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How My Cats Have Been Therapy for My Depression

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It’s no secret that I am a cat lady, with or without a cat. Show me a feline and even on the darkest of days, I can feel a tinge of contentment.

I’ve had episodes of depression for over 20 years, and in this time I’ve been the owner of two cats, separately. My first cat was called Charlie. He was affectionate which really helped because I was painfully lonely for so long. I was single, living alone and felt like the outside world had forgotten me. I became that stereotype of the woman who could only knows love from her cat because I would not let anyone else come near. When depression renders you unable to reach out to a human, I’ll take the reassuring purr of a feline any time.

I did not realize until Charlie died just how much he had given to me. I thought as the owner that I was doing all the giving. Any cat owner will tell you how demanding cats can be. One moment they are expecting you to spend an afternoon rubbing their belly, only to hide under the bed because they are not socializing today. I’d watch Charlie and understand that he was teaching me, through his behavior, about how I deal with depression.

When I am so immersed in depression that I cannot get out of bed, I become a cat curling in on itself, seeking warmth. Like a cat, I also want to hide under the covers and hope that if I lie still, no one will know I am there.

contributor's cat feegle curling in on herself sleeping

A cat never feels guilty about spending most of the day lounging. Watching a cat being in tune with what their body and mind needs showed me that maybe I should rest more too. Of course, a human has to do all the routine things and we cannot get away with lying permanently on the sofa. However, the depressed and the fatigued do need to learn to be kinder to ourselves in listening to when we should take it easier.

I know some people may call it hokum, but Charlie always “knew” when I was upset. When I cried, Charlie would sit on my lap, stroking my face with his paw. Thankfully no claws were involved! That touch from another being, when I was so isolated in my illness, soothed me.

When Charlie died, I was devastated. It felt like I was not only mourning a friend, but I had also lost my comfort. Charlie did that much for me. He had been with me for 17 years and I had to learn how to be without him.

I did. I don’t want you to think I can’t function without a cat. I did life, had more bouts of depression, reached out to friends and family and kept going. However, it always felt something was missing.

When my husband and I moved into our flat, the contract stated no pets. I accepted that. Then the depression volcano hit hard.

Under the care of the local mental health team, I was fortunate enough to have weekly visits with a mental health nurse. He would often tell me about his cats. I was jealous when he showed me his cat photos. I wanted that reciprocal caring relationship with a feline again.

Miraculously my landlord was fine with us getting a cat. Enter Feegle, named after characters from Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels. She was the runt of the litter but that made us want her more.

From the second we brought this tiny ball of fur home, I fell in love. Feegle gave me more purpose. It may sound ridiculous to those who don’t like animals, but Feegle partly gave me a reason to live. There were days when suicidal ideation has been scarily strong. Because I was on my own, I found it hard to pick up a phone in that moment and tell someone. Then this cat would come along, sit on my lap, look up at me, and I knew I had to try to keep going.

contributor's cat feegle sleeping on her back

Feegle is now a feisty 11 months-old cat. I delight in her spirit. She’s showing me it’s OK to do what feels right for you. She does her own sweet thing, but she also gives me a lot of love. She makes me feel needed and wanted. Maybe that sounds selfish on my part, but isn’t this some of the reason why we have animals as pets?

I love watching Feegle play, being silly and getting into scrapes. When depression renders me unable to connect to my loved ones, somehow I can muster it up for my cat. I think it’s because she has no expectations of me and our relationship is uncomplicated.

My cats have been the best therapy for helping me to deal with depressive episodes. I never thought an animal could do that. I am happy to say I was wrong. I couldn’t be without a cat now, in both good and bad times.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Images via contributor

Originally published: May 1, 2017
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