Tag Archives: cat

Lessons from the PTSD cat

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.


Speaking to beauty

Before I even met her, I was told what a grumpy face she had. Photos bore the observations out, although the bad haircut really didn’t help. A haircut that undermined all scope for dignity, combined with a grumpy face – so easy to make a joke or two at her expense. Meeting her confirmed the impression, although she was also clearly shy and wary of people. I didn’t know her name, but I called her ‘grumpy cat’ and said it warmly, and she came to me, and we made friends.

The next time I saw her, I simply said ‘hey, grumpy cat!’ and she ran to me, purring. I think she’d remembered. She’d been climbing about under vehicles, not grooming herself, I asked for a brush, but apparently her brush had been taken, along with her litter tray, dry bed (a waterlogged cat bed remained) and scratching post. She was not in a good way, and with the nights getting colder, I could not bear to leave her living outside. We made a snap decision and asked if we could take her home. The chap she had been left with had said he couldn’t really take her in because he’s hugely allergic to her. A situation desperately unfair on both of them.

I brought her home, and started calling her ‘beautiful cat’ and asserting that in there somewhere, she was almost certainly a princess. I don’t go in for monarchy amongst humans, but it’s a whole other thing with cats. We groomed her – a vast amount in those first days, but only a little bit each day since as she’s become keen on washing herself. As her eyes became less sore, it became obvious that some of her facial expressions had been due to sore eyes all along. As a half Persian, half Rag Doll, she needs her face washing pretty regularly. You can learn a lot with a search engine about how to take care of a cat.

The change in her face was rapid. She can be a really smiley cat now. She beams at us, with big, open eyes, and a cheerful expression on her cute little face. We tell her she is adorable, and charming, and all things of that ilk, and she basks in the praise.

How much language any given creature understands, is difficult to judge. They certainly learn key words at great speed – Vet, food, out, and the like. Tones of voice are very important in animal communications – they hear warmth and ridicule, certainly. Given the speed with which grumpy cat stopped being grumpy cat and started being beautiful princess cat, I have to wonder how much difference our words have been making to her. It probably also helps that we don’t shout at her, we reward good behaviour and generally make life easy. She’s pretty chilled out, and that too has an impact on the grumpy face.

Of course in humans, the effect of language tends to be much more immediate and pronounced even than this. Especially in children. It’s so easy to tell a child who they are, what they look like and what, if anything, they are good for. The child who is a beautiful princess for whom everything must be perfect has a very different life from the child who is an ugly waste of space. Not just because of the power of the words over the child, but because of the power of the words over the person speaking them. We talk ourselves into a certain relationship with reality.

Perhaps in part I see her as a beautiful cat because I have chosen to recognise what is lovely in her. My words have consequences for me. And so I am blessed by having this lovely, gentle, generous, well behaved little creature in my life, and cannot recognise in her the grumpy, messy, angry creature I’d heard about. Changing the language won’t always change reality to this degree, but it makes it a good deal easier to alter relationships and behaviour and that can have enormous consequences.


Tales of a cat

10347718_736056113125649_1543153868636724075_nI had thought today I would be writing an elegy for a much loved cat. It is not quite as I had anticipated.

Mr Cat, also known sometimes as Mason Rumblepurr and a whole host of other titles, gave up on being a corporeal cat last week, having had several strokes. He was nearly 17 and had lived a good life. He came to me aged ten, from a happy home because his people were emigrating. He travelled with me, to cottage, narrowboat and finally this flat. He loved boat life, and was happiest there with the woodstove and an abundance of opportunities for sunbathing, and beating up dogs. He was a glorious and eccentric cat, partial to chilli, and with a veritable fetish for balls of wool. He was excellent company; a friendly chap who regularly won hearts.

And at this point, I was expecting to say how much we are going to miss him.

To miss something, you need to feel its absence. He was such a strong presence, and he remains that. What we have instead is the strange journey of coming to terms with a physical absence, along with a keen sense that we remain a family of four, one of whom is just a bit less tangible than previously.

I have no coherent stories about what happens when we die. I have a suspicion that it isn’t a single event, just as being born means very different things for different people. Perhaps death is as individual as life. I hope so.