What a Dead Cow Taught Me About My Anxiety

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I grew up on a small farm in rural Washington. My childhood was very idyllic; summers were spent snapping peas at my grandma’s house from our garden and catching garter snakes in the backyard.

My parents were big animal lovers and when we were little and living in a rental house in Moses Lake they gave us hamsters and parakeets to take care of. (Of course, they helped because you can’t trust toddlers to properly take care of anything.)

Moving to a house in the country gave us the opportunity to move to bigger and more durable animals. We got a dog immediately, a little terrier mix who barked at everything and eventually ran away, only to picked up on the side of the road by a couple who happened to be in the market for a little yappy puppy. My mom files that one under “major blessings in disguise.”

After replacing that dog with a much better fit for our family (a Golden Retriever we named Obie Whine Kenobi), we started to utilize our farm space for its purpose, and over the space of six or seven years, we had raised just about every farm animal you could think of. Chickens, horses, pigs, rabbits, sheep, and of course, cows.

The cows came when I was about twelve years old. I’m not sure who bought them, but one day I came home from school and my uncle who lived nearby was bottle-feeding a wobbly black and white calf in the barn. I was delighted, obviously, and quickly became attached to this baby animal who was as tall as me and his brother.

The number one rule you’re taught when you raise animals for meat is to never name them. When you name them, you get attached and you can’t be attached to an animal you’re going to eat one day. I always ignored that rule and named every animal I came across. These two calves quickly became known as Todd and Riley.

I spent a lot of time around Todd and Riley. Cows are some of the gentlest creatures on Earth and the worst harm they ever did to me was chewing a hole through one of my shirts. When they were young my siblings and I would take turns bottle feeding them and letting them suck on our hands with their giant slimy tongues, which was, frankly, the funniest thing in the world to us at the time.

As Todd and Riley got older, they were moved to the pasture to graze and I would stand outside the fence for hours watching them eat. I went into their pen sometimes to pet them, but they always wanted to play and even though they meant well, nothing is more terrifying than a 300-pound cow galloping towards you and eventually I chose to avoid the risk of being trampled.

As a child myself, I never thought Todd and Riley could do any harm, but they started to become a nuisance on the farm. We had an electric fence to keep them in the pasture and one day they decided the grass really was greener on the other side and walked straight through the shock of electricity without flinching. They also started to trample down garden fences and chicken wire, quite literally destroying anything in their path.

When they were almost a year old, my parents told me and my siblings that Todd and Riley would be saying goodbye to us soon. I can’t remember the exact conversation, but it must have been frank because I understood that in a few days someone would be coming to the farm to shoot Tood and take his body to a butcher’s shop for processing. Riley’s time would come a little later.

I was furious with my parents, but when you grow up on a farm and see animals killed for food regularly, you develop a certain desensitization to these things and I didn’t press it further. However, unlike my brothers who were thrilled at the idea of seeing a dead cow get cut open, I didn’t want to watch any of it and made a plan to be as far away as possible when it happened.

The day for us to say goodbye to Todd came and after giving him a hug I went back to my house across the pasture to hide away while the deed was performed. I heard the butcher truck come up the driveway and, living in a phone- and Netflix-less home, I decided to wash the dishes to distract myself. I figured the chore would be enough of an interference to avoid being a part of the inevitable and in a few minutes I could pretend nothing ever happened.

The kitchen window above the sink gave me a perfect view of the pasture and barn, but I assumed everything was going to happen out of sight. (I have to admit, I didn’t think things through very well at twelve years old.) I stood there quietly humming to myself and listening to the running water for what felt like a long time and when I was done with the dishes, I took off my gloves and laid them on the counter.

Then I looked up through the window, heard a gunshot, and saw Todd drop to the ground.

My jaw dropped with him and I stood there frozen. Todd was far enough away that I couldn’t see him now that he was on the ground, but I could not get the image of him falling out of my head.

I was furious with myself for being anywhere near a window and I was furious at my parents all over again for choosing to murder my dear friend Todd. I cried for the rest of the day and was convinced I’d never be happy again. This trauma would never leave me, I’d surely need therapy for the rest of my life, and I was never going to be the same.

Then, I went to bed. And the next morning, I felt completely fine. I missed Todd for a while but moved on and soon he became nothing more than a memory.

Since developing an anxiety disorder several years ago, I’ve been looking at my past and present life differently than I used to. I was thinking about Todd the other day and realized two things:

1. Sooner or later, we’re all going to see a cow get shot right in front of our eyes.

No matter how hard I try to avoid anxiety-inducing situations, they always seem to not only happen, but catch me off guard in the process.

It’s great to figure out your personal triggers and do your best to avoid them — that’s really the only way to survive, in my opinion. But when I’m doing my best to manage my anxiety and feel pretty good for a while, I tend to let my guard down and then I’m even more upset than usual when a major trigger strikes.

I’m not saying you should never get too comfortable when you have anxiety, just that you should always be aware of your triggers and accept the fact that surprises are always going to happen. That’s what’s necessary for me at least.

2. Hearts and minds are resilient.

After the incident with Todd, I thought I was going to be traumatized forever. I was furious and upset and sad and really thought that was going to stick with me for the rest of my life. But within a day, I was fine. (Looking back, it really wasn’t that traumatic of an experience, but at the time it felt that way!)

In no shape or form am I saying that everyone should heal from bad experiences overnight. Many people go through terribly traumatic and horrible events that can take years or even a lifetime to heal from. My point here is that you will heal. Something that feels like the end of the world will feel a little less so one day. Our hearts and minds are extremely resilient and powerful and capable of getting us through pretty much anything.

Things will get better and you will make it through.

Oh, and I also learned to wear headphones and hide in my room during butcherings after that.

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