The goat became my charge during my third week in rehab. My counselor, Victoria, suggested I browse the stuffed-animal collection at the clinic gift shop and select one to represent my inner child. “Care for it,” she told me. “Keep it safe. Treat your inner child as you would a baby bird that’s fallen out of its nest.” She cupped her hands, as if to cradle a tiny chick.
The back corner of the clinic gift shop overflowed with stuffed toys to choose from: terry-cloth rabbits, deer with stiff legs, a brown-and-yellow duckling. I picked up the baby duck and gave it a squeeze. I looked into its button eyes. I tried to imagine myself, grown strong and capable, soaring high above the stagnant ponds and muck below. But I couldn’t see it. I was a land animal. Maybe lower, beneath the soil. I looked to see if they had any furry grubs or parasites. That’s when I saw the goat slouched at the back of the shelf. It was ridiculous and nothing like a baby bird, with its sagging potbelly and clumsy limbs filled with beans. A bleating, absurd trash eater. Yes. This animal was me.
Victoria told me my challenge was to tend to this stuffed goat with more care than I had shown myself. Easy, I said: Don’t feed it booze and pills. Don’t let it go home with strange men. There. I had aced treatment.
Victoria rolled her eyes. “It’s a symbol. It’s supposed to remind you not to abandon yourself.”
Abandonment. I’d heard that word over and over during my twenty-eight days. According to Victoria I’d been constantly abandoning myself: every time I took a drink, every time I bowed to my boyfriend’s twisted desires, every time I popped a pill, I’d been psychologically swaddling my inner child in a trash bag and dropping her in a dumpster. I wished Victoria had asked me to treat the goat as though it were my own child and not my inner child. The reason I was in rehab was because I didn’t really give a damn about myself. I was fiercely protective of my family and friends, but me? Eh.
It was not due to lack of love from others that I felt this way. When your parents are seated across from you in treatment, asking what they did wrong, it’s difficult to explain that the answer is nothing. There has never been a moment in my life when I didn’t know I was loved, but this wasn’t enough to keep me safe, or to keep me from lying to the doctor about a “lost” Vicodin prescription, or to keep me from splitting my boyfriend’s lip. It couldn’t keep the door locked when my roommate’s guest walked into my bedroom with his pants unzipped, yanked me up by my hair, and pushed my lips apart with his erection. It couldn’t ward off the day when I’d stood naked before a rehab nurse with my arms raised as she’d studied my nails, my breasts, my thighs, the webbing between my fingers for signs of self-harm. It couldn’t make me leave the boyfriend who told me guys weren’t supposed to fall in love with girls like me, just fuck them. It couldn’t make me love myself.
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