“We must celebrate our pets because they are truly what love is all about”
Welcome to Day Five of Mental Health Awareness Week, today I’m collaborating with Cats Protection – the UK’s largest cat charity, to bring you this piece on the importance of pets for someone struggling with feelings of loneliness…
It feels as though for as long as I can really remember, I’ve had a pet! First fish, then hamsters, a gerbil, and then Mum and I got our first cat; Saffy (the one that’s all black in the image above) and within years, she began saving my life. Saving me from the loneliness that is abuse.
My abuser found the opportunity to begin hurting me through suggesting he be my port of call when I began having panic attacks after being attacked on my way to school one morning. So, literally from Day One, he seemed to be my only company during the difficult moments. The moments when I couldn’t breathe, and my hands tingled, and my heart felt tired. He was the one sat there with me, passing me a paper bag, rubbing my back, and muttering comforting and reassuring things. It was like I had a broken leg, and he was my walking stick – I was leaning on him in my most sad and painful times. I was vulnerable and needed something that I could rely on because having a panic attack (being convinced that I was about to die, when I really wasn’t) left me uncertain on the reliability of my own body, never mind anyone else in the world!
After a short time of going to him when I was at my most vulnerable, that comfort and reassurance I took from him, was instantly snatched back when he started to hurt me. Regardless of the validating but saddening fact that abuse and rape are being talked about so much more these days, a key emotion and thought when you’re the person actually going through it, is that you’re completely alone in the experience. It’s as though not only is there no one else in the world going through what you are, but there’s also no one else in the world full stop. Like no one exists. No one, but you and your abuser.
This very debilitating and potentially dangerous notion of loneliness was actually mostly challenged by my cat, Saffy because for so many reasons, I couldn’t tell my Mum what was happening to me. My silence started off as a result of my uncertainty around what was actually going on – in school, we had such basic sex education that was mainly around putting a condom on a banana(!), so I had no idea about ‘rape’ or ‘sexual abuse.’ All I knew was that it hurt and that it felt wrong. And that didn’t feel concrete enough to use it as a reason to tell someone.
Another reason for me keeping quiet was the fear that I wouldn’t be believed if I did; and this was actually something that my abuser was trying to convince me of more and more. I mean, on a daily basis, he would remind me that he was looked up to and respected, and I was just a teenager who sometimes got in trouble at school and who people would doubt and disbelieve. He would be listened to over me. Of course, he would.
Then came the threats. He would tell me all sorts of things that would happen if I were to tell someone and so, with all of those threats and the thought of not being believed in mind, I was alone. Alone, until I got home and was with Saffy. Sometimes I’d get in and my Mum would still be at work, and I’d just curl up on the sitting room floor crying and Saffy would come up to me and just sit, and without blinking, she would stare at me. And, well, you know what they say about the eyes being the window to the soul? It felt as though she was looking straight into my painful and sad soul and desperately trying to fix it with her own, warm, safe soul. Looking back at her, I felt this strong sense of love and devotion and felt 100% certain that if she could talk, she’d say that she wanted to help me.
Turned out though, her inability to speak, was one of the most appealing factors of her because it meant I could confide in her and tell her absolutely everything with no risk that she would go on to ring the Police and/or tell my Mum! I think that being able to say everything out loud was really relieving and almost instantly felt like a weight off my shoulders. And I think that’s largely to do with me being a pretty much naturally open and honest person. I mean, even now, I struggle to not tell someone something. Like, when I was organising a surprise party for one of my best friends and it was so hard not to even just give him hints!
Talking about something – even if it was with a cat and therefore without a real response – also makes things a lot more real. It’s kind of like when someone dies and until you’ve had to tell the relevant people, it can feel like you’re in a daze or a really bad nightmare. When my first rabbit, Pixie was put to sleep in April 2021, I was almost motivated to tell more people because I was struggling to let it sink in and I knew that I had to in order to move forwards. Ironically though, in talking to Saffy and making it more real, I found myself in need of more support and comfort and Saffy was there to provide that too.
When my mental health began to deteriorate two years after the abuse ‘finished,’ Saffy was still there for me. Even when my attitude and behaviour were upsetting so many people, it was as though Saffy still knew who I was. She knew those actions weren’t ‘me.’ And she did this by never backing away from me, never becoming scared or reluctant to cuddle in… Which was a huge reason why it was so difficult to go to the specialist psychiatric hospital over 100 miles away. I mean, yes, my mental health was very poorly, but I still had a lot of love and appreciation for those who were trying to help and support me.
During the two and a half years I was in the hospital, when I was talking to my Mum on the phone, she would almost always hold the phone to Saffy and when she heard my voice, Saffy would give a few meows back down the phone! And maintaining that bond even though I rarely saw her (I was sectioned under the 1983 Mental Health Act so any time out of the hospital, had to be written up by the Psychiatrist) for such a long time, was a huge reason why – when the Doctors began talking about discharging me to my own home – I knew I wanted to get a cat.
When I would struggle still, my Mum had the genius idea to buy a kitten collar and have it in my hospital room to remind me of my ultimate recovery goal. The thought of being in my own home was kind of terrifying considering I’d spent over two years literally surrounded by people 24/7. Fortunately, the professionals recognised the danger of such a sudden, huge change and before going into the community, I was transferred to a really special ‘rehab ward’ in my local psychiatric hospital – actually, in the grounds of it... It consisted of each inpatient having their own little bungalow and the staff had their own so there was support there all the time, but I could get used to the reality of having little to no noise around me. I’m so grateful to have had those three months there before moving to my own bungalow because it made it a lot easier to adapt and to cope with the difference.
One week after moving into my home, I added my little maine coon, Dolly to it and she was instantly such a lovely companion. Having her really boosted my mental health because for a long time, I had taken absolutely no responsibility for my actions (mostly because my abuser definitely hadn’t so why should I?) so having another little life to also be responsible for, felt like a really big piece of evidence to my recovery. I mean, how could I take care of something besides myself if my mental health wasn’t stable?
A few years into having Dolly, Saffy was put to sleep after she seemed to be struggling to breathe and upon draining fluid from her lungs, the Vet found a tumour attached to her major organs. I remember that all I could think was ‘focus on Dolly. Focus on Dolly. Focus on Dolly.’ I was desperate to remain safe and I knew that if I allowed myself to think about all the memories with Saffy and the important role she had played during the worst time of my life, I would very likely break.
Whilst I remained well-ish(!) after losing Saffy, I still found out that mental health recovery isn’t at all linear and just because I had been stable for a particular length of time, it didn’t mean that would just continue… It didn’t mean that I no longer needed to put so much effort in to maintain it. So, my four years with Dolly were full of ups and downs, but I think that the biggest ‘up’ was when we added Pixie (my first Lionhead bunny) to our family. And it wasn’t as though Dolly had been lonely and I got Pixie as company for her – it just turned out that was probably true…
I got Pixie because my visual hallucinations of rabbits had come back, and I had this idea in Pets at Home one day that maybe holding an actual, real rabbit would help. That doing so would help me to tell the difference between reality and the hallucinations. And I was right. When I picked Pixie out of all the bunnies and held her and cried, I knew I needed her. What I didn’t know, was that Dolly needed her too. Which is probably why, regardless of the fact that the Vets, the internet, and the pet shop all advised that I either never introduce them to each other or that I do it gradually, just immediately putting them together worked really well! I mean, they were instantly taken with each other, and it was so lovely to see the two most important fluffy ones in my life, bond and care for each other. And I loved to see them find comfort from one another in the way I took comfort from them.
The negative to their relationship though, was that when Dolly was put to sleep a year later, Pixie was pretty distraught (probably more so than me, to be honest!). She began following me everywhere, constantly wanting attention, and when she was shut in the kitchen at night she would scrape at the door. Seeing her miss her best friend so much meant that within one week of losing Dolly, we were adding the little calico rescue cat, Emmy, to the family. And knowing Pixie’s sadness I, once again, ignored the advice of the professionals and let them meet straight away. And, once again, it worked out brilliantly and the two connected instantly.
This time, Pixie had three years with Emmy and so when she became poorly with Gut Stasis and I had this terrible feeling in my tummy, I knew Emmy was in for a whole ton of sadness… People talk a lot about how having to make the decision to put their pet to sleep was the hardest decision they’ve ever had to make… Well, yes it was upsetting, but I’ve never been surer of anything in my whole life. When the Vet said they could see how she was after 24 hours, but she might not even make that and she might be in discomfort for that length of time, I knew what I had to do. So, the two hardest parts of the entire thing were that last hug with Pixie in the Vets carpark (coronavirus guidelines meant I couldn’t go in with her while they did it) and going home to Emmy empty handed.
To be honest, I struggled a lot with the realisation that I was more upset losing Pixie than I was with Dolly. So, I tried to unpick it and figure out why that was… And I think that a huge part of it was my mental health and the fact that I was still so poorly when I lost Dolly in 2018, but losing Pixie last year? Well, I feel that I’m more in tune with my emotions and thoughts – I’m no longer terrified that paying attention to them will lead to me becoming unsafe. Which means that in losing Pixie, I actually allowed myself to feel the pain. And boy, was it painful?! When I got home to Emmy without her sister, I felt like a complete failure as a ‘mum,’ because everything was so out of my control – I couldn’t bring Pixie back, I couldn’t control how Emmy felt… For so long, it felt like my home was a mess (not literally!) because Emmy and I just seemed to flounder in the immediate aftermath of Pixie going… It was like we just didn’t know what to do with ourselves. What to do with our home.
Seven months later, I knew the right decision, and I brought my little mini-Lionhead lop; Luna, home. And again, I introduced her and Emmy straight away and after a few tentative sniffs, Luna was accepted and the two became sort of inseparable! When Luna was really little, I used to bring her onto the bed and Emmy would come and lie on it with her too, and they had this super cute moment where they were both washing at the same time (washing in unison is actually something they still do!).
Even after being out of the psychiatric hospital for almost eight years, I’m still on medication and I still have good days and bad days. Except, no matter how bad things get, I look at my fluffy companions and I smile, reassured that I’m not alone in the darkness.