My cat saved my life by keeping me from killing myself.
A year before I adopted my cat Michi (short for Michiko), I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress, but not quite at a “Disorder” level, according to my therapist. My particular trauma was caused by living through the earthquake and subsequent tsunami of March 12, 2011 while visiting Tokyo as part of a group study exchange trip with 5 fellow teammates from Chicago. I “survived” but I was physically unscathed; unlike the many people who lost their loved ones, their homes, and their villages. Needless to say, I had a tremendous amount of survivor’s guilt, among many other uncomfortable feelings.
It was difficult to come back to Chicago after Japan. Even though I had just experienced one of the most personally traumatic events of my life, I had also fallen deeply in love with Japan over the course of the month that I visited. I was leaving this beautiful country and the wonderful friends and hosts I had met there to an uncertain future. I arrived back to the detritus of winter: the cold, gray, shitty weather of mid-March, when I normally felt like Spring was only a figment of my imagination and would never, ever arrive. I came home to an unraveling relationship with my boyfriend of almost 5 years, to the prospect of working 3 part-time library jobs, never making ends meet, feeling like I would never claw my way out of student debt and credit card bills and the unrelenting obligation of rent and buying groceries. I had just stared my own mortality in the face and now I was supposed to resume a “normal” life.
During the year after my return from Japan, I started to experience a symptom of my PTSD that I had never previously: panic attacks. Although my therapist told me that I had had a “low hum of anxiety” throughout my life and embedded in my personal view of the world, nothing quite pushed me over the edge until the earthquake. I would never wish panic attacks on my worst enemies. They have to be one of the most horrible psychological feelings that any human can endure; PTSD has given me a new view on people with anxiety disorders and what they are suffering. After I started talking about it, I was surprised at how many of my closest friends had experienced them and yet, no one really talked about it until someone else brought it up first.
At first, my panic attacks were triggered by anything shaking. I would wake up, convinced that I was back in the earthquake, unable to breathe because I had turned over in bed and made my bed shake. I would be having a normal day at work and then start to hyperventilate when the elevator would tremor between floors. When I would recount the details of my story to curious people, reliving the events would trigger my brain to convince me that I was dying of a heart attack. I would be seized in the middle of a party, surrounded by friends, because thunder nearby seemed to shake the ground where we were drinking beer and laughing.
I returned to work within 48 hours of the earthquake. I had not begun to process what I, my aforementioned teammates, and my newly beloved country had just gone through. I was not prepared to be bombarded with the gut- and heart-wrenching images that were on the covers of the newspapers that I set out in the library. I was unprepared for how blood-hungry some of my co-workers were to get the juice from “someone who was there”. Nor was I prepared for the completely insensitive jokes they made me about me “glowing from radiation” or when they introduced me as “the girl who was in the earthquake” as opposed to using my name or job title. On top of it all, my boyfriend had no idea how to deal with my panic attacks when I came home from work. I felt very very alone.
Two of the symptoms of PTSD that I most struggled with had to do with “reliving” and “avoidance”, which included feeling as though I did not care about anything; feeling detached from my life and friends; and feeling like I had no future (National Library of Medicine).
I began to isolate myself from my closest friends and even my teammates. We were all dealing with our experiences in our own private ways by attempting to soothe ourselves with the comfort of our own worlds, like burying into individual cocoons. As you can imagine, at certain times during the worst episodes, I contemplated suicide. I knew how I would do it. I never got close to really trying, but to get to that point mentally was frightening and very real. I was not in a good place and I knew it. I felt like my world had been literally shaken up and I could never return to the way it was or the person who I was before. I felt marked, like this experience was a stain on my life, memory, and mental health that could never be washed away.
Three months after returning from Japan I dissolved my relationship with my boyfriend and moved out of the life and home we had built. I found a tiny 2-room studio that fit my budget and neighborhood requirements. My panic attacks continued and worsened. During one particularly horrible instance I believed that I had poisoned myself right before bed because I woke up at 3 in the morning seeing spots, shaking, having an almost uncontrollable urge to run outside my apartment building. The feeling didn’t leave me by the next day and I felt the pull of tunnel vision and impending heart attack relentlessly trying to drag me inward and down.
After this, I became more and more obsessed with thoughts of my inevitable death and of nothing else when my mind wasn’t occupied by work or the gym. I imagined myself choking on a piece of popcorn and no one finding my body for days. Every time I took a shower, I worried about falling and busting my head open and bleeding to death in my tub. Right before I went to sleep, I would think about suffocating and never waking up.
Luckily, I had people around me who cared and were worried about me. The HR director at one of my jobs put me in touch with our Employee Assistance Program and I was able to get immediate professional help. My non-asshole co-workers/friends introduced me to the “deep freeze” of Xanax, breathing exercises, and talking myself out of the panic and off of the proverbial ledge. Other friends and dates were patient with me, listened to my anxieties, let me cry, and hugged me when I needed it most. Finally, my best friend, my sister from another mister, who knows me like few do, recommended that I get a cat.
At first I was skeptical, even though back home in Texas I was the queen of the stray cats in my neighborhood. I asked my therapist if having a cat would be an “emotional crutch of dependency”. She heartily disagreed. I was now very afraid of death and losing everything important to me. I didn’t want to give love to something that would someday die; the thought terrified me. I was also broke and could barely afford to feed myself, so how could I afford to care for another being?
Finally, the perfect moment appeared. A mutual friend had access to a newly-birthed litter of almost alley cats. I was entreated to save one before they were taken to the pound. The day came when I met my Michi. She was only about 3 months old, very curious, energetic, and a little shy. I gave her the name of a Japanese empress as a way to honor my time in Japan, to lessen the impacts of my heart breaks, and to try to create a positive daily reminder of my time there.
I had something to care for aside from myself. Now I had to go to the grocery store because Michi needed food and deserved toys and treats; maybe I’d pick something up for myself while I was there. I hadn’t quite realized her worth to me until one day, three months later when there was a huge summer storm raging through the city. It shook my building and windows and floors with such force that I was afraid of it all crashing down on me with no escape. I even called my mother in Texas just to have someone to talk to through my worst fears. I was on the way to the bathroom cabinet for my Lorazepam when Michi followed me into the kitchen sensing my panic. Instead of reaching for my meds, I grabbed a laser point and began to play with my cat. Her crazy efforts to catch the little dot (her current obsession), distracted me, made me laugh, and immediately pulled me out of the grips of a panic spiral. I hung up with my mom and continued to play with my cat until my heartbeat calmed down to a normal pace.
My Michi is a little older now and sleeps more; she’s bigger but is as soft as a kitten. She is still very playful and has moved on from the laser pointer to shadow puppets and flashlights. The best way to wake up in the morning is when she is sleeping curled in a ball next to my head. When she wakes and stretches, she climbs onto my chest, facing me, settles in, and purrs into my face with closed eyes. She runs to the door whenever I get home and rolls to show me her belly before I can put down my bag. My first moments before stepping into my house are replete with love and warmth and safety. She hops and runs to me, like a little gray rabbit, when I call her or feed her wet food and treats. I know that death still waits for me and her and my loved ones, but now I hope and believe that it will be a very very long time coming. I no longer think of my life without a future. Those thoughts of suicide are long gone…I couldn’t do that to my Michi.