Discover more from Sarah Fay
🎧You Feel Painful Emotions
If you’re enjoying ‘Cured’ and support my writing, consider becoming a paid subscriber. Your paid subscription allows me to bring my work to readers around the world.
🎧 Listen to Sarah read this installment of Cured:
The cat behaviorist and I are on Zoom. He has scraggly blonde hair. Both of his ear lobes have stretched piercings, leaving two enormous holes. I explain my kitten Zosi’s most recent nighttime attack.
Zosi is the kitten I’ve adopted from a breeder who lied about her age—she was much younger than eight weeks, the appropriate time for a kitten to be taken from her mother, though some feel it should be more like twelve weeks—and didn’t socialize her properly.
“It sounds like mild play aggression,” he says.
Mild? Play aggression?
He clears his throat. “You’d be surprised. I’ve seen severe aggression in cats, but this sounds fairly common.”
Common? I tell him she’s attacking me when I sleep.
“You’re her only playmate. She thinks you’re the one to entice to play.”
Entice to play?
With Zosi, I’m sinking—or I think I am, falling back into serious mental illness if that’s even possible. It seemed I’d healed, but she’s brought back all the familiar darkness and agitation and even suicidality.
A kitten. I’m blaming a kitten.
He says, “You probably want to get another cat.”
I do not want to get another cat. I have a cat—Zosi—and it isn’t going well.
“You could foster. Just keep the kitten in the bathroom and when…”
He goes on, but I don’t hear him. Zosi is scratching at the bathroom door. Within minutes, there’s a banging sound. She’s throwing herself against the door to get out.
“There’s hope,” he says.
The pit in my stomach vanishes. Hope—the one thing I wasn’t given during the twenty-five years in the mental health system. Clinicians told me my diagnoses were forever.
“Once she’s spayed, her behavior and personality will change. She’ll calm down a lot.”
Soon. Soon, it will all be fine.
The night Zosi spends at the vet for observation after her spay surgery I lie in bed, my eyes heavy with sleep. It’s blissful and filled with guilt. No gate is up because no kitten will hurdle it and jump on the bed and wait for the right moment to pounce on my arms or if my arms are tucked under the covers, my face. I try not to think about the Reddit thread in which more than one avatar described how their kittens became more aggressive after being spayed or neutered.
The sodden pit in my stomach twists.
It’s unfair and wrong to wish she won’t come back, but I do. I want it the next morning when my father drives me to pick her up. He wears his yellow baseball hat and a windbreaker. His voice is jovial, but his eyes droop. It crushes me to know that he’s eighty, and I missed all those years of knowing him when I was sick.
I ask if he’s tired. He shakes his head.
We drive. Finally, I say, “I don’t know what to do.”
“About?” my father asks.
“Zosi.” At a stoplight, I push up my sleeves and show him my forearms. The backs of my hands are bitten and scratched too.
He raises his eyebrows. “Well, you can’t keep living like that.”
A rush of relief fills me. It’s not me. I’m not getting sick. I’m having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and I can’t keep living like this.
Inside the vet, the tech brings Zosi into the examination room in the carrier. Zosi is floppy as the tech pulls her out. Her eyes are glazed over. She can’t stand up.
In a sweet, high-pitched voice—an animal lover’s voice—the tech says that Zosi’s still affected by the anesthesia. “She’s doing really well, though.”
Around Zosi’s neck is an inflatable collar to prevent her from biting the stitches. I bought it instead of using the cone the vet gives because the internet said an inflatable collar was more comfortable.
The vet comes in and explains how to inject the pain reliever into Zosi’s gums and what to watch for in terms of the stitches and the wound. The vet points at the inflatable collar. “Is that yours?”
The vet slips Zosi into the carrier and zips it shut. “All right. If that’s what you want to use.”
When we return to the car, my father is asleep in the driver’s seat, his head hunched over. I open the passenger-side door and sit with the carrier on my lap. He opens his eyes. “Dad, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he says, “I’m fine.”
At home, once Zosi stumbles out of the carrier, she comes to her senses enough to writhe on the carpet and kick and paw at the inflatable collar. Like a feline Houdini, she’s out of it in less than sixty seconds.
I call my father, who hasn’t even made it home yet. We return to the vet. Zosi is placed in the usual cone, which makes her look like a Nordic Episcopalian priest.
At home, Zosi wobbles and plays with the water in her bowl like a college kid tripping on LSD.
I sit on the couch. She comes over. I pick her up and rest her on my chest, where she sleeps on and off for the next few hours. She’s a different cat—all cuddles and sweetness. Not once does she bite. The spaying worked.
It isn’t until I inject the first dose of painkiller that I realize the spaying didn’t work; she was just high. There’s a crushing weight on my chest.
I’m trying to develop what the neuroscientist and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, who runs the Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University, calls “high emotional granularity.” High emotional granularity is the (enviable) ability to identify and name your emotions; low granularity means trying to name your emotions is like throwing darts at a wall without knowing what to aim at. People with high emotional granularity have more resilience. They can distinguish between disappointment and despondency. But at that moment, looking at Zosi, I still can’t.
What happens next happens in a blur. A few weeks later, while trying to leave the house, I carry Zosi as she bites me—teeth to skin—to the bathroom. I close the door before she can come at me again. Then I lean against it and cry.
Next thing I know I’m at dinner with my mother, sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew at a neighborhood restaurant.
Next thing I know I’m walking home, the wind encompassing me, the swirling blackness about to swallow me.
Next thing I know I’m on my walk the next morning, my phone in hand. I reach the end of the path and unlock my phone. My finger hovers above the screen. I tap Post. Within minutes, people are DM’ing me wanting to know more about Zosi or saying they’ll take her outright.
I only asked about rehoming her and already it’s in play.
A woman named Rachel is persistent without being annoying. She and her partner Jeff live in Milwaukee. They have two other cats—Thalia and Saki. A third died not too long ago; they’re ready to add to their family.
Can we come to Chicago to meet Zosi? she writes. Tonight?
I type, Yes and give them my number and address.
By early evening, Rachel and Jeff are at my apartment building and have called to say they’re looking for a parking spot. I haven’t disclosed the details of Zosi’s attacks but should have. Once I do, I know they won’t want her. They’ll have driven here for nothing.
Zosi is in a rare, calm state. I explain to her that people are coming to visit. When I open the apartment door, she goes out in the hallway and sits in front of the elevator as if waiting for them to arrive.
“You want to go with them?” I ask her.
She turns, glances at me, and turns back to the elevator.
As Rachel and Jeff step off, Zosi dashes back into the apartment. We go in after her.
Rachel has curly grey hair and an angelic face. Jeff wears glasses and is the quiet, laid-back type, the kind of man even the most hardened kittens and puppies probably flock to.
I ask if they’d like something to drink. They decline. I invite them to sit on the couch. They sit on the floor, which is precisely what knowledgeable cat people would do.
Zosi comes out. Jeff dazzles her with a wand toy, moving it in sweeping arcs. Rachel coos to Zosi in the sweetest voice.
After praising Zosi’s litterbox skills, I admit to her aggression. “She attacks me at night.”
Rachel nods and smiles. “I understand.”
I apologize for not telling them the extent of it.
Rachel continues to smile, then turns her attention back to Zosi, who’s slinking around her, her tail low and wary. Rachel reaches out her hand. Zosi hisses at her. “It’s okay,” Rachel coos, unfazed. “It’s okay, sweet thing.”
Rachel says, “I don’t know how you feel—or if you’re ready—but we can take her. We have a carrier in the car.”
“If you’re ready,” Jeff says.
“I’m sure it’s hard,” Rachel says. “We’ll love her very much.”
Then I’m moving around the apartment, gathering Zosi’s food and toys, getting out the carrier, and overexplaining Zosi’s diet and habits and when and how she likes to play.
Zosi lets me pick her up. She allows me to hold her. I kiss and cuddle her, explaining that she’ll have such good parents and two cat sisters. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I don’t want to let her go. When I bring her to the carrier, she practically hops in.
Then they’re gone. Pressure fills my chest, and my eyes tear up. Grief? Sadness?
I can’t move quickly enough—first, her litter box, then the cat houses and toys Rachel and Jeff didn’t take. All of it goes in the dumpster downstairs. It’s wasteful. Even after all traces of Zosi are gone, the pressure and tears are still there. Soon, I’m sobbing. It’s scary. I’m getting sick again. I can’t handle this. I have no right to cry.
A text comes in from Rachel. They’re out of the city and on their way home. Zosi’s doing fine, sitting on my lap, dozing.
Sitting on her lap? Out of the carrier? Dozing?
That’s wonderful, I type. I’m so glad.
Soon, I’m walking the streets fast, then jogging along the sidewalk under street lamps, as if I could outrun how terrible I feel.
The next few weeks are filled with videos from Rachel and Jeff documenting Zosi’s transition. One video is of her in their bathroom—a much larger bathroom than mine with windows. Zosi attacks a wand toy as Rachel coos in the background, “Good girl.” Rachel texts that Zosi is a “busy bee.” Photos arrive: Zosi on the windowsill, Zosi in the bathtub, Zosi sitting on the toilet seat.
I haven’t been sleeping and have been drinking coffee. Popcorn has become the staple of my diet. I know that sleep and not having caffeine and eating well are crucial to my being well, but I’m trying to block out the pressure and tears that come, even though these are misguided ways to do so.
Hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion determine what researchers call affect or mood. It’s the overall condition we live in during our waking hours and regulate our mental and emotional lives. It’s categorized by unpleasant or pleasant and calm or wound up. Imbalances in the body—of glucose, water, and salt—dictate what end of the spectrum we’re on in terms of feeling generally pleasant or unpleasant and where we fall in terms of calm or agitated. If our bodies are always out of whack, we exist in unpleasant or agitated, which makes us vulnerable to depression, anxiety, even psychosis.
Because I have no emotional granularity, I get confused and call what I’m feeling regret. I must want Zosi back. Twice, I go online and look at car reservations, planning how I’ll get to Milwaukee. It will be simple: I’ll just tell Rachel and Jeff that I made a mistake.
“You don’t want her back,” my mother says on the phone one morning. “Don’t you remember that she attacked you?”
Texts come with updates: Zosi went around the house for the first time; Zosi sat on Jeff’s lap. Maybe I made a mistake.
My chest tightens.
A few nights later, Rachel sends a video of Zosi and Thalia playing in a cat tunnel together. I wake at three in the morning with the sodden pit and traces of panic lining my edges. What is this? Anguish? Sadness? Grief? Depression?
I sit on my balcony until the sun comes up. Soon, the sky is blanketed grey. Mirroring it, the lake is a pewter hue.
The term processing emotions has never interested me until today. I think of the Harvard-trained neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s memoir My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. The book recounts Taylor’s stroke. One morning, a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain rendered her unable to speak, read, write, or remember who she was or most aspects of her life. It took eight years, but she recovered.
In the book, Bolte Taylor presents a theory on processing emotions that she calls the 90-second rule: “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
I don’t want to stay in this emotional loop. I get my phone, find a podcast about processing emotions, and return to the balcony. The podcaster’s voice is upbeat. She tells me to close my eyes and go to the place in my body where the sensation is. My stomach—the pit. The rush in my chest.
Can you allow it to be there? Can you let it exist?
No is my first response, but I stay seated. It grows thick. Ninety seconds. Just ninety seconds.
She asks me what color it is. I want to press pause on the podcast.
Grey. It’s grey.
What texture is it? Does it have a temperature? Does it move? What shape is it?
As soon as I articulate the pressure and pit’s textures (rough, no texture), temperature (neither have one), movement (the pit doesn’t move, but the pressure seems to pulse), and shape (round, flat), they shift.
I’m sobbing. It’s overwhelming and out of control. Of course, I’ve chosen to battle, ignore, and buffer against these sensations instead of “allowing them.” It’s brutal and overpowering and terrifying.
Then I stop crying. It took much longer than ninety seconds. The pit isn’t gone, and there’s still pressure but only a trace.
I put on my running shoes and walk along the lake. I walk and walk—the physical movement of my body seeming to release whatever stray neurotransmitters or whatever still needs to be released.
When I get home, the pit and heaviness are gone. I’m not getting sick again. Maybe emotions aren’t terrifying, or they are, but they can be managed.
I think clearly for the first time in months: Zosi is in the right place. She’s where she belongs.
Help bring mental health recovery to everyone. Each subscription and share sends a message to the media and mental health professionals that we want to hear more about recovery.
Read all available chapters of Cured.