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When I Learned to Love Cats, I Learned to Love Myself

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced childhood trauma, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

My second-grade teacher would divide the class into teams and evaluate things like, which group of kids remembered to raise their hands instead of blurting their thoughts? Which group was kindest to their classmates? How many of each team made it a point to clean up after activities? The winners were offered a choice between “grab-bag” and a “homework pass.”

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Since I was a nerd who liked homework (and missed it when I was pulled out of class in the fourth grade to embark on a terrible homeschooling experience), I usually picked the grab-bag. This paper grocery sack was full of miscellany that would delight any 7-year-old girl: a Snow White lapel pin, an orange beaded necklace glistening in its plasticine majesty, a photograph of a kitten.

When my team won and I found that photograph, I hesitated. Guilt washed through my little body. I was not supposed to look at a cat and find it adorable.

Nevertheless, the pull of the kitten’s big blue eyes was too much, and I brought the picture home to stash under my pillow so my mom wouldn’t see it.

Growing up, I had no option but to acquiesce to my mother’s scrupulous choreography of what I could like and what I was allowed to find distasteful. This set of rules was mercurial and contradictory. For example, I was not permitted to wear dresses outside of special occasions, but I was also forbidden from alluding to my burgeoning attraction to female peers. I was praised for being book-smart and simultaneously scorned for being “pretentious.” I was occasionally lauded as a “genius” and, within the following hour, lambasted for the absence of “common sense” that would surely keep me from being able to operate in society at large.

Also, I was not supposed to like kittens. My mom hated cats, so I didn’t have a choice.

Nineteen years later, when I was 26 and indeed functioning on a relatively normal level in New York City, I moved from Manhattan to Queens. I was not prepared for the number of feral cats that would show up to watch me through the window: Serena, who meowed like the archangel Gabriel at the annunciation; Crowley, who scowled at me for hours before he seemed to decide I wasn’t going to get myself into trouble; Sickie, who sneezed all the time; Butternut Squash, who squeaked like a baritone mouse; and Banjo, who had round green eyes with all the kindness of an old soul seeking the company of the lonely.

Over a short time, the emotional sturdiness that I had so fastidiously curated since being released from my second stay in a psychiatric unit the year before began to buckle. These cats were vulnerable. These cats were deserving. These cats were, no matter how hard the mom-voice in my head tried to convince me otherwise, adorable.

I began to let them inside. Serena quickly decided my first-floor apartment was actually hers, and the other cats became frequent visitors — especially Banjo, who was later adopted by a friend and died following a diagnosis of kidney failure; and Butternut Squash, who was supposed to be adopted but wound up staying with me instead.

Once the cat gate was open, so were the wounds. Where I had once been capable of dismissing others’ love for their pets as shallow and self-centered — per my mother’s derision for her friend, who was grieving for a cat and her brother, who had cats instead of offspring — now I couldn’t listen to or read stories about any animal in even the most mundane kind of distress.

When I tried to save Sickie’s life and couldn’t, I mourned more than I had ever mourned for any human being and berated myself over and over again. When Crowley disappeared after failing health and never returned, I felt that he had taken part of me with him.

In the midst of all this, I had a dream that I wandered into my Queens bedroom to feed hungry cats. Moments later, I jerked awake in a sweaty panic, terrified and nauseated.

In the dream, I had not seen the cats. I had spotted myself instead, kneeling next to the bed in a prayerful position, needy and supplicant. Suddenly I was the vulnerable one; I was the helpless feral creature seeking the emotional nourishment with which I had showered these creatures who had previously stood beyond the confines of what I was allowed to love.

Apparently, I fell into that same category.

It didn’t take a Mensa participant to recognize that when I was tending to the cats, I was trying to get at something inside of myself. These cats were me, Emily, that curious 7-year-old who deserved love and didn’t receive it. To give a clearer example of this crossover of identities, it was only yesterday that I felt entirely at ease until reading a passage in a book wherein a child character begins weeping and exclaims, “I want the kitty!” At this point, I froze, sickened, and began to sob.

This absurd response never would have happened in the past, but I felt that line in my bone marrow. “I want the kitty” triggered shame and helplessness that otherwise probably wouldn’t have surfaced.

As a child, I was coerced into the role of nurturer. I saw to the emotional wellness of my mother and, to an even greater degree, my youngest brother, to whom I was more parent than sibling. My mother saw me as worth little more than my caregiving abilities, and since I had no option but to agree with her on everything, that was how I saw myself, too.

She could not have anticipated that I would rewrite that script with animals.

As much as I wish I knew what happened to the photograph from the grab-bag, I don’t need it anymore. Instead of a likeness shoved under my pillow, I have Serena, who uses me as her personal mattress every night. Now that my mother and I no longer speak, my task — a task which I finally have the space and freedom to accomplish — is to recognize that my worth is not limited to how well I can care for others.

At the same time, I must learn to look inside and care for myself. I am thankful to the cats of Queens for coaxing that realization into the light of day, and for nudging me into taking steps — footfalls that burn, but strides that take me to where I must go — to begin the process.

Getty image by Ulza

Originally published: April 20, 2022
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