How My Cat Taught Me to Stop Ignoring My Own Needs
By focusing on caring for him, I learned to care for myself
My cat is an anxious cat. He is a black cat with white markings underneath his chin and white paws which make it seem as though he’s wearing little boots. Whilst growing up I had one other cat, and I’ve spent time around various other cats belonging to friends and family. But of all the cats I’ve known, there has never been one who wails like my cat, my Jackson. My cat is not afraid to make his grievances known. He does not shy away from demonstrating his needs. If he does not get what he needs he will wail and wail until he does. He is not apologetic about this. In fact, I am almost certain he feels he is entitled to make his needs known. For this I commend him.
I picked Jackson up at eight weeks old, four years ago this summer, just a few weeks after I was discharged from a psychiatric ward where I had spent a month. Suffering an intense depressive episode, I no longer wanted the life I had been offered. I had lost that burning desire we are all born with, the one that makes you cling to life like a baby clings to their mother’s breast. After 6 months of grappling internally with a traumatic event, I could no longer ignore and bury my needs. They oozed out of me. They were heavy and viscid, and the flood barriers I had built to contain them were no longer standing.
I adopted Jackson as an attempt to fill even a little of the gaping hole inside my chest. I was to focus any energy I had on loving him and caring for him, practicing the tenderness I could not offer myself.
It was summertime and the air was often thick and humid. At night Jackson slept in my room. I wanted to cultivate a space we could share whilst keeping a close eye on him. Almost every night I was woken around 3 a.m. by the putrid smell of Jackson’s poo. The heat only intensified the smell and night after night I would quickly scoop the poo out of the litter box and run down to the wheelie bin outside before manhandling my fan in the hope that I could waft some of the smell out through the open window. Jackson, of course, was not phased. He was just answering his needs.
As the summer marched on and I seldom left my bed, putting a wall between myself and friends and family, Jackson kept me company. He curled up next to me, no questions asked, and sometimes whilst I was crying, he would gently rub his face against mine.
As I watched him each day, I noticed the way he attended to his needs seemingly without judgement. He cleaned himself, he asked for food, he let me know when he wanted to be stroked and he felt no qualms about alleviating himself, regardless of the hour.
At the age of 18 I had already spent many years ignoring my needs. Often opting for the opposite of what I knew I needed. Sometimes out of shame, and sometimes out of a deep-seated need to self-destruct and self-sabotage. I accepted abuse, I self-harmed regularly, and I made sure that no one hated me as much as I hated myself. And yet, that summer, as I bonded with Jackson and I observed how comfortable he felt asking me for what he needed, I began realizing that I was no less deserving than he was. I began to understand that by silencing my needs I was not truly relieving anyone or shielding them from what I perceived myself as; a burden. I was hurting them and hurting myself more. I would be lying if I said the shift was effortless. I would be lying if I said that I began to verbalize my needs immediately or that my troubles were resolved. They were not, and they are not completely erased even now. But there was a deviation. A shift in the direction of my course, one that would allow for improvements to be made, conversations to be had, and hope to be embraced.
You may think I am odd for crediting a small kitten for such an intense shift in behavior. Perhaps I am. But as I lie next to him in a state of heightened anxiety, stroking him, and allowing myself to be calmed and grounded by his purring, as I so often do, I know that it is worth a little oddness.