Our son recently returned for a restorative stint at home, bringing with him the latest addition to our family, Sammy the cat, or “The Meister” as we call him.
He acquired Sammy during one of the COVID lockdowns last year when he was experiencing burnout. He was living alone and at a particularly low ebb because he unable to work at his job in hospitality. Not eating properly or taking his medication, the environment provided the perfect conditions for someone with ADHD to slip back into depression.
The idea of a cat didn’t appeal to me
Admittedly, when he first suggested acquiring a cat as a companion, I was resistant. Many friends of mine are now raising the pets of their adult kids and after almost thirty years as a pet owner, we are now looking forward to a period when we can rent nice properties again and go away without the worry of leaving them with strangers.
But despite my many (illegal) visits to my son’s apartment to try and keep his mental health in check, I could see that he was slowly sinking under the strain, and it didn’t take long for him to embroil me in an illegal mission to collect Sammy from a western suburb of Sydney with some of the harshest lockdown restrictions. Masked up, heads down, we drove through the unusually quiet streets to be introduced to the newest member of our family.
“Scaredy-cat” is an understatement to describe Sammy
Sammy is the most anxious cat I have ever met. He jumps at the sight of his own shadow and the noises his own body makes when he moves, and there were times in the early days when I visited our son’s apartment when he hid in his litter tray to avoid me. Although he was never aggressive each time my son foisted him onto my lap, it was clear from the way his body turned limp that every second he was there he was planning his escape.
Fast-forward a few months and I was still struggling to warm to him. His clear refusal to acknowledge me as the matriarch of the family (with the respect I believe I deserve) or to cow-tow to my many innovative attempts to connect with him were part of the reason, as was the later loss of our son’s deposit on his apartment for the cat’s damage to the carpet.
Nevertheless, I like to think I am the bigger person and when he turned up at the family home, I welcomed both my boys with open arms, even providing Sammy with a safe space (from me) – a furry cat cube to hide in.
He didn’t leave his box for the first month
The only time he left the cube was when our son’s bedroom door was shut, and each time I ventured into their space and tried to stroke him in the box, he did an impressive Houdini impression to avoid my touch, either by hiding under the cushion or pushing his body so far back against the wall it was impossible to reach him. Nevertheless, he was productive during his transition to our home, developing a handy left hook as an additional mode of defence.
There were a couple of occasions when I enticed him out with toys or expensive treats – because for a street cat, Sammy is surprisingly gourmet in his choice of cuisine – but each time I thought I was making progress, he reverted back to his street behaviour and slapped me back down where he has decided I belong.
It was more than a month before curiosity got the better of Sammy and he began to venture beyond the boundary of our son’s bedroom door, but this time rather than his own fears, the territorial behaviour of our terrifying Spoodle thwarted his progress. Luna is used to our undivided attention and each time he got close to the living area, she chased him away and set Sammy’s intrepid exploration back another few days.
Then one day he appeared on my husband’s desk chair in the study, which was helpfully tucked under the table and out of direct reach of our jealous dog. And even though physical contact with him was still a risky venture, occasionally he allowed me to stroke his paw gently before swiping it away aggressively – I should point out here that my son calls this “playing” and that Sammy is more Jekyll than Hide with him.
And slowly, over the past month, Sammy’s steps to integrate with our family have gone from strength to strength. It goes without saying that they are ALWAYS on his terms – he is a cat, after all – but suddenly he is everywhere, from the bench top when he is waiting for his food, to sitting outside my bedroom when he doesn’t think I am looking.
This morning we caught him checking out our dog’s bed
Evidently, whatever trauma Sammy experienced before the RSPCA found him on the streets had a lasting effect on him and he is learning how to trust humans again – something that can only be done with patience, love and understanding. And though it is frustrating when animals don’t behave the way we want or expect them to, people with trauma behave the same way. FYI, The perfect human example of this is the character of Marianne in “Normal People”.
Several times a year, our son experiences burnout and needs time out to recalibrate from the sense of overwhelm caused by trying to meet the weight of expectations that we (inadvertently) and society place on him. His ongoing battle with his mental health issues mean that he reaches a point when he can’t leave the house without feeling nauseous and feels permanently angry and fatigued. Because he doesn’t look disabled, there is little compassion for his struggles. Others see him as lazy, entitled or weak in some way.
People who have lost trust are often defensive and oppositional
But with love and acceptance – what I believe should be the first-line of treatment for people with mental illness – people like him feel less isolated, judged and ashamed. Though “tough love” may be the gold standard approach to care for some mental illnesses, it is a risky choice and one that doesn’t necessarily work for people who have lost the ability to function completely. It is not an easy route, either, because people who have lost trust, like Sammy, are disillusioned, and often defensive and oppositional.
In the three months since my son and Sammy returned home to live with us, we have watched them come out of their respective boxes and flourish. Slowly, we are reintroducing boundaries – which for Sammy means not scratching my rugs or chewing the leaves of my artificial plants – because we know that they are as important for them as they are for us. But the hope is that with some time to heal and just “be”, both will find the confidence and strength for the next period of their lives.