It was just over a year ago that my mother turned to me and said, ‘Emily, what you need is a baby – or a cat’.
What she really meant was ‘You need someone to worry about other than yourself.’ I’d been depressed and ill for months, and it must have slowed my feminist reflexes, because instead of getting annoyed about the assumption that I ‘needed’ a baby, I started to cry. I understood what she meant. I needed someone to look after in order to look after myself. I’ll refine this further: I needed to channel my desire to look after someone, by finding someone to look after who wasn’t a man. I needed someone to look after who wasn’t a fully-formed human being. You see, even though I don’t have children, I’m quite maternal. But this means that I have a tendency to position myself in relationships as the nurturer. I neglect my own needs, or consider them only in relation to their impact on others.
For instance, once I had a panic attack and the first thing I said to Greg was ‘I don’t want you to panic, but I’m having a panic attack. I feel bloody awful’. See the problem here? That’s the kind of learned behaviour I’ve had to reprogramme. Now, I aim to say ‘I feel bloody awful. I’m having a panic attack’. I’ve learned that he doesn’t panic; he never has, even when I’ve said to him ‘I think I might have to run away from you to SAVE MY LIFE!’. Oh yes, I have a melodramatic streak too. It makes for interesting companionship. You could never accuse me of being a boring girlfriend.
One of the things I found helpful for managing my own patterns of behaviour was this book that a very lovely counsellor recommended. It basically works on the theory that we repeat and reinforce negative behavioural patterns because to break them would take us seriously out of our comfort zone. But break them we must, in order to get better. This doesn’t mean changing our personalities; rather, it means identifying the stuff we do that makes us miserable and taking practical steps to deal with it. So, if you’re a workaholic and you’re anxious because of it, you have to find ways to stop working at weekends and evenings.
In my case, counselling and medication helped also. But the biggest and most significant change came in the form of a large black and white cat. My mother was right. I needed Ozzie:
Recently, an excellent blog post has been written by Nadine Muller, of The New Academic, about the benefits of canine companionship. Consider this, then, my feline tribute.
On a sunny Saturday in June, Greg and I drive 20 miles down the road to Bridgend Cats Protection Adoption Centre. We have no idea whether they’ll let us adopt a cat. I think we must appear like good responsible parents because they give us a form and we have a quick interview with one of the staff members there, and then they take us to see the cats.
The centre is bright and airy, and the cats are located in glass-fronted ‘tanks’ on either side of a long, wide corridor. There are many tanks, and most are occupied. Some have kittens (who are very interested in us as we walk past). But I know the kittens will find homes. They are so beautiful, and what we need is a cat who would otherwise be neglected. We need an ugly, scruffy, one-legged, half-blind doddery old cat. We also need a cat that can adapt to living indoors – a flat cat. I don’t believe in keeping cats indoors without good reason, but we have a large flat and no garden, and live in the middle of a city. And cats are more adaptable than dogs. A dog would have been out of the question.
A few cats are very pleased to see us; they are the ones who haven’t been there too long and haven’t got depressed. The staff are lovely, but the centre is a temporary holding place, not a home, and some of the cats are sad. A white one hides under a blanket. An adolescent kitten clamours for our attention. Other cats get excited and rub themselves against the glass, wanting to meet us.
Ozzie is the first of these. He is the only cat who is FIV positive (the feline form of HIV) and so has to be kept indoors. He is also the only cat who has ‘Jumps Out!’ written in black marker on his tank. And he does jump out, when the lady opens his tank. She has to run after him, catch him and bring him back to us. The second time he tries it, I catch him, and we stand there for a few minutes, him in my arms considering escape, and me holding on, considering him. He seems to like us. He’s purring and enjoying the attention. When I leave my cream jacket is covered in his fur. We reserve him and collect him the following day. He miaows all the way home, but when we open the box in the flat, he does not hesitate. He jumps straight out.
A year later, and he rules the roost. We are his humans, no question about it. He sleeps on my head and pushes his way into impossibly small gaps between Greg and I on the sofa, gaps which he then widens through sheer persistence. He follows us to the bathroom. He has fallen in the bath, once. He watches the seagulls perch on the lamp post from the window, and he comes running when Greg sings. In the daytime, we leave the radio on for him. His favourite stations are BBC Radio 4 and Planet Rock. He seems to enjoy nature programmes, particularly ones that involve birds or other cats. He has developed an unrequited romantic relationship with Poppy, the black and white cat who lives downstairs. They make eyes at each other when Poppy sits outside in the garden. He is a very happy cat. He makes me happy too.