Saving Each Other

Cate Triola with Riley, center. Courtesy photo.

When I moved out of my parents’ home, I moved into my fiancé’s house. I went from one fully furnished home to another.

My fiancé ended up being abusive. In his home, I did not have much room for the few possessions I owned. The only things I brought with me were my books and my clothes, and even that felt like too much for him. He started encouraging me to reduce my wardrobe. I did, because I liked the idea of being a minimalist. I noticed, though, that he had things everywhere, and my possessions were disappearing.

After we bought a home, and I put down half the payment, it still felt like his home. I wanted something more that was mine. I asked him if we could get a dog and he said yes. That is how I met Riley.

Riley was born in September 2014. I rescued him in March 2015. The shelter did not know much about his first six months of life. They only knew that he was found in an empty, foreclosed house, slightly underweight and looking like he had never had a bath. He was afraid of shoes and boxes. I think to him it meant I might leave and never come back.

Even so, he was vibrant. He loved everything and everyone. We became inseparable.

In addition to emotional abuse I was suffering from my fiancé, I was recovering from the death of my brother. My therapist says that when you lose someone to suicide, even if you have never been suicidal, it suddenly becomes a plausible option. There was a long period of time when I wanted to be dead too.

One evening when I came home from a rough day, to a house with no fiancé, only Riley, I laid on the couch, not really wanting to exist. Riley laid with me. He just wanted to be there with me, soaking up some of the awful.

We laid like that for hours until he reminded me, “Mom, I need to pee.” Just like that, I was reminded that my life had purpose. He needed me as much as I needed him.

If my fiancé had abused Riley, I would have left sooner. Sometimes it is much easier to be outraged by someone else’s victimhood than your own.

I stayed with my fiancé for 16 months. I was doing what my mother told me to do, looking for the life I was told to want. I had a fiancé, a house, a stepson, and a dog. I would have had a child after we got married, because that is what people do.

Yet, I wanted more. When my abuser told me that he did not want me to take a promotion at work, I woke up. I started noticing what was happening, how he blamed me for everything, how he made me feel small, how he told me no one else would ever be able to put up with me.

He threw things at the wall when he was angry, which I found out later is not only abusive, but it can be legally considered assault. I tried to make him see what he was doing to me, but it only made it worse. I started making plans to leave.

When I left, I took the dog. I did not want the house, and legally, I could not take the child. So, I saved everything I could — Riley and myself.

Six months later, we saw my abuser again. Riley made it very clear that he did not want him near me. One night, when I brought home a man who got too handsy even after I said no, Riley stepped in.

After I moved to Minnesota, my husband and I bought a house. Riley no longer panics when I put on shoes. Instead, he jumps around and races to the door. When I am sick or have a bad dream, Riley lays with me. When he is afraid during a thunderstorm, I lay with him. Riley has no idea that there is a pandemic, which makes it easier for me to forget after I come home from a long day on the frontline.

My depression gave way to post-traumatic stress disorder, which gave way to an intense year of therapy that I could not have gotten through without my mostly furry family.

When I met my husband, he was escaping an abusive relationship too. Riley teaches us what it is like to be truly and unconditionally loved. It has helped us love our dogs and each other in a way that we did not experience in past relationships.

I am still a work in progress, but I am not alone, and neither is Riley.

Cate Triola (she/her) is a librarian and storyteller. She lives in St. Paul with her husband and two dogs.