“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too”
Four years ago on October 16th, my big, fluffy, four-year-old Maine Coon; Dolly, was put to sleep after battling kidney failure for just over a week (you can read more about her death here). Every year since losing Dolly, I’ve felt the need to concentrate on all my good memories from my four years with her, because I recognised that if I didn’t – if I allowed my head to be consumed by all of the sadness and grief – there was every chance that I would fall apart. And this is a coping mechanism I found so helpful that I actually used it in the death of my Lionhead bunny; Pixie in 2021. From doing this, and from the fact that I now have a rescue, calico cat; Emmy, and a mini-Lionhead bunny; Luna, I found the inspiration for this blog post where I’m going to talk about my top four reasons for having pets…
There were very obviously many direct consequences from the abuse I experienced when I was younger, and one that’s really relevant here was that it influenced my attitude and thoughts and feelings on responsibility. The fact that I was only fifteen when the abuse started meant I had no real opinions on the subject of responsibility prior to the abuse, but when my abuser first denied everything that he had done to me, my thoughts were almost instantly shaped.
My abuser and I were having one of our frequent screaming matches that saw us lose all realisation or consideration as to where we were – it was like we were so caught up in our argument that everything else just disappeared or ceased to matter – and that meant that we hadn’t even noticed we were right outside the office of my abuser’s boss. We sharp recognised our reality when his boss came storming out of his office, his face bright red and spit flying from his mouth whilst he yelled at us; asking, “what the hell are you two playing at?!” And I remember the feeling that I had finally broken, because all the words I had been desperate to shout for the past six months just came flying out of my mouth without me feeling any sense of control over them.
To no real surprise, because he had been this way for what felt like forever, my abuser was very much still in control of everything he said. And so, he denied all of it. He branded me a ‘liar’ and his boss instantly instructed me to go wait at the building’s main entrance so that my Mum could be called to pick me up and not to return to the building until he said I could. Now, considering that response to the very first time I had told anyone about the abuse, is it really a surprise that I then squashed all the memories and thoughts and feelings down into a box in my head and spent the following two years desperately trying to keep it closed?
When, in 2009, I lost all the energy it was taking to stamp down on that box and ended up making a suicide attempt that resulted in me being sectioned to a psychiatric hospital, I finally reported the abuse to the Police. Once again, my abuser denied the entirety of it and whilst this resulted in so many thoughts, feelings, and actions, a huge reason for those consequences was because his denial left me questioning the point of responsibility. I mean, if what all the professionals were saying – that I’d done nothing to deserve it or be blameworthy of any of it – then why was I the one suffering? Why was I the one who professionals were preaching to about responsibility? The number of occasions where mental health staff (mostly the Crisis Team) told me that I had to start taking responsibility for my safety. That they couldn’t – and shouldn’t – intervene to as huge an extent as they had been, because they said that by them stepping in, sectioning me, hospitalising me, sedating me, restraining me, was only promoting the notion that I neither needed to or had to, learn safer ways to cope. They explained their belief that with them jumping in when I self-harmed or made a suicide attempt, I wasn’t recognising that I was putting myself in such situations. They said that I should be responsible for controlling them in some way – whether that meant by simply (though it was anything BUT simple!) not doing something, by learning an alternative coping mechanism, or by seeking out help for myself when I did do it.
I won’t lie, it took me years to recognise the message they were trying to get across; but, in fairness, I think that they went about teaching me this the completely wrong way! There were so many instances where their comments left me feeling dismissed and unworthy of help and support; and those feelings in someone who was already suicidal…? Well, it’s not a good mix! So, it wasn’t until I was sectioned in a psychiatric hospital specialising in my diagnosis and undergoing Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) that I began to comprehend (or at least to think I could comprehend!) what those professionals had been trying to say. I believe that what they were trying to encourage was the notion that as much as it felt like I really didn’t, I had some control over what I did. I was actively ‘choosing’ to self-harm. Or ‘choosing’ to attempt suicide. The problem with this way of thinking, is that not a single one of those professionals provided me with an alternative. So, as much as I had control, I felt that what I didn’t have, was a choice. I couldn’t sit and think ‘oh! I’ll just see if self-soothing helps instead of self-harming straight away.’ Because as naïve as it might sound, I had no understanding of self-soothing – or of absolutely any and all of the coping skills that DBT teaches you.
When I learnt all of these alternative mechanisms I could use to cope when I was struggling with the hallucinations or the memories of the abuse, I found myself having a much healthier opinion of responsibility. I actually came to the understanding that in me taking responsibility and accepting the consequences for my actions, it made me into a bigger person that my abuser because me thinking I shouldn’t take responsibility if he wasn’t, meant I was reducing myself to his level. And I am in no way similar or equal to him.
With this safer view and thought process, and the behaviour of taking responsibility for myself and the impact I had on others, I found myself in such a stable, healthy place – mentally and physically – that I became eager to take on more responsibilities… And so, when the Doctors began discussing my discharge from hospital (after over two and a half years as an inpatient), I decided that in moving into my own home, I wanted to have a cat. This wasn’t a random notion, before being admitted to the hospital, I had lived with my Mum my whole life and we had a cat; Saffy, who we’d added to the family a few years before the abuse started. So, she’d been there for a huge chunk of my life and, more essentially, for a hugely important time of my life. And I had missed her so much while I was in hospital so moving into my own bungalow, it felt like a pretty natural move to add Dolly to it.
Having Dolly was a huge honour and pleasure – she made me feel truly proud to recognise that I had sole responsibility over her little life. It was rewarding to see her grow up and when she showed her affection toward me, it made me realise that she wouldn’t do that if I wasn’t doing a good job of looking after her. It was almost a compliment. But, of course, like many things in life, there was a huge challenge to having this responsibility for another life; and this came in the form of when she became poorly, and her health began to decline. I feel that taking everything into account, it’s pretty understandable that I immediately turned on myself in terms of portioning blame for Dolly’s physically unwell condition. In all honesty it took so much reassurance to convince me that in rushing her to the Vets and wanting them to do everything to save her, I was still a good ‘Mum,’ but even four years later, I still struggle with this – not just regarding Dolly, but also in terms of all my pets whenever they’ve become poorly.
Three years after getting Dolly, the visual hallucinations of rabbits returned, and I found myself asking to hold one of the rabbits for sale in my local Pets At Home. I had somehow gotten it into my head that maybe holding an actual, living, breathing rabbit might help deescalate the convictions that the hallucinations were real and how scary they were. When I held Pixie for the first time, I cried and without hesitation or even any level of consideration, I told the staff that I’d be back the following day to buy her hutch and bring her home! And whilst I absolutely – in no way – regret adding Pixie to the family, something I do wish I’d done differently was to have done even just the tiniest amount of research into owning a bunny. Like, I literally had no idea what I was getting myself into!
Bringing Pixie home was a hugely impulsive move and that meant learning a whole ton of lessons in the most difficult way (by actual experience and doing something wrong). This left me with a worry that I’d been completely irresponsible in getting Pixie and that I hadn’t provided a decent, safe home for her. The element I found to cope with this safely though, was the recognition that Pixie was so loved – the reason I got her with regards to the hallucinations left me with the notion that she was incredibly special and precious in a very unique way – and that she seemed to be really happy here. The Vet said she was the most placid rabbit he’d ever met and explained that she wouldn’t be that way if she felt anxious, scared, or unhappy in any way.
After just one year of having both Pixie and Dolly, Dolly had to be put to sleep and whilst I had to contend with the notion that I’d failed her in so many different ways, I was also faced with the responsibility of taking care of Pixie and supporting her through her own loss and grief as well as my own. It was quite exhausting to be honest, but it strengthened our bond to know that we were each the best support for one another because we were the only two who could really appreciate life without Dolly since we were the only ones to have lived with her. So, whilst I was very conscious that I didn’t want it to seem like Pixie wasn’t ‘good enough’ to be my only pet, my responsibility for her happiness overtook that concern and I recognised that she really needed a new best friend. So, within a week of losing Dolly, I got Emmy.
With Emmy being a rescue cat, and having gotten her because Dolly had died, I felt some added responsibility and kind of pressure. I mean, I felt as though not only did I need to find some sort of positive from losing Dolly, I also needed to make Emmy’s rescue worthwhile. And I kind of looked at it like the times after I’ve made a suicide attempt, when I’m almost desperate to experience something – anything – that makes me grateful for the ‘failure’ of the attempt. It’s like I’ve wanted evidence and reason for the fact that even though my suicidal thoughts and feelings were totally valid, I’d rather be alive. And when the immediate aftermath of my suicide attempts has usually been filled with pain, vomiting, and being detained under the Mental Health Act, it’s typically incredibly difficult to find a positive or benefit amongst that. And it was just as challenging to establish some sense of positivity after losing Dolly.
Emmy, however, is massively different to Dolly (not just appearance wise!) so it was nice to not feel kind of… constantly reminded of her and I tried to look at Emmy as a bit of a fresh start and a new adventure! It also really helped that Pixie took to Emmy straight away! It was kind of like they’d been best friends forever; Emmy just immediately slotted in so well with our little home/family and I think that her ability to do this really helped in her arrival not being as unsettling or intimidating for Pixie as it had the potential to be, because she was already vulnerable from her distress of losing Dolly. Actually, introducing Emmy and Pixie to each other was another huge responsibility because the rescue centre had warned me that Emmy might not do well with a bunny and that there was a very real possibility, they could never be together. I’m, however, one of those people who firmly believes that the ‘owner’ knows their pets better than anyone – even in so far as knowing something is really wrong regardless of that being without confirmation from the Vets. And so, I made the decision to introduce them immediately and without any sort of gradual method… Now, whilst this very obviously ‘worked’ for us, I wouldn’t recommend everyone do it… But what I would like to say is to always respect the advice of professionals and to really take it into consideration, but don’t be afraid to stick to your instincts.
After three years of being best friends, in April 2021, Pixie had to be put to sleep after developing a fourth bout of the medical condition that rabbits can often get which is always potentially fatal; Gut Stasis. The decision to have her put to sleep came as another responsibility. The responsibility to do the right thing for your furry friend; no matter how upsetting and difficult it might be for you – you always have to put them first. So, when the Vet said that there was a tiny chance, she might make it but an enormous chance she’d get another bout of Gut Stasis and it would likely be fatal, I recognised that I didn’t want to keep her alive with the huge likelihood that she’d go through more pain and suffering. And making decisions like this, require so much responsibility because your pet can’t talk. They can’t say to you ‘I want to see how I get on’ or ‘just let me go.’ And, equally, you can’t really 100% get across to them that you’re making these decisions in a desperate attempt to help them and do what you think is best for them and not yourself.
Going home to Emmy empty handed left me feeling like a complete failure. I mean, if she’d been able to say, “you were meant to keep her alive!” I would’ve completely agreed. And when Emmy continued to scratch and meow at the door to the room where the sawdust and hay were usually kept, I saw that I had the responsibility to get her through this grief and I bought her a Feliway plug-in that calmed her down within days and which I was finally able to remove after a couple of months when she had settled and become less interested in the door/room. Seeing the change in her, I felt proud and as though I had achieved something. And even though I was absolutely desperate to get another bunny, I knew that it just wasn’t the right time for Emmy.
Finally, in September 2021, I made the decision to get Luna. And once again, my instincts were proven correct in so far as both the timing of getting her and the way of introducing her to Emmy.
Unfortunately, Emmy has been very poorly recently, and the Vets found she has a very low white blood cell count, so my responsibilities for her and Luna recently have been about balancing getting Emmy medical treatment and following the Vets instructions with medication etc. and keeping Luna distracted from the fact Emmy was in the Vets all day and that when she was home, she just hid and wanted to be left alone. I’ve always said that having them both is sometimes like having two toddlers, and now one is poorly, I’m really experiencing the art of juggling! And I just really hope I’m doing well at it!
To watch the video on Instagram with the audio: