returned to normal, and color had seeped back into his skin. The doctors and nurses had been at a loss to account for the sudden onset of symptoms. Fortunately, Jason’s condition returned to normal following minimal treatment.
Twice more during the next 18 months, Jason had been rushed into the Emergency Department for similar symptoms. On the third such visit, the doctor noticed that the hair on the back of Jason’s neck was standing up. “That suggests the child was terrified by something,” said the Doctor. He questioned the parents carefully about what had been happening when Jason evidenced symptoms of what had appeared to be a life-threatening emergency.
The parents had looked at each other, confused. “That’s just it,” said Angie, the boy’s mother. “Nothing was happening!” Her husband, Alex, agreed. Nothing was happening. At least, nothing unusual or unexpected. Angie, Alex, six-year-old Nella, and little Jason had been grocery shopping when the most recent episode has occurred. Jason hadn’t eaten any food or drunk any beverage while in the store. In fact, he had been riding in the grocery cart, snugged securely with the cart-belt. No bees or wasps had buzzed around them. No one could remember anything unusual or untoward. It was definitely a puzzle.
“Any time your son begins to show signs of anxiety,” said the physician, “pay close attention to what just happened, what is happening at the current moment, or what is about to happen. That may give you some clue. Jason’s symptoms are consistent with what happens when a person experiences large amounts of anxiety, which is a form of fear.”
If Grammy hadn’t twisted her ankle, it might have taken years to solve the puzzle. One evening, as luck would have it, the entire family, including Grammy, went to watch Nella, now in 1st grade, act the part of a little angel in the school play. As Grammy started to get out of the car, she stepped on a rock and badly twisted her ankle. “I fear it’s broken,” said Grammy. “It hurts badly. You better take me to the Emergency Department.”
The family split up—temporarily. Nella and Alex would attend the play while Angie took Grammy to the Emergency Department. If all went well, they’d be back in time to see at least some of the play. Jason could choose what he wanted to do. After some indecision, the little boy decided to accompany his mother and Grammy.
At the hospital, everything went like clockwork. An orderly came out to the parking lot and helped Grammy into a wheelchair. Once inside, another employee wheeled Grammy off to Radiology to have an x-ray taken of her ankle. Angie and Jason settled themselves in comfortable chairs to wait. Angie was half-way through reading a story to Jason when it happened, again. His little body suddenly went rigid. Eyes staring-wide, his breath came in great gasps. Following Jason’s gaze, Angie saw a man standing just inside the door. Sitting quietly beside him, leashed, was a little black poodle. Puzzled, Angie glanced back at Jason just in time to see his eyes roll back in his head and his little body go limp. Fortunately, another exam room was available. “He saw a dog!” Angie told the triage nurse. “That’s all that I could see happened. Jason saw the little black poodle and passed out.”
Once the little boy had been revived, the doctor pulled up a chair and smiled at Angie. “Okay, now we know at least one thing that triggers Jason’s terror. Dogs. Tell me about Jason’s history with dogs.”
“There is no history,” Angie replied, shaking her head in confusion. “We’ve never had a dog in our family and none of our friends have dogs.”
The doctor thought for a moment. “Well, on the off chance that cellular memory is at work here,” he continued, “Tell me about your history with dogs.”
“What is cellular memory?” asked Angie, a puzzled look on her face. “And I don’t have any history with dogs, either.”
The doctor explained briefly that the science of epigenetics (meaning everything that is not genetics, including lifestyle), has established that a variety of environmental influences can imprint a memory, perhaps on protein strands in the nucleus of cells. These influences can include nutrition, stress, emotions, and unusual situations that have happened in the person’s life. “In fact,” the doctor explained, “this type of cellular memory can be passed on to a person’s biological offspring, perhaps for three or four succeeding generations.”
Angie shook her head. “I didn’t have dogs growing up,” she began.
“Have you or the boy’s father ever had a bad experience with a dog?” The doctor was nothing if not persistent.
Angie shook her head question after question. Suddenly she sat up alert. “I just remembered something!” she exclaimed. The story tumbled out pell-mell. Toward the end of her seventh month of pregnancy with Jason, Angie and Nella had been enjoying themselves at the park. Nella had been playing in the sandbox while Angie had been relaxing on a blanket spread beneath nearby trees. Out of the blue and with no warning, a little yellow streak had shot by Angie and pounced on little Nellie. The terrier had tried to snatch the candy from the child’s hand, tearing her dress in the process.
Lumbering to her feet and hurrying to the sandbox, Angie had grabbed Nella by the arms and lifted the little girl into the air. The little yappy terrier, however, would have none of it. It began jumping, scratching, and biting at Nella’s feet. “I remember screaming hysterically,” said Angie. “I was yelling and turning in circles trying to get away from the dog. Just when I thought I would faint from fear and dizziness, a park official came running to the rescue.” The guard had captured the dog and hauled it away for testing at the local animal shelter. Little Nella had been examined and except for a few scratches was otherwise unhurt.
Now, as Angie relived the experience, she herself began to shake with the memory and her breath came in gasps. “I was a basket case for days,” Angie continued. “I didn’t want to leave the house or go near the park. I was even afraid that Jason might be born prematurely....”
“Bingo,” said the doctor. “My best guess is that every time Jason has experienced these types of symptoms, he had just seen a little dog, whether or not you noticed the creature.” When Angie left the Emergency Department with Grammy, her ankle in a walking splint (fortunately there were no broken bones), her son was once again back to normal. Angie also had a referral to a child psychologist.
“If this hadn’t happened to our family,” Angie told her husband back at the school auditorium (in time, mind you, to witness Nella as a little angel in act two), “I probably would have pooh-poohed anything described as cellular memory!” The concept intrigued her, however, and she could hardly wait to meet with Dr. Rose.
“I can’t understand how, while Nella was the one to actually get scratched, she doesn’t seem to be terrified of dogs,” said Angie, when she and Jason had their first appointment with Dr. Rose. “Jason was in utero at the time. How could he be afraid?” Dr. Rose explained that different brains often have differing responses to a similar incident. Sometimes the difference is related to what happens directly after the disquieting incident.
Indeed, upon further questioning, Angie recalled that on their return home from the park, she had collapsed, shaking, on the bed. She had sobbed herself to sleep from thinking about what might have been. Nella, on the other hand, had been cuddled by her father. Alex had told the child stories about good dogs and naughty dogs. One of Nella’s favorite stuffed toys at the time was a soft little terrier. Nella’s father had petted the little stuffed animal and told her that Fifi was a good little stuffed dog who never barked or scratched anyone. “Looking back, I think the whole incident was much harder on me than it was on her!” Angie exclaimed.
“Much harder on Jason, too,” added Dr. Rose, smiling. “The fetus can experience the emotions that the mother experiences.” Now that they had uncovered a possible triggering incident, they could proceed with some recovery options. There were several. One involved desensitization. “Have you heard the expression ‘hair of the dog’” asked Dr. Rose. Angie shook her head. It is a small measure of drink, intended to cure a hangover. Think of it as a type of desensitization. Take Jason shopping. Let him pick out a toy dog. Help him select a big stuffed animal that is very different from the little yellow terrier. Be patient. It may take several trips to the store, with your role-modeling a desire to bring home a big stuffed dog before he agrees.”
At first, Jason refused to even look at stuffed dogs of any ilk. Period. Once, when a well-meaning clerk tried to hand Jason a toy dog that resembled a terrier, Angie had jumped in and calmly said, “We want a big dog that can curl up on the beanbag with us while we read stories.” Obligingly, the clerk had reached up onto a high shelf and snagged a Pluto. Soon, both children were giggling at the clerk’s attempts to get Pluto to stand on his own four legs. Pluto would have been three feet tall at least, could he have been made to stand. He was so soft and so floppy, however, he just collapsed on the floor looking for all the world like a curly chocolate pillow. Jason laughed outright when the clerk tried to bark out the words, “Pick me, pick me, little boy. I am big and soft and floppy. Take me home with you.”
Angie told the clerk they’d think about it. That evening after dinner, Angie and her husband tried another of Dr. Rose’s suggestions. Snuggled safely on his father’s lap, wrapped securely in his arms, Jason heard the story about a naughty little yellow terrier. A naughty little yappy dog that had, once upon a time, tried to snatch Nella’s candy right out of her hand. Jason listened carefully as his father explained how Angie and the park official had saved Nella from getting bitten. Angie then told the children how frightened she had been when that had happened. She said that since Jason had been growing inside of her at the time, he had probably been frightened, too. They were completely amazed when Jason nodded his head vigorously and said, “Yes. That dog barked and scratched.”
Another trip to the store and Pluto, a big dog that never barked or scratched, became a member of the family. Jason wanted his parents to tell Pluto the story about the little yappy dog that had tried to snatch Nella’s candy right out of her hand. Once again, Jason listened intently. Again, he nodded his head vigorously and said, “That dog barked and scratched.” Later that evening, to everyone’s surprise, Jason dragged Pluto to his bedroom and informed everyone in a matter-of-fact voice, “Pluto wants to sleep on my bed.”
Jason’s fear of little yappy dogs didn’t dissipate immediately, although he often asked to hear the story. One day Angie overheard the children playing with the two stuffed dogs. “Pluto!” said Jason. “Sit on that little dog so it can’t bark and scratch.” Occasionally, when the family unexpectedly came upon a little yappy dog, Jason would try to leap into his parent’s arms. Gratefully, there was never a repeat of symptoms severe enough to require a trip to the Emergency Department.
“The whole thing almost seems surreal,” Angie said on one of their last visits with Dr. Rose. “As I told my husband, if it hadn’t happened to our family, I probably would have pooh-poohed anything described as cellular memory!”
“I believe that knowledge is power,” said Dr. Rose, smiling. “The brain can deal with what it can label and describe. You and your husband helped Jason to label and describe his sensed terror. You were able to assist him in learning that not all dogs need to be painted with the same brush.”
“I am so grateful to have gotten to the bottom of this,” said Angie. “Do you suppose everybody is affected by it?”
Dr. Rose nodded. “It’s part and parcel of being human. The emerging information about epigenetics—while still the stuff of science fiction to some—is amazing and can help to explain many puzzling things.”
Having said that, Dr. Rose thought to herself, If the extent and power of cellular memory were really known, most people would be stunned!