Patience is a Mental Health Challenge

Partner (detaching a cat from his shoulder after she had climbed him, lost purchase, and ended up digging in her claws to stay on him at all): “Trauma Kitty, you were doing so well just sitting in my arms. But, for some reason, you have the instinct that when things are scary you need to climb up even higher to be safe. And, now you are less safe. Because this t-shirt is thin and I’m going to just have to take you right back down even lower onto my lap than you started from. Learn to quit while you’re ahead.”

Trauma Kitty tolerates this exchange and cradles her head in Partner’s arms on his lap. 

Random Neighbor (watching this exchange): “That cat is so patient! I’ve never seen a cat act like that before! She’s so calm! She’s not even trying to escape or fight you at all!” 

Partner: “She’s always like this. The outside world is scary. She wants no part of it without a human to protect her.”

Random Neighbor: “Always? Does this [a fire that forced the complex to evacuate] happen a lot here? We just moved in three days ago…”

Lavender: “Oh, no, actually! We’ve only had two fires in the roughly year we’ve been here. And, I heard the fireman say this one didn’t even do any real damage. We’re just out here while they vent some of the smoke from the unit.”

Random Neighbor (concerned): “Two fires in a year seems like a lot…”

Lavender: “No, we’ve been in a fair number more every other place we’ve lived. This is nothing! This wasn’t a real *fire* fire. The last one here was our only ‘real’ fire, and even that one wasn’t bad. We were only a few doors down from it. The sprinklers went off and soaked that unit all the way through, but nothing else got damaged. We didn’t even notice the smoke that much, really, afterward. At least outside the hallways. Whereas this one place in [another state we lived in] we had this really bad fire where…”

Partner (cuts Lavender off before she can describe any more about the ‘real’ fires we’ve been in): “What my wife is trying to say is that we’ve lived in places where this does happen ‘a lot,’ and this isn’t one of them. This incident isn’t really a ‘fire,’ so much as an abundance of caution on the part of the fire department. Some charred food that flared up in the unit and smoked things out a bit. That’s it. Nothing to worry about. This complex is very safe, and we think you’ll enjoy living here.”

Random Neighbor: “Well, nice to meet you. That’s a very cute cat you’ve got there, and she’s really a trooper, it seems like. Sounds like you, er, tend to have bad luck with these things.”

Our cat isn’t really “patient.” She is just really terrified of the world beyond our apartment.

Anytime she is forced into the real world, she clings to my Partner, shivers, and occasionally tries to climb onto his shoulder and bury her head in his neck to avoid having to see anything in the world around her. She used to be so afraid of leaving the apartment that she would flee to the most obnoxious corners possible whenever she heard the complex fire alarm. It got to the point that we actually chose our bed frame specifically on the grounds that it didn’t have any open space underneath it to retreat to. We got so tired of having to throw over our furniture when our neighbors inevitably caught their places on fire that “inaccessible to our cat” became our primary design criterion. 

She now simply freezes, waits to be put in her carrier when the alarm goes off, and knows that she will be rewarded for trusting her humans in the initial evacuation by being let out of her box to bury herself behind her human shields once she’s “outside.” She seems to subscribe to the “if I remain within physical proximity of at least one human at all times, the scary things can’t hurt me” philosophy. 

She still has little kitty nightmares for about a week after each outdoor excursion. And, she becomes even more ‘clingy’ than normal. (It is incredibly awkward when your cat follows you into the bathroom demanding you hold her while you do your business!)

If “most anxious” can be considered the same as “most patient,” then she really is one of the most patient cats you’ll ever meet. But, given she also is bright enough that she learned if she just knocked over her water bowl and meowed loudly enough while I was on Zoom meetings that nobody could take it anymore, I would have to go give her clean, fresh, water right then, you will all forgive me if I don’t tend to think of “patience” as one of her virtues?    

Her trust in us might seem absolute to a stranger watching her shivering in my Partner’s arms in the big, scary, outside world. But, it isn’t actually absolute. 

She was severely starved and had been physically abused when I first got her. She has never entirely gotten over that legacy. In the very first few days that I had her, I discovered she was both untrusting enough that if she didn’t have a visible self-feeder containing at least a month’s worth of food, she would assume I was going to starve her, and she was simultaneously bright enough to open up whatever cabinets or closets were necessary to get at food herself when necessary. She didn’t even want to eat that food. She just wanted to know she could get at it if she had to. When I eventually resorted to just setting out a giant dry food bag on the floor of the kitchen – where she could easily see it – she calmed down, self-regulated and never actually overate. I kept that giant bag of kibble on the floor of my kitchen for months until I eventually got her an official prescription for kitty Prozac prescribed by a fancy university veterinary behaviorist.

She used to be terribly stressed by us traveling for all of the same reasons. But, over the years, since we both did it frequently, she had established a rhythm. So long as we introduced her to each new pet sitter personally before the first trip, and we left her big bag of dry food out where it was visible to her – as per those very first days after I got her – she was always very patient. Pet sitters routinely leave us notes saying she’s the most affectionate cat they’ve ever met.

We had one hiccup in our very early years of traveling wherein I had to go to the 9th Circle of Hell on the spur of the moment, without having pre-booked sitter services. I texted her regular sitter, and she confirmed that she could watch her for emergency services and would let herself in. (I had to leave before we could even do our ordinary pre-trip in-person check-in.) I left the check on the counter for the sitter (who had a standing key to our place) as per normal. When I returned home after four days, I found that check still on the counter. The pet sitter claimed she had come by each day, and that she had just forgotten to take her paycheck. I was…skeptical…to say the least. Mostly because – though Trauma Kitty was never in any real danger during those four days because of that aforementioned big visible bag of open dry food, her month’s worth of dry food in her self-feeder, and her month’s worth of self-dispensing water – Trauma Kitty had taken things into her own paws. 

When I returned, I discovered Trauma Kitty had painstakingly gathered up and stored little piles of food all over the apartment. Presumably as ‘bolt holes’ in case that aforementioned bounty of food that would have kept her fed for a month was somehow taken away. I found little piles of kibble on the top of the refrigerator, behind my bed, etc. Trauma Kitty had – presumably a couple of pieces at a time – made her neat little piles as insurance should she ever do without again.

Even though – as a girl with trust issues herself – I learned from that one potential original absence of a pet sitter to demand time-stamped pictures of our cat each day we are on vacation ever after, Trauma Kitty kept making her piles the next couple of times I left. But, she had gotten over that years ago, or so we thought. She again trusted us completely to care for her while we traveled. 

Which meant it actually kind of hurt when we traveled again last Christmas on our first international trip after two years of going almost nowhere (because Hell had drained our finances.) 

I mean, seriously, cat! You’ve been with me for almost a decade! You’ve never gone hungry even once in the time you’ve been with me! Shouldn’t that have earned me at least a little stored-up good faith?!

Nope. Of course not. Because PTSD sucks in pet form, too. 

PTSD trust is always tentative trust, and one change in the expected “pattern” can undo everything.

Travel regularly? Trauma kitty will get used to it and have multiple recent instances of being safely cared for by pet sitters to draw upon to self-regulate.

Don’t travel for almost two years, and then travel again? It’s panic time! 

Because – despite the dozens of times that her humans not being around has just meant a stranger played with her for a couple of days to a couple of weeks – letting enough time go by such that it felt like a break in the humans’ “pattern” for them to travel again suddenly meant none of those times counted. Suddenly, the only possible explanation for the absence of her two humans must be that they have left her forever, and that she’s going to starve to death in our apartment. 

Time to hoard food again for desperation times…

We returned home to “find” kibble piles the hard way. (And by “find” I mean “not expect her to do that anymore, so not think to check on top of the fridge until we wondered what was drawing in ants…”)

So if, heaven forbid, shortly after that single solitary international trip, there happens to be a global pandemic?

Such that no one can go anywhere outside of the house for months afterward?

Until trauma kitty comes to assume that having both of her humans with her 24/7 is her new normal forever? 

Then those same two humans will be forced to turn the house upside down after one mini-vacation to make sure they find all the kibble! 

Because, seriously, PTSD sucks. And, trust issues run deep. 

To our neighbors, Trauma Kitty is the most adorable kitty they will ever meet. (Which, to be fair, she also absolutely is! She may not always be patient with us when she actually feels “safe.” And, she may be entirely too smart for her own good. So smart that I could – and maybe will someday – start an entire blog series devoted to “did my cat really just figure out how to do that?!” But, yes, she absolutely is the most adorable cat you will ever meet. I want so badly to put her picture up on this blog, but, uh, anonymity and all that good stuff…)

When else have you ever heard of a cat who will simply waits “patiently” (i.e., frozen in terror huddling against her human for emotional support) outside of her box while fire trucks roll up with their sirens flashing, dogs on leashes nearby bark loudly, and strange humans keep walking up to get a closer look at her? 

They call it ‘patient.’ We know it’s code for “truly believes that unless she is literally attached to a human at all times, she presumes she will be left ‘outside’ again someday…” 

So, in case anyone with PTSD – especially PTSD from relational abuse and/or past abandonment – has been feeling bad lately that they still have periods years later wherein they completely wig out and start questioning whether those few humans who have been (genuinely) patient with them seemingly “forever” will still be there in the long run, take some comfort from Trauma Kitty’s actions. 

Because if a cat with PTSD can still wig out after a decade of being safe and cared for and start deciding she needs to prepare for imminent abandonment, then those feelings probably really are biologically based trauma responses. Not something you can just will away through sheer self-discipline. 

But, simultaneously, if you happen to be one of those “(genuinely) patient” other humans of one of those traumatized people with PTSD, I understand why sometimes it still feels personal when us traumatized folks still seem to question everything about the relationship even years later. I kind of also get why – even though you probably know, intellectually, that we can’t help it – it still hurts when you feel like you’ve done everything possible to get us to trust you and we still keep a part of ourselves back. 

I feel that pain, too. Because, I have to admit – even though it’s completely illogical – it kind of hurts when my cat cuddles up to me for reassurance the week after a “fire” while I also know that the next couple of trips we make she’ll also still keep making her little piles of “I’m all alone in the world and I can only rely upon myself” kibble. Looking at Trauma Kitty’s little kibble piles, I can also kind of see the other side of the hurt and shame that a good human feels when their creature keeps on creating backup plans for when they are inevitably abandoned again. It sucks. I don’t have an easy solution, but I get that it sucks. 

Trauma Kitty is still in her post-outdoors “clingy” stage as I write this. She’s curled up on my lap asleep. Because that not-even-worth-mentioning-fire was this week. And, she’ll need to remain attached to her humans at all times while asleep for at least a few more days to ward off nightmares. I’m glad that works for her. 

But, call it a PSA from the animal world. Years of cuddles don’t fully erase abandonment issues. It sucks to feel unable to do anything definitive than “cuddle” to undo someone – or some cat’s – past. Just like it sucks to have had a past that needs to be undone in the first place. 

Be “patient” with yourselves, everyone!

Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms.

2 thoughts on “Patience is a Mental Health Challenge

  1. “if you happen to be one of those “(genuinely) patient” other humans of one of those traumatized people with PTSD, I understand why sometimes it still feels personal when us traumatized folks still seem to question everything about the relationship even years later. I kind of also get why – even though you probably know, intellectually, that we can’t help it – it still hurts when you feel like you’ve done everything possible to get us to trust you and we still keep a part of ourselves back.”

    This resonated so hard that i had to take a moment.
    I love how you framed this in the story of a kitty.
    Great piece – will read again.

    Like

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