Buffy and the Beast

I have just come in from the pouring rain. A storm is brewing just off the coast, heralded as potentially one of the worst storms in recent history, and all I can hope is that the roof stays on the barn and the trees by the house are old enough and strong enough not to blow down on us while we can’t sleep for the din of the rain on the tin roof.

I stood in the rain behind the barn, cradling my buff brahma hen, Buffy Summers. I told her I was sorry that I hadn’t done better for her. And then I held her while Cowboy humanely euthanised her for me. Life left her quietly, like a chill coming over her. Then she flapped and kicked as her nervous system flooded.

“She’s already gone,” he told me gently, while I cried at the sight. “She doesn’t feel this part. She stopped feeling a long time ago.”

It was little consolation.

Buffy had bumblefoot, a fairly innocuous infection in the foot which can be treated successfully with some minor surgery, and careful management of the wound. I’d noticed it just a day before we had left for Montana, and a friend of mine did her best to do the initial surgery while I was gone.

I came home a week later and repeated the procedure. I was careful to follow the instructions, pulling out chunks of infection that looked unnervingly like the scrambled eggs I had eaten for breakfast just a few minutes before. I drenched it in iodine, padded it with sterile gauze, secured it with vet wrap. I felt like I’d done a good job.

The instructions said to recheck it after two days, to keep it clean, disinfected, rewrapped with a fresh dressing, and to continue every two days until it was resolved.

But I didn’t. I sat, swathed in depression, dreaming up reasons why I couldn’t deal with her. One more day won’t make a difference, I thought. I said just one more day for a week. I finally summoned up enough energy to catch her and unwrap her foot.

The infection was worse. Not much, but a little worse. I redid the surgery, told myself I would do better this time. I confined her to a crate so it would be quicker and easier to catch her and take care of her.

But I didn’t. I fed her and watered her, and told myself I’d get to her foot tomorrow. One more day won’t make a difference. Then I can help her. I’ll feel better.

But I didn’t. I let it fester for another week. A little more. I eventually dragged myself out to catch her. I unwrapped her foot. The infection was worse. Far worse. It was deeper, thicker. I told myself that this time I would do better. I’d doctor her properly, be attentive and persistent in treating it. This time would be different.

But I didn’t… I left her for another day. When I dug in her foot this evening, where live tissue was entwined with infection, where her skin had cracked and split, where her toe was swollen and her claw had been enveloped by the swelling, I was faced with the ugly truth of my own sickness.

Just one more day had simmered under the colourful vet wrap. I put down my tweezers, turned off my headlamp and looked at Cowboy, where he stood with his hand on the towel to hold her still for me.

“I don’t think I can help her,” I heard myself say. “I think it’s too deep. There’s too much. I’ll never get it all.”

“So what do you want to do?” he asked. He already knew. He went to put his boots on and he found a coat. “Behind the barn?” he said, opening the door for me.

I carried Buffy across the yard, feeling the laugh of the black dog on the back of my neck. I tried to tell myself this was the right thing, but it felt like a horrible failure. It was. I made myself acknowledge how we had ended up here, the rain soaking my shirt and my muck boots chafing my ankles, with the hen I had raised from just a few days old about to end her life before she had really reached maturity.

I did this, I thought, watching the other girls scurry about in the puddles. She should be here with them but I did this to her. I caught myself: My illness did this to her. I let my illness do this to her. Cowboy didn’t try to convince me otherwise. I love him for that.

The general advice goes that if you can continue with your activities of daily living, you’re not generally classified as ill enough for serious medical intervention. Losing Buffy to the cloud of emptiness that hung over my for the last few weeks was the wake up call I needed. It’s time to self-medicate the best ways I know how: good food, exercise, fresh air, work, sleep, love. I always push my most beloved human being away, in the times when I need him most.

And if all of this doesn’t work this time, or if the black dog lies so heavily on my chest in the mornings that I can’t get out of bed, if he lies across the door so I can’t leave my home, it’s time to look at chemical intervention.

I’m so done being ashamed of my ailing mental health.

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