It was only after I spent time with wolves that I began to feel human again.
I was attacked and raped when I was 19, during my second semester of college. I developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had nightmares and panic attacks all the time. The rape happened in a car, so I avoided driving — and leaving the house in general — as much as I could. I ended up dropping out of college.
I had always had a phobia of vomiting and germs, but it got much worse, and by the time I was 21 I had become a complete germophobe. I was terrified that anything I ate could make me sick.
I was nauseated all the time. I would cut down on food because I felt sick. Then I wouldn't be sure whether I was nauseated or hungry, so I would default to nauseated and eat less. It was a terrible cycle — everything in my life revolved around food. I lost 30 pounds. At my lowest, I weighed 94 pounds. (I'm 5-foot-7.)
My life was cut into two parts: before the rape and after the rape. It set off a chain of destructive events that transformed me into a person I didn't recognize. Before the rape, I cared about people and wanted to help them. But after the rape, I became this very dark, angry, and self-destructive person. I was so depressed and anxious, and being surrounded by triggers made it so much worse.
On the rare occasion I actually went outside and drove, I'd usually have a panic attack. Being near the police station where I had reported the rape or even just driving down a road that looked similar to the route my attacker took would trigger terrible flashbacks. It was a battle just to get to the end of each day.
At the same time, I knew I was lucky: I sought treatment from a great therapist, my family was wonderful, and my boyfriend at the time was incredibly supportive.
Raised (Up) by Wolves
It was a total coincidence that I ended up visiting my cousin's wolf sanctuary. She had just opened it with her husband and I remember thinking, 'I love animals, why not go see it?' My family has always been a little eccentric, so it wasn't out of the ordinary to go meet some wolves.
That first day, I stepped right into the enclosure with a wolf standing on the other side. I felt an immediate sense of calm. Before that moment, I had been constantly reliving the past in the present. I was obsessively aware of all the things that could harm me. But in the enclosure with the wolf, my brain had a chance to focus on one "real" threat — all the potential triggers faded away.
I wasn't scared. It was more a feeling of uncertainty — wolves are really skittish. And it wasn't like this 90-pound animal was running up to greet me.
But at that moment, I knew this needed to be a major part of my life. I brought it up with my therapist: 'I met this wolf, I felt so calm.' He suggested I bring a journal with me the next time I went to see the wolves and record how I was feeling. So every time I went to the sanctuary (about once a month), I'd write down what I was thinking and bring it back to discuss with my therapist.
After a while, my therapist suggested I try a mindfulness practice while I was around the wolves. He told me to repeat affirmations: 'I'm safe.' 'I'm here.' 'This wasn't your fault.' 'You didn't ask for this.' Being able to say these things helped me first process and then accept what had happened to me. I wasn't stuck in that endless loop of fear, rage, and sorrow anymore.
Licking My Wounds
I was starting to feel better. The PTSD had lessened and the flashbacks and nightmares were less frequent. So, in 2014, my fiancé and I decided to move to New Hampshire to work at a wolf sanctuary. We lived in a 200-square-foot cabin and I spent all of my time with the wolves and wolf dogs.
And another unexpected thing happened: My germ phobia started to lessen the more time I spent with the wolves. Wolves greet each other by licking each other's teeth, so when I was in an enclosure with them they would want to lick my teeth. It's a diss not to let them do that, so I found myself doing it — I had already put so much energy into bonding with them — even though I knew they ate raw meat and chewed on dirt.
It's still kind of incredible to me: I'd gone from having an all-consuming fear of putting contaminated food in my mouth to letting wild animals lick my teeth! If that's not a breakthrough, I don't know what is.
I think I was just living in the moment. For me, at least, when I get caught up in anxiety or when I have time to dwell on something, that's when the fear comes back. But when a wolf comes toward you, you don't have a chance to think, 'Be careful, you might get sick!' It was more instinct than anything else.
We ended up spending a year and a half at the sanctuary. Now we're back in California and this has become my life's work: My fiancé and I are starting a sanctuary that focuses on mental health and connecting therapists with animal sanctuaries.
I never thought I'd be on the road I'm on right now. Yet it feels so tailor-made and destined. The first time I spoke publicly about this on an online women's forum, I got so much feedback — I suddenly felt I had a purpose and a drive. I knew that if this had helped me so much, it could help others.
When I think back to the younger version of me, I remember being such a little diva. Now I spend my days constantly covered in mud with these animals. It's such a departure, but I'm so happy and I'm so grateful. I found 'wolf therapy' by chance. I know now that it's effective. It shouldn't be just by a stroke of luck that someone can find healing, so I plan to share it with the world.