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🎧Your Terror Is Unreasonable
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🎧 Listen to Sarah read this installment of Cured:
Two workmen arrive at my apartment. They go to the screen door leading out to the balcony. It’s broken and blows open in the wind, leaving a space that a kitten could slip out of. Over the past few months, Zosi has grown and has free reign in the apartment. The purring—the nuzzling, the sweetness—didn’t last.
The workmen slide the screen door open, then closed, open, then closed. They flip the latch that doesn’t catch, flicking it up and down, up and down.
“The latch is broken,” one of them says.
I nod and explain that I have a new kitten and don’t want to risk her getting out.
They glance around the apartment and, not finding said kitten, look at me. Zosi is in the bathroom.
“We’ll have to go back to the truck for a new latch,” one says to the other.
But the other isn’t listening. He’s staring at my bare arms. I fold them across my chest and use my hands to try to cover the marks that make it look like I’ve been cutting myself.
The workmen agree they’ll both go to the truck to get the latch.
While they’re gone, I put on a cardigan sweater to cover the bite marks and teeth scratches. Zosi has taken not just to biting me but attacking me. Full out.
I can’t understand what I’ve done to make her so violent. I’ve read everything I can online about curbing aggression in kittens. I’ve taken her to the vet, who said that, yes, some kittens have “play aggression” (this is not play aggression) when they aren’t properly socialized, are played with roughly by humans, or aren’t given appropriate toys when they’re young. They can develop “intense biting and scratching habits.”
Zosi eats gourmet food and has her choice of cat beds and toys. Four times a day, we engage in “structured play” using a wand toy.
In email after email, the breeder assures me there’s nothing wrong with Zosi. The breeder insists she was socialized. She was eight weeks old.
The workmen return and replace the latch. When they’re gone, I let Zosi out of the bathroom. She sniffs around and goes to her stuffed fox toy, which lies on the floor. It’s twice her length. She attacks it too; like me, it didn’t do anything to her to deserve it.
She pounces on it. With a viciousness unfathomable in a kitten that cute and small, she sinks her teeth into the fox’s neck. After tousling with it for a bit, she looks at me, her eyes wild.
“She’s just a cat,” my mother says on the phone.
I know she’s just a cat.
My mother says, “Enough times in the bathroom, and she’ll learn.”
Zosi spends a lot of time in the bathroom. I’ve put her in there because I don’t know what else to do. My apartment is one big open space. The only door is on the bathroom, so the bathroom—which I justify as being her safe space—is where she practically lives. Otherwise, when I sit at my computer to work, she attacks my arms, her sharp little kitten teeth drawing blood. I’ve bought baby gates, but she hurdles them in a single bound.
I thought I’d healed from twenty-five years of serious mental illness, but Zosi is too much. It seems she’s sent me backward or forward into something worse. The crushing weight on my chest and harrowing pit in my stomach are constant. I can’t eat. I don’t sleep. The swirling blackness comes and goes. I just try to ignore them.
What I don’t know is that they’re emotions and can’t be ignored.
The two most prominent theories of emotion are the classical view and the constructivist view. The classical view—and the mental health diagnoses associated with it—says that emotions are distinct and universal: happiness and sadness register and are expressed in the body the same way for you as for me. Emotions are supposedly triggered by the world around us, seemingly beyond our control. A life event (e.g., get a kitten) triggers a distinct, absolute version of an emotion (e.g., joy). An emotion is experienced the same way in every circumstance. Our brains are hardwired for emotions: one neuron equals happiness, another sadness.
The classical view started with Charles Darwin’s 1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. He argued that certain universal emotions exist in humans and animals: anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness, and sadness. Flash forward to the mid-twentieth century—emotion theory’s heyday. Psychologist Paul Eckman took up Darwin’s baton and established a similar idea: emotions are universal regardless of culture, i.e., happiness in the U.S. is the same as happiness in Papa New Guinea.
Darwin’s theory also led to the idea that emotions are expressed the same way, and we can know what other people are feeling by “reading” their faces and body language. In 1824, the Scottish surgeon and neurologist Charles Bell published Essays on The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression, in which he examined the expressive role of facial muscles. (Bell’s palsy, facial paralysis, is named for him.) In 1862, the French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne used “electrotherapy” to treat muscular disorders. In the process, he tried to connect facial expressions to their corresponding emotions, publishing his results in Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine. Flash forward again. Eckman also took up Bell’s baton, stating that emotions are conveyed via uniform facial expressions that can be detected by someone else (😊=happiness). A facial expression like a smile equates to a single emotion like happiness. The furrowed brow of a suspect confirms guilt.
The classical view made us believe that emotions can be divided into primary and secondary. The nineteenth-century philosopher and psychologist (and brother to Henry) William James said there are four basic emotions: fear, grief, love, and rage. The twentieth-century psychologist Paul Ekman proposed seven: joy, sadness, disgust, contempt, anger, and surprise. The twentieth-century psychologist Robert Plutchik gave us the famous “Wheel of Emotion,” which singles out eight emotions that exist in opposition: joy/sadness, anger/fear, trust/disgust, and surprise/anticipation. Other binaries have been suggested: love v. hate, joy v. sadness, trust v. disgust, and anticipation v. surprise. Twenty-first-century researchers have since brought the number back down to four: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, angry/disgusted.
The 1990s, “the Decade of the Brain,” was an era of astonishingly expensive research studies, most trying to prove that each emotion has a neurological fingerprint. The neurobiology of emotion tended to examine so-called negative emotions (e.g., fear, anxiety) in terms of brain processes, neural pathways, synaptic transmission, and neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
In what’s being called a revolutionary turn in our understanding of emotions, the constructivist view argues that the classical view is wrong. Constructivists tell us emotions are socially constructed and not at all universal. Much of the classical mapping of emotions is dictated by cultural norms and our preconceived notions about what emotion should be: sadness equals crying, happiness translates as laughing. Sadness to an American isn’t the same as sadness to a Nigerian.
Constructivists say that emotions manifest in the body differently for each person in different ways according to the context. In a 2018 lecture at New Zealand’s University of Waikato, emotion theorist and pioneering constructivist Lisa Feldman Barrett explained, “[A]n ache in your stomach can be anxiety if you’re waiting for a test result. It can be hunger if it’s dinner time. It can be longing if you miss someone who’s close to you. And it can be a gut feeling that someone is guilty if you’re a judge or juror in a trial.”
We also experience “incongruous emotions.” We smile and laugh when we’re happy but also when we’re scared or threatened or overwhelmed by sadness. In a threatening situation, we might smile to appease the source of the threat or to pacify ourselves that we aren’t in danger. While experiencing grief, we might smile and laugh to try to combat an overpowering negative emotion.
To constructivists, emotions aren’t reactive, and there are no dedicated circuits in the brain for particular emotions. The amygdala isn’t the fear center; it plays many roles, as do other parts of the brain. Emotions are part of the brain’s efforts to keep you alive and are integrated into its attempts to predict what will happen next.
I’ve tried everything my vet and the internet have said to do. I’ve rewarded her with treats when she’s calm. We’ve played with wand toys for hours at a time. Pheromone diffusers occupy an electrical outlet in every room. Catnip doesn’t affect her (most kittens don’t respond to it), but I try. Calming kitty music plays at all hours. (“Happy Purring” has become one of my favorites.)
I’ve also sprayed her with water from a spritz bottle, but cats only respond to positive reinforcement. The internet says that spray bottles will get immediate results, but after spraying the cat, you must address the root of the problem. The root of the problem?
The men come back and fix the screen door. After they leave, I go to the bathroom, cooing, “Zoh-si.” She’s in the sink and has just woken. Her face is sweet. She blinks with sleepiness. I want to pick her up and cuddle her in my arms.
It’s confusing. As is the way, at 5 p.m. every day, Zosi transforms into the ideal kitten. She greets me at the door. Her purring is audible. Each day, I kneel and pick her up. I hold her like a baby, not cradled in my arms but upright over my shoulder and against my chest as if to burp her. We stroll. She’s pure calm, glimpsing life from a different height.
I sit on the couch. She snuggles against my neck. Her heart seems to beat in time with mine, both of ours synchronized with the relaxing kitty music that’s playing. (Either “Tender Snuggles” or “Playing with the Laser,” if I had to guess.) Soon, Zosi is asleep on my chest. Usually, exhausted, I fall asleep too, my head lolling back.
I love her but have a refrain in my head: I shouldn’t have gotten her. She’s terrible. She’s evil.
Confusion isn’t an emotion. Most emotion theorists agree that it’s a type of thinking. Although we don’t know what emotions are, they aren’t thoughts. Confusion is a lack of understanding, an inability to discern one thing from another, a mistake that results from taking one thing to be something it’s not, the absence of clarity, a misunderstanding. It’s chaos.
In psychiatric terms, confusion was once defined as “a severe defect in the organization of ideas.” It was once thought to accompany any type of mental disorder. It’s characterized most often by what’s called “clouding.” Not quite delirium, confusion involves chaotic thinking and cognitive failure and can result in a stupor and abnormal behavior.
Which may be what’s starting to happen to me.
That night, I’m in bed but don’t close my eyes. The free-standing gate is up to keep Zosi out, even though it doesn’t work.
Lying in the dark, I listen for her. The apartment is quiet. Inside me is the sodden pit. So is the swirling darkness. I don’t know what to do with those sensations, which are really emotions I’m supposed to name and allow to be there no matter how excruciating—but I don’t know that yet.
It’s hard not to believe that I’m relapsing into the darkest expression of mental illness. My mind is on repeat: I’m getting sick again. I must be sick again.
A thump comes from the living room. I hear her walking across the wood floor. Then nothing.
I feel at the point of splintering like I did the many years I struggled with severe mental and emotional distress.
A whoosh and a scratching sound, and I know she’s hurdled the gate. I should get up, but I pull the comforter over my head to protect my face—and wait.
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.
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