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🎧A Kitten Teaches You to Heal
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My apartment is kitten-ready. In the bathroom, which will serve as her “safe space,” sits a litter box and a cat bed and a cat house and toys and food and water bowls. Choking hazards (tissues, paper clips, hairbands, etc.) are secreted away. Protectors cover all cords to prevent her from biting them and getting electrocuted.
When Zosi arrives, I’m at the tail end of my recovery from serious mental illness. A serious mental illness is one of the more extreme psychiatric conditions: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and depression with suicidality. Some include severe cases of PTSD and anorexia. For twenty-five years serious mental illness has ruled my life. It’s come in different flavors: bipolar disorder, depression with suicidality, and, when I was a teenager, anorexia.
Not one clinician mentioned the word recovery. I was told each diagnosis was “biological” and lifelong. Turns out that’s not true.
Now that I’m well on my way to recovery, it seems right to get a pet. After years of being unable to take care of myself—for five years, I was chronically suicidal and unable to live independently—I care for myself very well. Why not reap the benefits of an emotional support animal too?
Studies show pets relieve stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, decrease loneliness, and increase social interactions and civic engagement. In 2010, researcher Jennifer Wisdom et al. studied the role pets play in recovery from serious mental illness and found they do more than just keep a person company. They play the same role as a therapist in helping us feel understood—a meow in response to something we say, a nuzzle when we’re feeling down. Pets can break through our loneliness and isolation and help us reconnect with the world outside our minds, perhaps even with people. For those without family support, pets can function as one’s family. As one participant in the study commented: “…they’re like children for us, we thought we’d never get that way, but they are. They’ve taken the place of having a family.” Pets empowered participants and increased their self-worth. One participant described how her bunnies prevented her from ending her life: “The thing that made me stop was wondering what the rabbits would do. That was the first thing I thought of, and I thought, oh yeah, I can’t leave because the rabbits need me.”
The study noted two caveats: 1) to reap the benefits of a pet, you have to actually want one and 2) some participants found the responsibility of caring for a pet sometimes overwhelming, which may not be helpful for patients who are stressed and vulnerable. The loss of a pet can trigger intense grief and feelings of depression. Also, nothing in the study suggested that those without pets had any less of a chance of recovery.
I now see how delusional I was, believing that if I prepared enough, did enough, it would be all cuddles and snuggles and bliss.
She’s coming from a breeder I found on Facebook rather than the nearby shelter. This makes me enemy number one in many cat circles. But it’s actually relatively easy to ignore the social media posts from animal rights activists who say there’s no such thing as a responsible breeder.
The pictures her breeder sends are adorable: a ragdoll with long beige fur, white patches on her paws, and a white patch on her neck. Never mind that the breeder has been uncommunicative via email and seems reluctant to speak on the phone; previous buyers praised her on Facebook. Plus—and this is big one—she’s a vet. What could go wrong?
It’s frigid the morning Zosi is dropped off. She’s being delivered—a perk of buying from a breeder. On my way downstairs, the elevator moves slowly, floor by floor. I exit my building, and the Chicago wind whips against me. I’m not wearing a coat.
A beige Nissan sits in the driveway. There’s a dent in the side. The guy delivering Zosi gets out. I greet and thank him and pay him his fee in cash and the breeder’s fee, which he’ll give to her.
As I open the back door, my stomach tightens with excitement. I’ve imagined this moment many times—holding her, loving her in all her kittenness, just like the videos on Instagram.
But I find not a kitten-transport sanctuary but chaos: loud music streaming from the speakers, a full-grown, panting poodle behind the cat carrier. Zosi must be terrified.
Only then do I realize I forgot to buy a cat carrier to take her upstairs with me. I turn and tell him.
He looks at me, nonplussed. “You can just hold her.”
Hold her? What if she escapes and runs into the street? I ask if I can use his carrier and bring it back down. He nods and gets back in the car.
Once we’re upstairs in my apartment, I put the carrier down in the bathroom and shut the door behind me. Those first moments will be crucial to her transition to her new home. Rule number 1 of getting a new kitten is that you’re not supposed to force her out of the carrier; she has to come out on her own. Otherwise, it’s traumatic, and she’ll reject her home—and me. Kittens, like humans, need to feel they have agency over their lives.
As I pull back the carrier door, I lean in to see her and relish in all her adorableness. She’s tucked so far back in the carrier I have to stoop to see her. She’s impossibly tiny and shivering.
It comes back to me—the photo the breeder sent that I’d posted on Facebook and the response that came from someone: That kitten isn’t old enough to adopt yet. You better check with your breeder. I did, and the breeder assured me it was an old photo. It wasn’t. There’s no way Zosi is eight weeks old; she’s way too young to be taken from her mother.
She won’t come out. My phone rings. He has to move his car.
I don’t want to traumatize her by sticking my hand in the carrier (not doing so is rule number 2), so I tilt the carrier perpendicular to the floor until she slides out. Like a flash, she dashes behind the kitty house and sits there shaking with fear.
“It’s okay,” I coo. “It’s okay.”
In the elevator, I tell myself the same: You’ve got this. This is normal. She’s a baby in a new place. It will be fine.But I feel the old crushing darkness seep in, the pulsing anxiety, the sense that I can’t handle it.
Zosi’s still behind the cat house, shaking, when I return. The wrong thing to do would be to pick her up. She needs to come to me. I sit on the floor and coo to her, so she gets used to my voice.
Hours later, a pit—the familiar sodden pit—forms in my stomach. A heaviness descends on me, black and frightening. Panic fills my chest. This is wrong. This is all wrong. I can’t do this. I don’t know how to take care of an animal this small.
I should know, shouldn’t I? I owned a cat in my twenties and it had gone passably well. The cat ladies on Instagram nurse kittens so young the babies can’t open their eyes. Even non-cat people win over feral kittens in fifteen-second reels.
I slip out of the bathroom and email the breeder: She’s too young. Can she even eat solid food? You said she was eight weeks old. I ask questions she can’t answer—How am I supposed to do this? How can I do this if I’m not ready?—and press send.
The heavy blackness weighs on my body. The sodden pit in my stomach is too much. A familiar thought comes on repeat: I can’t handle this. I can’t handle this. I rest my elbows on my desk and my head in my hands. I haven’t healed. I haven’t healed and never will. The room starts to narrow. Another thought: I should just end my life. A familiar loop I thought was gone forever.
It was an extreme emotional response to the situation. I was overcome by negative emotion, intense bodily sensations I couldn’t make sense of—a crushing weight on my chest, a harrowing pit in my stomach, swirling blackness, a claustrophobic sense of space. Trying to figure out what those sensations meant and which emotions they represented was impossible to me then. When emotions are foreign—villainous and unrecognizable—we go from stress to overwhelm in seconds. Stress is overwhelm-lite: nothing is in our control, but we aren’t devastated by it. Overwhelm is stress to the nthdegree, causing us to spin out or shut down.
I spun out as a result of what the neuroscientist and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, who runs the Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University, calls “low 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. Someone with high granularity can discriminate between happy, joyful, euphoric, pleased, cheerful, exuberant, and glad. Someone with low granularity can tell you they’re feeling good or bad, and that’s about it.
Barrett points out that having high granularity isn’t about becoming a connoisseur of emotion: “Emotional granularity isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary; it’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely.” Researchers have found that being able to pinpoint your emotions is good for you, even if those emotions are painful or distressing. Studies show that someone with high emotional granularity can better manage their emotions; not respond aggressively; not binge on alcohol; and even live longer, healthier lives.
Emotion specificity was far out of reach for me. Adoration, admiration, anxiety, awkwardness, amusement, awe—and those are just some of the emotions that start with a. I could have identified sad though not which shade: depressed, despondent, discouraged, despairing.
Many of us can’t discern our emotions—and for good reason. Emotions are, for the most part, a mystery, even to those whose sole occupation is to know what they are. Whole fields, industries, and marketing techniques are devoted to trying to understand (and use) them: affective science, emotion research, emotional psychology, psychiatry, nursing, psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, economics, communication studies, criminal law, political science, the entire self-help industry, and, of course, PR and advertising.
I had zero proficiency in emotional granularity.
A day and a night pass. I spend every available moment with her. My bathroom is a kitten sanctuary. From my iPad come kitten relaxation music—new-agey songs with titles like “Snooze the Day Away” and “Balls of Yarn.” A stuffed animal with a battery-operated beating heart lies on the tile floor. A diffuser plugged into the outlet releases pheromones to remind her of her mother, who she was taken from too early.
At least she’s eating. The dishes of wet food I leave for her will be licked clean. I’ve made a bed of blankets for her behind the toilet, and it’s the safe space—or hiding place within her safe space.
One afternoon, I open the bathroom door. A flash of fur darts behind the toilet.
I place my laptop on the toilet seat and prop the pillows I brought in to make it comfortable against the bathtub. A doubled-up yoga mat serves as my cushion. The toilet seat is my desk. I open my laptop and start to work. It’s a windowless room, so it feels as if Zosi and I are the only two creatures on Earth.
After a while, she pokes her head around the base of the toilet and eyes me. I try not to look at her because cats take staring to be an act of aggression. She’s so teeny. Just a handful of beige floof. I shift my position, and she darts back.
Eventually, she comes out and sniffs around me, checking to see if I’m the same person who came earlier. She puts one paw on my leg and then another. Soon, she’s curled up in my lap.
It doesn’t last long and soon she’s back behind the toilet.
That night, as usual, I use the folded-up yoga mat as a bed. The bathroom is so small that I can’t stretch out my legs. My head is inches from the litter box. I’m lulled to sleep by the calming songs coming from my iPad: “Furry Best Friend,” “Feline Sonata.”
I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep when I hear her purring—like a machine, it’s so loud.
Her little paws climb up my side, over my arm until she’s near the crook of my stomach. The bathroom is lit only by a nightlight, so all I see is her outline. Her purrs grow louder. Soon she’s snuggled against me.
The purring stops. She’s asleep.
My shoulders relax. The pit in my stomach lessens, replaced by a feeling of warmth and fullness. Is warmth an emotion? Or is this sensation comfort? Is comfort an emotion? Or is this connection? Calm? Contentment? Trust? Relief?
It will be a few months before Zosi forces me to learn emotional granularity in the most painful way imaginable.
If you or someone you love has received a psychiatric diagnosis, empower yourselves by learning the truth about how they work, so you can receive the best care.
Read all available chapters of Cured.