Pit bulls do for Craig “Seven” Sexton what no human or drug can: they quiet his night terrors, ease his insomnia, and calm his social anxiety. It’s a trait Sexton discovered by accident.
Seven, 45, has been a sleepwalker since childhood. A pivotal moment occurred the summer after seventh grade. A blow to the head made Seven see auras and vomit repeatedly.
A doctor misdiagnosed the concussion as a bump on the head and sent him home to sleep it off. Meanwhile, a blood clot formed in Sexton’s brain, which eventually led to a cognitive disorder.
Before the head trauma, Seven was a top student enrolled in Advanced Placement classes. By the time he was a freshman in high school, Seven stopped being able to understand what he was reading.
“I listened to compensate,” he said. “Now I can read and comprehend, but it’s slow. What saved me was playing guitar and making music.”
Seven, a native Austinite, dropped out of Austin High School and began washing dishes at The Omelettry and playing music on the road. That’s when he realized the severity of his condition.
Sexton acts out what happens in his dreams. He often screams, punches, and wanders. After a bad episode, he wakes up in the street or strange places.
While on tour in Massachusetts in the 1990s, a band mate stopped Seven from exiting a third-story window. Another time, Seven tore a tent to pieces while out camping with a new girlfriend.
Night terrors and insomnia crippled Seven. Prescription drugs didn’t help as much as he hoped. “With drugs, there’s a barrier between me and my outside world,” Seven said. “I feel dead and numb.”
In 2002, Seven agreed to take care of a 3-month-old puppy a friend had rescued. The pit bull mix was in rough shape. Itchy scabs dotted the dog’s thin coat and she wasn’t terribly friendly with other animals.
Something about the dog won Seven’s heart. The mange healed and the two bonded. Seven called her Evita.
“She was a very intense, hyper-vigilant dog,” he said. “Evita was the exact opposite of what you’d think of as a family pet.”
He had to keep Evita away from other animals and she had terrible manners, but Seven felt at ease around her.
“I felt completely safe with her. No matter what was going on around me, I always felt like she was in my corner,” he said.
On a whim, Seven borrowed a friend’s video camera and set it up bedside to record his night terrors. What the camera recorded astonished him.
As Seven began to stir in his sleep, Evita would draw near. When he struggled against his dreams, she pressed her body into him and licked his face. Soon, the night terror would subside and Evita would settle again. The scene repeated several times during the night.
Evita intuitively comforted Seven while he was in distress.
“It wasn’t just a dog being friendly, it was consistent. It was this kind of wonderful accident,” he said. “I went to my doctor and asked ‘Will you prescribe my dog to me?’”
After taking drugs for 12 years, Seven showed his doctor the tape and within about a year had transitioned off drugs. Evita became a service animal.
“When I’m with my dog, I feel calmer and at ease,” he said. “She was, until the bitter end, my dog and my companion.”
Pit bulls have a distinguished history in the Sexton family. Seven’s grandfather, Robert Newton Sexton, kept pit bulls as family pets.
As an adult, Robert Newton piloted river boats along the San Antonio River in the 1930s. It wasn’t uncommon to find a squat, muscular dog nearby surveying the river. When Seven’s dad, Robert Barton Sexton, fell off a dock into the river in 1936, the family’s pit bull grabbed the youngster’s collar and kept him afloat until help arrived.
Seven also credits pit bulls for saving his life. They help him hold his head up when the suffocating pressures of anxiety flood his mind. Pit bulls also keep his wits sharp from the dulling effects of drugs.
From 2002 until May 2012, Evita was Seven’s constant companion. After the trip to the doctor that certified Seven to keep a dog with him at all times, she didn’t often leave his side.
Lymphoma took Evita’s strength and vigilance. She became unpredictable and even more reactive than usual. When her gait became too wobbly and her temperament too unstable, Seven cradled her as Beuthanasia ended her suffering.
“I was grieving Evita, reeling from the loss,” he said, “but I couldn’t function.”
Seven immediately returned to drug therapy to ward off the night terrors, insomnia, and crushing anxiety.
A dog to share with the world
An article Seven read about shelter dogs further depressed him. Bully breeds often make up the majority of dogs in shelters.
“I need to rescue one of these animals,” was all Seven could think.
It was difficult for Seven to accept dogs just like Evita were being destroyed on a regular basis but he planned to be more selective this time.
“I wanted a dog I could share with the world. Trainable, smart, and a dog I could love on,” he said. “I was willing to take the time it took, but I also needed a dog.”
That’s because Seven desperately wanted to be free of drugs. He made many appointments with area dog shelters to meet and assess dogs. Few had many of the qualities Seven wanted.
“I even looked at other breeds, but in my heart I kept coming back to a pit bull,”he said. “I was willing to wait as long as it took to find the right dog.”
When Seven met Roosevelt, formerly known as Max, at Town Lake Animal Center, he was there to see another dog called Jellybean. Jellybean was close to what Seven wanted, but a staffer suggested meeting another dog.
When Seven peered into the kennel, a black and white pit bull mix with an enormous head looked up at him with sad eyes. When Seven entered, the first thing the dog did was lick him. After a game of fetch in a nearby dog run, Seven returned to Jellybean.
Something called him back to the black and white pit bull with the sad eyes.
The dog was on death row. He had been at Town Lake Animal Center for more than five months, his second time at the shelter. Staff called eight times to ask his guardian to pick him up, but no one came.
Seven played with him again and slowly began to see each of the qualities he wanted. Upbeat, but not hyperactive, resilient, and calm. He knew he found his dog when it was time to leave the dog run: the canine deferred to Seven when they approached the gate.
“I don’t know what that guy was thinking,” Seven said about the person who refused to reclaim Roosevelt. “I feel like I hit the jackpot.”
Jellybean was later adopted by one of Seven’s friends. Watch a post-adoption video of Roosevelt and Jellybean playing.
From rescue to healing
Roosevelt is working toward passing the Canine Good Citizenship test, which is the first step to being certified by Love-A-Bull to be a member of The Pit Crew, the all-pit bull therapy dog group. He already has a head start.
Seven works as a nurse’s aide at Doug’s House, a Project Transitions facility that provides residential and supportive care in a homelike atmosphere with services designed to meet the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of people who are often poor or homeless and living in all stages of HIV and AIDS.
“Some people come there to die,” Seven said. “We want them to walk out the door, and many do, but there are also deaths.”
He performs much of the work associated with caring for people who are sick or dying: emptying bed pans, cooking breakfast to order, and offering company to those who spend their final moments at Doug’s House.
“We often have these intense conversations about death, drug use, and medical advocacy,” he said. “It can be depressing, but it can also be the most joyous place.”
A tradition at Doug’s House is to hold a life celebration when residents die. Family, friends, and staff release balloons in a color that represents their loved one. Seven recalls watching Roosevelt play with a child who held a light blue balloon.
Roosevelt also works at Doug’s House, originally to help keep Seven grounded, but it soon became clear Seven wasn’t the only one who benefited from the pit bull’s intuition.
The 2-year-old dog that bears a resemblance to the pit bull photographed with Seven’s toddling grandfather is trained to sit in a chair and wait for patients to come out and spend time with him. He often serves as a welcome distraction to visiting friends and family.
“I like the fact that other people can have him, feel him, and have an interaction that’s positive,” Seven said.
At home, Roosevelt follows Evita’s path. When Seven stirs in his sleep, Roosevelt leans in and comforts him. Unlike Evita, who stopped pressing when Seven stopped struggling, Roosevelt continues until Seven wakes up. Seven hopes to train Roosevelt to stop rousing him once the night terror subsides so he can continue sleeping.
“Sometimes it’s active and other times it’s passive, but I don’t tell him to do anything,” Seven said. “He’s just being himself.”
Filed under: Uncategorized