10 Mental Health Tips I Learned from my Cats

When I was living on the other side of the country in my early 20s, far removed from friends and family, my boyfriend gave me a little grey kitten. I named him Eeyore (the kitten, not the boyfriend). The boyfriend only lasted two more years, but Eeyore was a constant for almost 15 years. He traveled across the country with me, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, and honestly, he never really forgave me for it. 

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Little Eeyore on the Prairie.

Eeyore also traveled with me on my journey to recovery from an eating disorder. Do I sound like a loser if I say Eeyore was my best friend during this time? Well, he was. He was with me in the middle of the night, giving me head butts and chin nibbles when I’d wake up in a panic. He listened to my semi-coherent ramblings as I tried to sort out feelings between (or because of) therapy appointments. He comforted without judgment when I cried or struggled to make myself eat. He was by my side as I eventually grew healthier, married, and had babies. He always looked out for me. One of my clearest memories of being in labour with my daughter is being in the bathtub, working through contractions, while Eeyore sat in the bathroom door, growling protectively and refusing to allow either my husband or the doula into the room. He’d occasionally look over his shoulder at me, making sure I was okay, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

I’ve shared my life with a succession of cats since I was eight years old: Boo Boo Kitty, Miss Toby, Eeyore, Oedipuss, Mr. Cuddles, and Scarlett O’Hairy. These days, I share my house with Ivy and Smudge (five-year-old cowcats), and Rory, a very lively five-month-old black kitten. I also have a dog, Pippa (who thinks she’s a cat, because she’s around them all the time) who is sweet and gentle and will be trained to become a therapy dog. Pippa does wonders for my son’s anxiety. When he’s feeling especially low, she’ll cuddle next to him instinctively. When he’s sad, he says hugging her makes him feel better. When he’s lonely, he tells her she’s his best friend. I know she’ll make an amazing therapy dog.

Cats are underrated as therapy animals, though. This is too bad; they’ve been a critical part of my own mental health team (sorry/not sorry to all of my therapists and health professionals who might frown on being lumped in with felines). As I’ve gone through challenges, grown, recovered and had my own career in mental health, I’ve learned these ten key mental health lessons from my cats:

  1.  Nap

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Scarlett O’Hairy sharing her mad napping skills with the next generation.

For much of my life, napping felt like a waste of time. Even when mental distress led to chronic insomnia, I couldn’t nap. It felt like slacking off. So I would just push through, even though I was too exhausted to be productive or enjoy life. It usually made my physical and mental health even worse.

You’ll never see a cat too exhausted to enjoy being a cat. They know how to slow down and listen to their body’s cues. They feel no stigma about napping — it’s a critical part of their lives.  They aren’t missing out. They are recharging, in energy-saving mode, getting ready to play and do their cat stuff and live their best cat lives.

If you are too tired to enjoy being a human, have a nap. Recharge. You need energy to live your best life.

2.  Play exuberantly.

When my cats do wake up, they are a bit bananas. They run as if they’re being chased by demons. They pounce on things only they can see. They spin in circles chasing their own tails. They don’t care at all that I’m sitting and laughing at them. They don’t care if they look foolish, or if what they’re doing makes no sense to anyone else.

Watching my cats chase their tails reminds me of taking an adult ballet class: I stumbled. I wasn’t coordinated. I probably looked foolish to people who might know better. But I kept going, because I liked it.

Cats don’t worry about whether they look silly. You shouldn’t either.

Don’t worry that the things you love aren’t ‘cool’ enough or feel badly because other people look down on your passions. Don’t worry about looking clumsy or falling over now and then. Play is important. Finding things you love to do is a critical part of staying mentally healthy. If it makes you happy, do it, no matter how you look or what others think of the things you like.

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Mr. Cuddles confidently shows off his dance moves.

 

 

3.   There is always time for self-care.

When I became a mother, self-care got pushed way down my to-do list. Waaaay down. I remember once when my kids were toddlers, I cried because I’d been reminding myself to clean my makeup brushes for at least a year. Those makeup brushes mocked me every time I walked into the bathroom; they were a testament to my failure at self-care and a reminder of all the small but important things I used to do for myself but that now, with two small kids, I was sure I had no time to do.

For cats, though, there’s always time for self-care. To a cat, self-care isn’t something extra you add to a to-do list. It IS your to-do list. Watch how much time cats spend grooming. They are either exceeding vain creatures (likely) or just consider taking care of themselves to be their main job. 

Why don’t humans consider taking care of ourselves to be our main job? Why is ‘important’ work something that takes place in an office? Why is it only valuable if we’re paid for it?  We only get one body and one mind. Why don’t we consider caring for them to be the most important thing we can do?

You don’t need to spend as much time grooming as a cat does (unless you’re a Kardashian), but imagine how great you could feel if you made yourself (and the things that make you feel good) a priority.  Taking care of yourself isn’t merely an add-on or something to get to if you have extra time. It’s your most important job.

 

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Even when on duty as office cat, Smudge makes time for self-care.

4.  Claim your space.

Cats aren’t shy about taking what they want. They aren’t shy about letting you know they are there and want attention. Sure, this makes them jerks sometimes. If they want your attention, they’ll sit on your damn laptop, thank you very much. I’ve learned to back up my writing constantly to avoid the dreaded butt-delete.

As a small-sized, introverted woman in a mansplaining and manspreading world, it’s often hard for me to claim my space. I can’t just sit on a laptop to get someone’s attention. But I can be fearless about making my presence felt. I can practice letting people know I’m there, and making sure I’m noticed even when someone is trying to ignore me.

Cats are persistent. They will raise their voices and howl. Women can, too. Persist. Let your needs and your presence be known.

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The bag was impenetrable. Nevertheless, Oedipuss persisted.

 

 

5.  Show affection on your own terms.

Cats are models of consent. Most of us who’ve been scratched know better than to attempt to give a cat a belly rub without permission. The cat will let you know when it’s okay to do that. And when you are permitted a cuddle, you feel honoured. 

Set your boundaries, and don’t be afraid to enforce them.

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A blurry photo of the first time we met Smudge, in 2013…still the only time he’s let us hold him. We respect his boundaries.

6.   Daydream.

Our society values productivity. Busy is the holy grail. But cats know better. Ivy likes to spend long periods of time staring at nothing at all. Frankly, this freaks me out. But she is clearly seeing things that I can’t. Maybe she’s daydreaming. Maybe she’s communicating with the mothership. 

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Ivy did not drink this wine. She likes to have a clear head for her mindfulness practice.

I am a daydreamer by nature, too. I don’t stare at the wall like Ivy, but I’ve learned the value of just sitting with my thoughts. Daydreaming and napping have proven to be a powerful combination for my creativity. The best ideas come to me when I practice mindfulness, or just allow myself to sit quietly and just be. Ideas for writing appear in my head like gifts. Answers to wicked problems become clear.

There is value in doing nothing. From our dreams come our best realities.

7.   Know the healing power of just being present for someone.

I’ve spent a lot of money on therapy over the years. And as a mental health professional myself, I am the first to say if you need professional support, get it. But as a cat lover, I can also say that at some of the lowest moments of my life, it wasn’t talking to another human being that brought me back from the dark. It was a cuddle, a purr,  a lick on the back of the hand. Cats know when you need them. They’ll find you. And because they’re so often guarded with their affection, having a little fur ball curl up next to you when you feel despair is profound. You know they wouldn’t do that unless you were very, very important to them.

They can’t talk, they can’t judge. They won’t mansplain or try to fix things. They’ll simply be with you in your struggle until you’re yourself again. They’ll like you at your lowest, and they’ll like you just the same when you’re at your best. 

They’ll like you even better when you feed them.

 

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When I spent over a week in bed with a bowel obstruction, these guys only left me a few times a day. Best nursing care I had.

8.   Embrace your body, whatever form it takes.

I have struggled with body image throughout my life. I’ve helped others work through their own struggles. At the same time, I’ve had cats of every size and shape, every colour and fur texture. They don’t care how big or small they are. They know they are beautiful.

Cats love their bodies, whether they’re slinky or voluptuous. There is no wrong shape for being a cat.

Why do we think there is a right or wrong shape for being a human?

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Gotten to big to fit into your box? Helpful hint from Scarlett O’Hairy: get a bigger box.

9.   Learn to disconnect.

Working from home as a writer, it’s easy for me to sit for long hours in front of the computer. That’s not very good for my physical or mental health, though. Depending on my frame of mind, spending time on social media might make me feel really bad about myself. Fortunately, my cats let me know when I’ve had enough. Often, they’ll shut down my computer for me. Thanks, cats.

But I take their point. When a cat sits on my laptop, I take it as sign I need to get up and move around and take a break. Somedays, I take an awful lot of breaks.

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Rory’s novel is better than my novel.

10.   Give zero fucks about what others think.

Cats really don’t. That’s why some people don’t like them: unlike dogs, who crave human approval, cats do not care what you think. They will be their exasperating and lovable cat selves, no matter what you think about it. They are authentic.

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Do they look like they care what you think? No, human, they do not.

Now, sometimes, humans do need to care what others think. Being as insouciant as a cat is probably poor advice for getting ahead in life or living in society. But maybe if we cared a bit less about what people think of our choices, and cared a bit more about living a life that feels true to our values and spirit, we’d be happier.

 

Cats know there is no stigma in being a cat. If they felt stigma, they wouldn’t wash their butts in front of important company, or shamelessly get high on catnip and destroy stuff. They wouldn’t fall into the bathtub, struggle out, and indignantly wash their wet fur while you laugh hysterically at them.

Be you. Strive to live as authentically as a cat.

 

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Coming Out of the Dark

Trigger warning: this post deals with sexual assault and mentions suicide.

August 25th creeps up on me from behind every year, clamping its hand across my mouth and holding a knife to my back, forcing me to relive a horror almost three decades old.

On August 25, 1989, I died. 

The person I’d been died. Rather, she was murdered.  On August 25, 1989, I was sexually assaulted by a group of men in a university dorm room.  The 20-year-old girl I’d been was left for dead — not just by my attackers, but also by me. By the cops. By medical professionals. By people who couldn’t understand what had happened, and assumed it was my fault.

All these years later, I’m still trying to come back to life.

Twenty-nine years after the assault, I no longer think about it every single day. I know that even the most mundane of my choices and actions are still shaped by what happened that day, but it’s become unconscious; secondary and instinctual. Every August 25th, though, everything comes to the foreground, the feelings and memories as fresh as if they’d happened the night before. I wake up with it foremost in my head; the fear, the anguish, the sense of physical and emotional loss, can’t be shaken.

I’m still surprised that it happens like this — that every year, my brain recognizes a date that I try so hard to ignore, or genuinely forget in the rush of my life. This year, I went to bed on August 24th happy and peaceful. I’d spent the day working on my novel and making lovely summer memories with my kids and dog. I hadn’t given a thought to the date.

I woke up in hell.

From the moment my eyes opened, I felt my heart pounding: an anxiety attack, before I was even properly awake. Throughout the day, random images flashed through my consciousness, like slides on an old carousel projector:

A slash of late afternoon sunlight through the dorm room window. 

The clothes I was wearing that day. 

One of my shoes, abandoned in the middle of the room. 

A wooden chair knocked over.

A spilled glass of rum I’d never even wanted. 

A couple at the Elderhostel who, seeing me drugged and unable to speak in a hallway, with my clothing askew, called me a slut and walked on by. 

The boy who’d been part of the attack but who helped me back to my room, put me in bed and apologized. 

The coffee I’d gotten from Tim Horton’s the next morning, that I’d let go cold because I couldn’t deal with putting anything in my body. 

The nurse’s stern face at the hospital. 

My own bedroom in my parents’ house, the next night, looking so ridiculously innocent and normal that it made me angry to be there (a feeling I still get when I go there).

These are, in fact, almost the totality of the memories my brain lets me see. Even after 29 years, I’ve never had full recall of what happened that day — only snapshots and random sounds. Part of this is, I strongly believe, because the drink I was given had been drugged. The men were so insistent that I drink it – all of it. It’s also because of a head injury I got during the attack. One of the memories is of sitting in a bare wooden dorm chair, being pushed backward and hitting my head against the hard, tiled floor. I remember the sound as my skull knocked against the floor, the sensation of pain, the fear, the utter disbelief that this could be happening. Then, mercifully, I remember little until it was over. That I still only remember these vignettes is, I believe, my brain’s way of protecting me and keeping me alive, a built-in resilience which amazes me and for which I’ve been so grateful over the years.

That I remember little of the attack was, of course, a huge deal to the police, who didn’t believe anything had happened. Nor did the medical staff at the small town hospital my friends took me to the next day. I remember a nurse saying, “You must have been drinking”. I remember the doctor asking what I’d been wearing. I remember being told to go home and sleep it off, and to be more careful next time.

“Next time”. The very idea that there would be a next time caused me to vomit. That caused further looks of disproval and judgment from the medical staff, who (I felt) were more interested in cleaning up my sickness than they were in what had happened to me.

The police contacted me at my summer job because a report had been filed by the university. I didn’t want to file a report myself. I wanted to forget it, not re-live it, and in 1989 women were treated horribly at sexual assault trials (little has changed). And I didn’t want my family to know. I thought my parents would be so upset. I thought they’d be angry at me. It was my mistake, I thought (already internalizing the cues the world was giving me); it was my secret to keep.

The police officer took my account of what had happened. My memory of it, just a few days after it had happened, was even more full of holes than it is now. I knew he didn’t believe me. He said, “If you don’t remember anyone having sex with you, how can you be sure it happened?”

I thought to myself: four men. Blood. Pain. Bruises. Being unable to wear my pants comfortably. This constant feeling that I want to vomit, shower, purge myself…end myself. 

To the police officer, though, I said nothing. I couldn’t tell him names. I couldn’t remember faces, or what people were wearing. I had no answers for him. I had no proof that would matter to the world.

I thought that maybe each year, my brain would allow me to know a little more about the details, when I was ready. Maybe I’m still not ready, because I still don’t remember. But I’ve come to realize that remembering the physicality of what happened is not what’s most important. A sexual assault isn’t about a sexual act, after all, even though that’s what the media and society will focus on. It’s an act of violence and terror that is just the starting point in tearing away one’s sense of humanity and power and sense of place in the world. It’s the beginning of a life that’s based on fear and survival. It’s a murder: the death of who you were before, the death of friendships, the death of possibility, the death of courage. Those young men killed me that afternoon, as sure as if they’d put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger.

I have been reborn, to be sure. I’ve built a life. But that life is so different from the one I’d envisioned for myself, before that afternoon, that it seems like it belongs to someone completely different — a twin I’d forgotten about, perhaps, or someone from a past life. 

I was 20. I’d been a journalism student, confident and excited about the future. After, I dropped out of school for a while. I floundered, trying to understand who I was now, when (in fact) I didn’t want to be anyone. I didn’t want to be. I drank too much. I got into a series of crap relationships. I stopped going to the gym, because I clearly remember my attackers commenting on my body and asking if I worked out. I lost most of my friends, and still have a hard time being close to people. I developed an eating disorder, turning my anger and loathing inward on myself. I treated myself with as little compassion, and as little respect, as I’d been treated. I ran away across the country and back again, trying to find myself. And I kept it all to myself, because I blamed myself. It was my fault this happened. If people knew who I really was, they wouldn’t like me, anyway. I feel like on a Wikipedia page for “lost potential” or “failure”, my photo should feature prominently.

On August 25th, I mourn. I mourn that young girl who, in moments of middle-aged weakness, I still judge as having made poor choices. I mourn who I might have been, and all the things I might have done, had my courage and very life essence not been taken away. I grieve for how I’ve treated myself, the friends I’ve lost, and how alone I’ve been.

I grieve, too, for my friends who found me that night. We’ve known each other since Grade 7, and are still bound awkwardly together by our own memories and experiences of what happened in that dorm room on August 25, 1989. For years, we didn’t speak of it. I didn’t speak to them, although they spoke to each other. And then years later, convinced I was losing my mind and making the whole thing up, I emailed one of them to ask if what I remembered was real. She filled in enough of the details to confirm it was real. It had happened. And she shared with me that my dear friends had their own struggles to deal with what had happened. They’d had their own feelings of guilt, anger, and confusion. They’d struggled to trust and to continue with ‘normal’ life. In my own pain, I hadn’t even considered theirs. We still haven’t talked about it face-to-face, at length. That will take a strength I’m not sure any of us has been able to muster. 

A few months after the assault, on December 6th, 1989, a man walked into a classroom at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal carrying a rifle and hunting knife. He separated the women from the men, and killed 14  women —  simply because they were women. I remember watching the news that night and seriously thinking about taking my life. That very day, I’d officially dropped out of journalism school (using a fake excuse, because I didn’t want to tell the avuncular director of the school what had really happened). My parents — who I still hadn’t told about the assault — thought I was flaky and irresponsible. My friends thought I was a loser who just wanted to spend her time drinking, not studying. I was utterly lost and couldn’t see a future. I didn’t want to continue in a world that was intent on destroying women, one by one.

The #metoo movement has brought back so many of these memories and feelings for me. It’s been difficult. But it’s also allowed me to start speaking my truth: this did happen, it’s affected me profoundly, and don’t you dare question it. Each time I hear the stories of Mollie Tibbetts, Reteah Parsons, and so many other women who’ve died as a result of sexual violence, I feel sick and weak. And then I see the marches, the women coming together to speak their truth, and I feel stronger. One story can make a difference. One thousand stories can spark a revolution. 

This August 25th was a lot like the twenty-eight that preceded it. Every nerve in my body was jangling from the moment I woke, like a jolt of electricity was flowing through me all day. Everything I did, from what I chose to eat for breakfast down to what I wore and where I went, was tied to memories; my actions were being directed by the ghost of who I was. I could not shake the grasp of the memories any more than I could shake the grasp of my attackers.

This August 25th was different in some important ways, too. I went to the gym — something I’ve only started doing this summer, with my 14-year-old daughter. It’s not about fitness, or weight loss, or any of the usual reasons. It’s about getting back my strength, literally and figuratively. It’s about not letting my attackers have something I once enjoyed so much. I’m reclaiming my power.

I was also extra kind to myself this August 25th. Typically, my inclination is to stay alone, hide, isolate, mourn. This time, I got out. I stayed close to people and things I love. I moved about in the world, not as a ghost, but as a grown, alive and very vulnerable-feeling woman. I ate ice cream with my kids. I spent time in nature. I sat on a beach. I watched the stars in the late summer sky.

I also opened a notebook and wrote something important: thoughts for a creative non-fiction book about this experience. I’d like to write about how the assault shaped my life, as well as how it affected the lives of my friends and others around me. I want to show how sexual assault isn’t an act against one person: it’s an act of violence and betrayal against society, and has far-reaching implications. Exploring it all in depth will take a courage I still need to find, but by next August 25th, I hope I’ll be stronger. 

Thirty years is a long time to hold on to a secret and self-loathing. Although I don’t keep what happened to me a secret any longer, each time I share a bit of what happened I panic. Will this affect how people think of me? Will it be used against me? What if the friends who abandoned me back then (and to whom, admittedly, I was pretty crappy) come back and laugh or say, once more, that I was lying? What if I get called a slut again? What if one of those men who attacked me read this blog and found me?

The fear is pervasive. I’ve let it hold me in, hold me down, for too long. Trauma kept inside is dangerous and erosive. Sharing stories like this might help someone else feel less alone. I don’t want anyone to feel the way I did — the way I have, for so many years. I know I am stronger now, and I need to keep building that strength. Speaking my truth is one way to build that muscle.

Confessions of a Report Card Junkie

I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve. It feels fake and forced. For me — a true nerd — beginnings and endings were always defined by the school year. September was for new intentions and possibilities. June was the end of a chapter, a frenzied season of field trips and prom and report cards and ‘grading day’, followed by a drowsy mental hibernation on the beaches of the Northumberland Strait. 

I was a report card junkie. My friends were pretty, or popular, or athletic, or talented. I wasn’t those things. But I was smart, and grades became my validation and my drug. School was what I was good at, and report cards were my proof that I had value in the world. 

Taking pride in your accomplishments is wonderful. But defining yourself through someone else’s evaluation of you, or by the awards you’ve won or any external validation, isn’t really healthy. That sort of praise or feedback can be fleeting. And when it’s gone…who are we? Who are we, if we are not the Brain, or the Athlete, or the Beauty? Who are we without our labels (Did The Breakfast Club teach us nothing?)?Read More »

Updating my Privacy Policy

Here is a science lesson: pearls are formed when an irritant invades an oyster. The oyster probably wishes it could just get rid of the irritant and go about its business. But it can’t. It has to live with it. So it hides the irritant. It excretes a fluid to coat it, glossing it over until the sand or parasite at its core is no longer recognizable. It’s become something else. What was painful to the oyster becomes beautiful and desirable to someone else. (Of course, it’s ultimately stolen from the oyster, so all that hard work of coating and hiding was for nothing.)

Our life stories are pearls. They often start from pain, but we learn at an early age that no one wants to see the pain. So we find ways to cover it, to dress it up and make our pain socially acceptable. We drink. We alter our bodies. We use humour. We work too much. We deny ourselves, our feelings. We lie. We fit in.

There are stories you can tell, and stories that you are supposed to lock up inside you. The ones we lock inside us aren’t pearls, though. We still feel the irritant, the pain. We can see what they really are. All else is fairy tales. 

I’ve been quiet here over the past several months. So many times, I’ve sat in front of my laptop and started typing. Each time, I edited. Coated the irritant. Ultimately, I deleted.

After writing about my experience in politics in my #metoo posts back in February, many people reached out to me. Most were supportive. Many wanted to hear more or to share their own stories.

A few others, though, wanted me to just be quiet.

Sometimes, it only takes a few voices of dissent to silence us. Ninety-seven voices can tell us what we’ve said is relevant and important and helpful. Three voices can tell us we’re stupid and misguided and should just keep our stories to ourselves.

Guess which voices echo loudest in our heads?Read More »

These (fat) legs were meant for walking (all over your stupid sexist BS).

I spent the entire decade of my twenties hating my body. No, not just hating it – actively trying to destroy it. I starved it and abused it. I punished it for crimes for which it wasn’t guilty. In my mind, all my young life’s problems stemmed not from my mind or spirit or environment, but from the failings of my body.

I consumed little, while my eating disorder consumed me.

At its worst, I was unable to think rationally, to work, or to do anything but obsess about my caloric intake. Dreams and goals and relationships were destroyed, along with my mental and physical health. It was the most painful ten years of my life.

Eating disorders are the most lethal mental illness. 10% of people diagnosed with anorexia will be dead within ten years. At times, when I could feel my heartbeat fluttering, or I became faint from the workouts I forced myself to do despite having not eaten, a sane voice in my head warned that I was in real danger. But the eating disorder voice was always stronger.

“Just a bit longer,” it whispered to me. “Once your body is perfect, you can stop.”

But your body is never ‘perfect’ to the eating disorder. And you can’t stop so easily.

Recovery from an eating disorder isn’t straightforward. It’s hard, and it’s long, and relapses are common. Recovery isn’t a final destination, either. Once you come through to the other side, you realize how much the eating disorder took from you. Once you’ve started to restore your body and mind, you understand how much work you need to do to repair your relationships, your bank account, your education, your career. It’s exhausting.

I’ve sustained recovery for many years now. My body is healthy, and I nourish it.  But recovery requires an almost daily choice to accept myself as ‘enough’ in a society that is so damn eager to tell me I’m not. Read More »

Mental Health Week (or, “At least you’re not really sick…”)

This blog is still in its infancy, but people are asking me why I’m doing this. Why am I putting my family out on public display, even with thinly-veiled identities? Am I brave, or irresponsible, or in need of therapy?

(Well, ‘yes’ to all of those.)

But really. I can tell you why I’m doing this: stigma. I have spent decades of my life pinned down by the stigma of living with anxiety and of having recovered from an eating disorder. I have felt invisible and fake, and convinced that people wouldn’t like me if they knew who I really was.

Enough of that bullshit. This is who I am. I am not perfect. I am not particularly strong, or brave, or smart. I am flawed but surviving, and I can do that better if I tell the truth about my life. Our society, in general, will do better if we all tell the truth, and smash through the stigma that comes from living with mental illness. Mental illness is isolating enough without having more isolation imposed on you by society’s stigma. I don’t want Puck to feel the isolation I’ve felt. I am committed to working for change.

Things are better than when I was Puck’s age, for sure. Somedays, though, the stigma shows up where it’s least expected.Read More »