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My Cat Saved Me From Depersonalization Disorder

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Scooter (courtesy of the author)

I’ve been struggling with depersonalization for decades. Sometimes it hits me while I sing along to the radio; suddenly, I feel like a faceless puppet master making someone named “Shannon” sing on command. Sometimes I’ll watch this same “Shannon” brush her teeth or open a cabinet to put away a plate. I am an observer of someone else’s life, of mundane routines that don’t seem mine.

Of course, the vantage points for my observations are always from inside my own head, and I never actually split into two people. But while I always know both parts of me are real, I can’t shake the sensation that my body is a shell taken over by another, identical me.

Dissociation is a mental process with four main categories: depersonalization (often paired with derealization), dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, and dissociative identity disorder. Depersonalization, described as involving “an unpleasant, chronic, and disabling alteration in the experience of self and environment,” is the least severe of the four types, and as a result, it can be difficult for sufferers to realize they have a mental illness. After all, 50% of adults in the United States will experience at least one episode of depersonalization in their lifetime. But for those who experience long-term depersonalization, the disconnect happens so frequently that it impacts their everyday lives.

The condition is not widely known, and often misunderstood. In the 2007 film Numb, Matthew Perry stars as Hudson Milbank, a man who tells friends and strangers of his inability to feel present in the world — but this inability isn’t ever actually displayed on screen. The film left me devoid of feeling any real connection with the character, who attempted to cure himself by “shocking his system” with risky behavior (my attempts at “shocking the system” have included tapping a mirror to convince myself that it really was me staring through the glass). For a movie to accurately portray depersonalization, it would have to delve further into the realm of unreality, to flirt with actual psychosis in the manner of Natalie Portman’s 2010 film Black Swan. But such a move is risky in and of itself, since depersonalization isn’t actually a form of psychosis, and those who have been diagnosed with it don’t attempt to kill their mirrored doppelgangers with shards of broken glass.

A therapist first diagnosed me with depersonalization when I began seeing her to work through childhood abuse, after I’d recently learned it was more involved than my brain had remembered it to be. This is a common phenomenon — a defense mechanism that allows the sufferer to unconsciously mask parts of her past in order to survive the present and future.

Growing up, I had occasionally shared the secret of my abuse with one or two friends, only to forget we ever had that conversation; years later, sure that it was a newly uncovered memory, I would share the same secret with them again. But in 2011, a family member’s simple slip during a conversation — or perhaps deliberate testing of undisclosed waters — led me down a rabbit hole of information: a childhood visit from child protective services, a biased representative, a prematurely closed case. This time, I did not forget the secret, because the adult family member had not only corroborated my secret story, but had done so even though it broke her heart.

As I uncovered more buried details about my past and experienced new emotions as a result, my depersonalization became heightened. And then, when I found myself alone in a Los Angeles studio, without a roommate or a pet, it became still more ubiquitous.

About a month after moving into the apartment, I awoke in a panic in the middle of the night. I knew either my body or my brain was an impostor, but I didn’t know which, and I felt that if I chose wrong, I would be putting myself in danger. After gasping for breath and turning on the light, I knew that there was no impostor inside my body and that my body was fully mine. But the sensation was becoming increasingly prevalent; sometimes, it would seem that when I scratched my arm, someone else was doing the scratching, or when I moved my arm in bed, it felt like it belonged to a stranger I didn’t know. My sense of unreality was starting to feel threatening.

If I didn’t get help, I feared I would lose grip on my life.

The fact that I didn’t is largely due to a cat named Scooter.

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After my midnight panic, I spent a few days making phone calls in an attempt to see a psychiatrist, and spent a few nights with the light on, falling asleep to a Netflix marathon that stood in for a flesh-and-blood roommate. I discovered my insurance involved too much red tape to make a psychiatrist visit easy, and a pharmacist friend told me there weren’t any good drugs to cure depersonalization anyway. After a few days, on my 38th birthday, I took matters into my own hands and did the one thing I knew would fix me: I pulled out my doctor’s clearance for a medical companion animal, which she had written with no reservations a couple months prior. I received threatening emails from my building manager about breaking the “no pet” code, but the Department of Fair Employment and Housing backed up my claim.

And so it was that I went searching for a cat.

I chose Scooter because Scooter chose me. Out of hundreds of cats in hundreds of cages, this black cat stared straight at me whenever I walked past. He knew I was his even before I knew he was mine. I’m a sucker for castaway cats, so when I saw his clubfeet that make him walk like an orangutan, I quickly scooped him up. “This just shows there’s a cat for everyone,” the vet said. He admitted to uncharacteristically saving Scooter from shelter homicide.

The moment I stepped inside my door and opened Scooter’s cardboard carrier, I felt my two halves merge back into one. It was as if Scooter reattached my escaped shadow, just as Wendy had for Peter Pan.

Perhaps it’s that Scooter stands in for a mirror image of childhood me, even though he’s the wrong gender and species. I was a child victim, unable to separate myself from a complex dynamic, and Scooter has his own, physical hang-ups that make him unable to fend for himself in the big bad world. He and I have a symbiotic relationship — I provide for his needs with no desire to strip him of his rights to personal agency, and he in turn watches over me like one of those fabled angels who has spiritual instead of physical strength.

Without fail, my black cat stares me to sleep each night. He sits at attention and looks at me with his chronically dilated pupils. His attentiveness is so unfailing that it’s as if he’s just daring one part of me to reveal itself as an imposter, and he and only he has proven to continually cure me of my episodes.

I take medication for other parts of my intertwined mental-health issues, but Scooter is the only medicine that brings me fully back into myself. Now when I find myself slipping from my body, I get down on the floor next to him and put my head close to his. In that field of vision, he grows to about 10 feet tall. He becomes my entire world.

His eyes stare into mine with recognition, and when I look at him looking at me, I know I really exist.

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