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Why I Identify With My Sick, Anxious Cat

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My cat has anxiety, too. Next time you’re balled up on your couch gasping for air and sobbing hysterically because you’ve been faced with having to make a phone call to your pharmacy, or having to give a presentation in class later on, think about this: at least you don’t lose your mind like my cat does because a sock fell out of the laundry basket and is now lying in the middle of the bedroom floor. Or maybe you do. No judgment here.

Dexter is a special boy. I adopted him three years ago from the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS). He was a scrawny kitten, the runt of the litter, with a terrible eye infection causing one eye to have to be removed. He was the last to be adopted — no one wanted a one-eyed cat. When I brought my little boy home that day, I didn’t expect to identify with him so much. Drop a sock on the floor? Yes, that is definitely grounds for freaking out. A knock at the door? Oh crap. My parents’ dog coming over to visit? I have to go hide for three hours. And yet, he has it so easy. Why isn’t it acceptable for me to hide under the bed in order to avoid a social situation?

ginger cat with one eye wearing green bow tie

I’d had Dexter in my life for about six months when he had his first neurological episode. I woke up for work one morning and went to feed him when I noticed he was wobbly on his feet, unable to walk in a straight line, almost as if he were drunk. Dexter spent two full days in the animal hospital after that. They checked for poisoning, for an ear infection, for toxoplasmosis and a dozen other things, but nothing came up. The vet finally sent him home on an antibiotic, hoping it would clear up on its own.

After about a week, it did. That incident scared the hell out of me, but we had gotten through it… until it happened again a few months later. Over and over and over, like clockwork, every couple of months. My anxiety went through the roof each time I woke up to find Dexter this way, and his anxiety suffered too. Some attacks were worse than others, where my husband and I would have to support him as he used the litter box and carry him from room to room because he couldn’t stand. He saw half a dozen other vets. A feline neurologist. None of them had any idea.

Somewhere along the line, we realized the antibiotics actually helped it clear up faster, so each time it happened, we’d syringe the bitter liquid down his throat twice a day. He hated this even more than he hated being sick. He took to growling at me when I’d come near him and spending his days cowering under the bed or in the very back of my closet. It was like all he could think about was getting medicated. It was on his mind 24/7 and he stopped trusting us and seeking out our affection. I knew how he felt. I knew the torment of having that one worrisome thing stuck on your mind, totally out of your control. Obsessing over it constantly. And this made me feel even more helpless. I cried a lot. I took my benzodiazepine faithfully at least once a day. And I hoped one day we’d find a better solution.

One week about three years after his first episode, I was having one of the worst weeks of my life for my anxiety. I was starting to struggle with horrible migraines as a result. I had several panic attacks in one day. I missed work and school to lie in bed and cry. It was all a chain reaction. Every day I missed of work, every hour I missed of class, every minute I had that terrible freaking migraine, my anxiety spiraled out of control.

As I was lying in bed one morning, I felt the silent action of four paws landing on the bed beside me. I cautiously opened my eyes to see Dexter nestle in beside me, his back gently resting on my leg. Dexter never got in bed with me. He never cuddled. He was not a lap cat. He was an anxious, sick animal. Yet today he was stoic. He was solid. He was the strength I needed. His silent support said it all. I don’t know if cats feel appreciation or if he understood the struggle I had experienced trying to make him feel better for the past several years, but he definitely felt love.

He purred quietly as I petted him and cried. I cried because I hated myself, cried because of my migraine, cried because my mental illness told me to, but mostly cried because I was so touched by this small gesture of love. After that, I was able to get up and be a little productive. Like a shadow, Dexter followed me around the house, carefully supervising me.

ginger cat with one eye lying on white sheets

Dogs get all the credit as therapy animals. They’re the ones that are “man’s best friend.” They travel to hospitals and nursing homes and colleges and prisons and are credited with contributing towards treating all kinds of mental illness. Service dogs are trained to support children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), to alert you if you’re going to have a seizure and even sniff out cancer. And that’s all wonderful — but I’m here to tell you that sharing your home with a cat when you’re living with anxiety and depression can be invaluable.

I never expected to identify with a cat in regards to my mental illness, but we are each other’s greatest support system. He’s always there to struggle good-naturedly when I pick him up for a big, grounding hug during a fit of anxiety, and I’m always there to pick that stray sock off the floor so he can walk by. Thank you, Dexter, for being my cat.

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Images via contributor/The Wayward Rabbit

Originally published: October 28, 2017
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