Our son recently returned for a restorative stint at home, bringing with him the latest addition to our family – Sammy the cat.
He acquired “The Meister”, as we call him. during one of the COVID lockdowns last year when he was experiencing burnout. Living alone and at a particularly low ebb because he was unable to work at his job in hospitality, he wasn’t eating properly or taking his medication and his imposed isolation 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 the 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 pet owners, my husband and I are now looking forward to a period when we can rent boujie 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 wasn’t long before he embroiled me in his illegal mission to collect Sammy from a suburb in the west 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
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 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 each time he moves, and there were times in those 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 his body language that he was tortured and 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 was part of the reason, but admittedly, the loss of our son’s deposit on his apartment as a result of the damage Sammy did to the carpet didn’t help.
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 in which he could hide.
He didn’t leave his box for the first month
Initially, the only time Sammy left the cube was when our son’s bedroom door was shut. Each time I ventured into the room and tried to stroke him, he did this impressive Houdini impression to avoid my touch, either by hiding under the cushion in the cube or pushing his body so far back against the wall I couldn’t 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 decided I belonged.
It was more than a month before curiosity got the better of him and he began to venture beyond the boundary of our son’s bedroom door, only to be thwarted by the territorial behaviour of our terrifying Spoodle. Luna is a princess and used to our undivided attention, so 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 his study – 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 he swiped it away in disgust. I should point out here that my son calls this “playing” and that Sammy is more Jekyll than Hide with him.
Slowly, over the past month, Sammy’s steps to integrate with our family have gone from strength to strength. Perhaps, it goes without saying that they are ALWAYS on his terms – he is a cat, after all – but suddenly he is everywhere in the apartment, from the bench top when he is waiting for his food, to sitting outside my bedroom when he doesn’t think I am looking.
Sammy is now sleeping on 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 has had to learn 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, people with trauma behave the same way. The perfect fictional example of this is the character of Marianne in the book/tv series “Normal People”.
Our son is similar. Several times a year he experiences burnout and needs time out to recalibrate from the sense of overwhelm that trying to meet the weight of expectations causes. His ongoing battle with his mental health issues means 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 I believe that with love and acceptance – what should be the first line of treatment for people with mental illness – people like him feel less isolated, judged and shamed. Though “tough love” may be the gold standard approach to care for certain mental health issues, it is a risky choice that doesn’t necessarily work for people who have lost the ability to function. And it is not an easy route, either, because people who have lost trust – like Sammy – are tired of fighting, 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 plants – because we know that boundaries are as important to them as they are to us. But the hope is that with some time to heal and just “be”, both will find the confidence and strength to meet the challenges of the next stage of their lives.