I’ve been living with this cat for about six months now, and she’s taught me a lot about fear, and about healing. She’s a long haired kitty, and when she first came to us, the sight of a pair of scissors made her panic. She gets tufts and knots, and she sheds a lot of fur so sometimes a little cutting out is in order. At first she fought us, clearly really distressed by any attempt at tidying her up. Even in the first few weeks we saw a lot of changes, as she became less fearful. We weren’t hurting her, and that knowledge started to replace the evident fear that she would be hurt. We used cat treats and fuss to reinforce the idea that she’s safe, and all is well, and she’s responded to this.
She’s evidently anxious about being left. Early on we had frantic responses to absence – and we’re talking a few hours here. She’s usually waiting by the door when we come in, although she’s calmer about it than she used to be. We never leave her unattended for long enough to cause her physical problems, but even without knowing her history, I could easily infer that she has abandonment issues.
At the moment, we’re working on going outside. She’s been indoors for six months, and I know before I got her she’d lived outside for months. She’s clearly afraid of going out – she seems anxious either that she won’t be able to get back in, or that she’s being kicked out. I take her to the front door, and open it. The first few times she just ran away. She’s now venturing to stand there and look outside. Treats and cuddles for positive reinforcement always follow, and I think by the summer she might be ready to sit out in the sun.
I can’t reason with her or tell her she should feel differently – she’s a cat. The only way to overcome her fear and help her live a fuller cat life, is to help her feel safe and secure and in control. She doesn’t have to go out, she can come back at any time, she won’t be hurt with scissors, she won’t be left for extended periods. The only way to have her feel this is to keep presenting her with a safe, supportive environment and wait for her to learn to trust this.
I think about my own patterns of damage and healing and the parallels are obvious. No one has ever helped me by telling me my reactions are wrong, or that I am silly. I’ve not coped when new situations seem to mirror old ones. It has taken time, patience and learning to trust a new environment to get me not to panic as much. With me it isn’t scissors and the front door, but the patterns are the same.
When fear becomes your state of being, it isn’t a consciously held thing, and it can’t readily be reasoned with. Learned fear is a body thing, an issue of the animal self, and if we want to heal ourselves or other people who are damaged by fear, then we have to heal them as creatures first and foremost. A safe space and the time to relearn how to feel safe is essential. Damaged people need the same patience that rescue dogs do. The only way to break the conditioned responses to the past (cowering before the dangerous scissors) is to replace it with a different reality (after the pain-free scissors, the treats). Recovery is so much easier when someone is holding that safe space for you, and healing is so much more viable when it isn’t a solo project.