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Archive for May, 2010

I have a lot of time to think. It’s my shift as a feline companion at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and I bring Clark*, a three-year-old male cat, to the feline suite: at first, I stand by the exit, afraid he, who showed his teeth and meowed maniacally from his cage, might want to hold me hostage as Denny did. I watch warily from the doorway as Clark perches himself on the window ledge, his back to me. He looks out at the world, as if he’s suddenly at peace with it.

"Clark"

I have been advised it’s best to not look an unfamiliar cat in the eye, as it may provoke him. So, I open the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine and try to bury my attention in it. Soon, however, I grow tired of standing. Tentatively, I sit down on the couch, keeping my focus on the page, not on the cat. This is when Clark takes his risk: he leaves the window, climbs up onto the couch, presses the tops of my thighs with his wide paws as if to test their durability – this tickles – gently turns around and around, and around, settles down, and falls asleep.

For the next two hours (for this is how long this cat sleeps here), I think about trust.

His kennel card reads, simply, "Do you have a lap?"

I look at this animal’s body curled up so innocently in my lap. He is so quiet, so content, to be there, with me. He feels safe. He does not think that I, a much bigger being, will do him harm. He does awaken with a start when he hears a noise outside, more matter-of-factly when he simply wants to shift his position, but he always lets his body relax once more into my lap, nuzzles an ear into my hand, and falls back into a sound, contented sleep.

He trusts me.

I think about Clark and I think about Denny, and myself, and I wonder, how does one have an easier time sitting with trust than the other? It’s true that none shows immunity to the fear of abandonment or the devastation of betrayal.

When our world is turned upside down by trauma, it becomes hard to trust. Yet there’s Clark, in my lap, doing it anyway. As I lightly comb my fingers through his soft dark brown and black fur, feel his body rise and fall evenly in the palm of my hand, I consider the way he was abandoned by his owner, taken from his home and placed in a cage (what one of my fellow volunteers calls “the cat’s last indignity”). The desire to bond with a human (me) has not been destroyed, or even weakened – it is, perhaps, even stronger than ever. He knows what he wants; he reaches out for it in no uncertain terms.

Hannah loves her belly rubbed...forever.

And when I arrive home from my shift, Hannah greets me with a meow and sprawls out on the living room floor: this cat, who four years before would rarely let me touch her, now wants her belly rubbed as long as my arm and hand can last.

Maybe it’s that, as survivors, we no longer take connections for

Hannah, post-belly rub

granted. These moments are not only precious, they are essential. Connecting with other beings – trusting, bonding – becomes not only important, but, like a meal for sustenance or a salve on a wound, necessary for healing, for meaningful living.

— TLS

(*Clark’s real name has been changed.)

To learn more about the book Hannah Grace, click here. Visit the archives for previously-posted stories.

I’m so excited to report the Hannah Grace blog, since its launch May 2, has had over 1,350 visitors & 20 full-fledged subscribers! Thanks to you all for joining in the conversation and for helping to make this blog a success.

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It’s shedding season. I pluck tufts of Hannah’s white belly fur from the carpeted living room floor in the garret where we live. With its rounded metal teeth, the cat-brush devours a three-course meal: brown and blonde and crème cat hairs. As a few cotton-ball shaped fur puffs escape my grasp, drift through the air like clouds, I think about the things we shed.

We shed personal objects: a writing desk, a bookcase, a couch. Last summer, when my landlord died and the house where Hannah and I lived was sold, I had to leave these items behind, because they would not fit through the door of my new residence, which, some say, with its slanted ceilings and two-by-three foot refrigerator, must have once been the maid’s quarters.

We shed what has worn through: an old pair of socks, winter gloves and a coat, or beliefs based in the past. When I was diagnosed with PTSD, when I began to face my history, I shed the layers of denial I had wrapped around myself for years, until I reached the truth that lay at my core.

We shed people – when we move or when they die, when they change or when we grow. When I started to get healthy, I shed a lot of people from my life like a tree letting go of its leaves. I examined my losses; some days, as I grieved, I wondered what were my gains?

While watching Hannah, a former landlady once told me she would never adopt a cat who “has had something happen to it: I don’t want to deal with any baggage,” she said, “I want a cat with a clean slate.” I wondered if that was how she felt about people, too.

Everyone “has had something happen” – a breakup, a death, an illness, an accident. While it leaves a scar, the experience does not define who we are.

Four years ago, Hannah would not allow me to pet her except in her kitty bed, and then I could only touch her back. She did not trust me, or anyone (then again, neither did I). Now, Hannah flops herself upon the floor, stretches her paws as far out as they will go, and turns her belly, her most vulnerable self, to me. She purrs contentedly as I rub her gently.

Hannah has shed her distrust and revealed her core: she’s a loving, affectionate, gentle soul (of course this does not stop her from stalking and slaying mice and moths).

Hannah, Pantry Mouse Bouncer

Just as the caterpillar sheds his cocoon, sometimes we have to let go of what seems to be everything, in order to be who we really are, in order to fly, free.

— TLS


Is there something you want to know more about Hannah Grace? Leave any requests, and your other comments, below!

Are you an agent or editor? Hannah Grace is looking for a publisher home. Contact: TheHannahGraceBook@gmail.com.

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"Denny"

No man – or animal – is an island. Like humans, pets exist and interact within a community; their experiences, like humans, therefore, may include trauma, abuse and neglect, and the resulting physical and psychological “PTSD” wounds.

According to Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman, “traumatic events call into question basic…relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community” (Trauma and Recovery). Survivors work to “unpack” the breach and the attachments, to rebuild foundations and then bridges, to go back out into the world, to live a fulfilling and “normal” life.

Not just human survivors, but feline ones, I believe.

Take, for example, Denny*, a heavy-set long-haired 9-year-old boy cat with whom I recently spent time during my feline companion shift at the shelter. In the feline suite, a living-room style room where cats are brought for de-stressing, Denny head-butted my ankles, meowed incessantly, climbed upon my lap, placed his paws on my shoulders, and gave me kiss after kiss. We were complete strangers, yet he expressed this much affection (a bit too much for my own comfort, actually!). When I tried to leave, he placed himself between the couch and the door, began to hiss and spit, and whined as if this were the beginning of a lethal cat fight.

I had never seen a cat behave in such a manner. My heart pounded-pounded. Instinctively, I backed away and stood across the room, hoping Denny would calm down. When he did, I began to walk towards the door once more. Instantly, Denny was at attention, hissing and spitting, showing me his claws.

The cat was holding me hostage.

I grabbed a can of tuna, opened it, and threw it across the room, hoping Denny would move to devour it (instead of me), while I made a run for the door. But Denny didn’t blink a wink. My heart sank, then. I thought, I’d have to wait for him to fall asleep. So I sat for twenty minutes, until he dozed off. Then, I began to tiptoe towards the door…

As if programmed by hyper-vigilant reflex, Denny immediately stood and began hissing and spitting again, at which time I did the only thing I could: I called through the wall for help. In the end, Denny was distracted by the attention of another volunteer, and he let me go. Later, I was told that Denny was simply so desperate to hold on to a loving companion that he would attack so as to not be abandoned as he’d been in the past.

I couldn’t simply tell Denny that I – and others – would not treat him as his former owner had; he had to learn through repeated interactions in a safe setting. For survivors, negotiating connections and relationships post-trauma can be difficult. Our spirits are imprinted with painful events, which can riddle us with anxiety. However, if we can take the risk to open ourselves to the world again, we can re-train our reflexes, override Past’s replay, root our minds, free our hearts.

(*Name has been changed to protect the innocent, who was, six days after my encounter with him, adopted by a loving family.)

— TLS

To read more about Hannah Grace, the book, click here, or check out the archives for previously-posted stories.

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We are creatures of comfort. A disruption to our routine or modes of normalcy can cause grumpiness, or worse.

Hannah takes comfort in my bed.

For the past week, I’ve come home daily to find the front door to the house where my apartment is located unlocked, slightly ajar, or wide open like a mouth, exposing my privacy’s darkness to a world of intruders.

It is probably safe to say that irritation or unsettled nervousness would be a common reaction for most single city women in this situation (please feel free to correct me). For someone with PTSD, like myself, such a scenario can – and did – escalate in the mind, unlocking profound unprocessed emotions from the past, such as vulnerability, violation, life-or-death danger, anxiety, and anger. When this happens, the past replays.

I have learned in the course of my recovery work how to distinguish between the past and the present, how to cope and act accordingly. However, that is not to say it’s always easy.

My landlord ordered major renovations on the house before he flew the coop for Ireland for a two-week vacation. Without him around to intervene, I directly asked the workers to please shut and lock the door. When they didn’t, I left a sign verbalizing my request. When that failed, I posted a larger sign, with a diagram. When that did not produce results, I called my landlord’s “emergency contact,” who was apparently overseeing the workers. When the door was still not secured, I emailed my landlord in Ireland.

At night, I jumped at small noises (many of which were made by Hannah). I had trouble sleeping. I remained on-guard, hyper-vigilant, fearful someone was going to break in to assault me. I bought a supplementary lock and installed it inside my unit, knowing, logically, that this was ample, if not excessive, security. Surprisingly, however, this did not yield feelings of safety.

I had to face the truth: nothing will allay emotions rooted in the past except the act of confronting the past.

Hannah has helped me, in her own way, to face many things from my past that I never thought I could bear, or overcome. For a long time, I could not tolerate Hannah’s presence on or near my bed; seeing her there evoked strong feelings of terror and rage — I did not see a cat, but a perpetrator. I had to work through this in therapy. Now, I observe the way she rests there so peacefully; she shows me the way to security. Knowing Hannah’s traumatic past, I see her as a kind of role model; I watch her superimpose good over the bad. She helps me heal faulty connections in my head, in my — now opened — heart.

As always, I love reading your comments. Keep ’em coming.

— TLS


To read more about the book Hannah Grace, click here.

For more information about PTSD, click here, read an excerpt from Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, or view this blog’s side bar for other links.

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Gimme Shelter

Harvey-cat at the ARL

Harvey-cat at the ARL

We hear and see a lot in the media about shelter dogs: Pedigree’s latest commercial concludes, “if they were human, we would call them wise…with tales to tell and stories to write” — I have learned the same to be true of shelter cats.

Last November, I became a “feline companion” volunteer at the Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARL). My first “case” was Harvey, a long-haired 7-year-old boy cat, who was surrendered to the ARL after his owner died. I was asked to try to get Harvey to eat; he was on dehydration watch and refusing food, which could lead to worse things, including euthanasia. It would be very hard to get an older cat adopted, especially an emaciated one, I was told, most people want kittens.

When I opened Harvey’s cage door, he came to me. I pet and brushed him for the next twenty minutes as he shed coats of fur into my shirt, looked up into my eyes, then pushed his head into my chest, as if he were grief-stricken.

“I know,” I found myself saying aloud to him. “I know.”

He was starving, I thought, for love.

Harvey-cat, in a new loving home

At the end of my shift, as I passed Harvey’s cage on my way out the door, I saw him eating, voraciously. His eyes, once dark and dull, now held a kind of glimmer, a light, as if he had hope, had chosen life. I took in a breath: all he had needed was to feel understood and connected, I thought, just like me. Like everyone.

During my weekly feline companion shifts, I continue to see many cats retreat from the world into the back corners of their cages, hide beneath a donated blanket where they refuse food and close their eyes, as if praying to die. Others summon me with needy and lonesome tones, their bodies pressing against the silver-colored metal cage grates.

This past Friday, the ARL, with local Boston TV-news host WCVB’s Randy Price, along with guest speakers Boston Postmaster Jim Holland and photographer Sally Andersen-Bruce, unveiled the “Animal Rescue: Adopt a Shelter Pet” stamp. Buy yours today – or better yet, adopt a shelter pet.

–TLS


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To tell the truth, the beginning was hard.

Day and night, I battled PTSD-related issues, including anxiety. Hannah, who had been abused, reflected parts of me I could not bear to see. “I could write a book…” (Rodgers and Hart) about those details and the initial struggles between Hannah and me — and Hannah Grace (the book) illustrates those times. But Hannah Grace, the book, more importantly sheds light on the lightness the cat-human bond brought to bear on PTSD and my healing.

This is one of those moments:

A year after I adopted Hannah, I found a better-paying teaching position and moved out of my studio and into a one-bedroom apartment in the attic of a family home. As Hannah enjoyed the airy space and opened windows of our new residence, I began to notice a confidence growing in her body: she walked tall. Her underweight carriage filled out – she was not overweight but fit, eating and exercising with regularity and comfort. She made a place for herself on the couch, where she turned around and around and around until she finally settled on a spot for her naps, relaxing her body completely, in a trusting way I envied.

In therapy, I was beginning to process the grief I held regarding my past. After a draining session, I sat beside Hannah on the couch, my tears dampening her fur. She lay next to me with her body in a semi-circle, the white of her belly exposed. I placed my palm where I could feel her body rise and fall as she took in life and let it go. Closing my eyes, I focused on the vibration of her body in my hand. Every once in a while, Hannah lifted her nose to blot my tear-drenched knuckles, then rubbed the side of her cheek up my arm.

Some times, Hannah sped away as if beckoning me to chase her. With abandon, she dashed down the stairs that led to the apartment door, and waited for me at the bottom. I held onto the railing and followed, feeling beneath my feet the rough grass-green carpet that rolled down the steps like a tongue. When I was almost halfway to the bottom, Hannah emitted chirpy giggle noises and, like a bullet, shot past me up the stairs, tagging my leg with her tail – you’re it! – opening up feelings within me that I had not felt in decades, parts of my spirit I thought had died in the trauma of my childhood: affection, playfulness, love. As I chased after Hannah, laughter came loose in my throat.

Joy fluttered in my chest.

–TLS

To find out more about Hannah Grace, the book, click here.

Do you want to see Hannah Grace published?  Do you think others would want to read this pet memoir? Please leave your comments and/or questions below!

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Hannah, age 3 (2006)

I was a single, thirty-two year old college writing professor battling post-traumatic stress disorder, standing inside “Saint Meows,” a cat shelter in North Cambridge, Massachusetts, peering at a huddled runny-nosed sabo-tabby, when a flash of light ricocheted off the shiny metal bars of the animal cages, catching my eye: I looked up to see a tall dark-haired woman in the entranceway– with one arm she held the door open; with the other, she dropped a small plastic animal carrier to the floor. She exited quickly, then reappeared with a disheveled scratching post, which she flung from her grasp as if it were deadweight. She barked, “Is that it then?” to no one in particular; she did not wait for an answer but turned her back, and, with a brusque hand, slammed the door behind her. There was a moment of silence, the air filled with some kind of shell-shock, which was broken, finally, by a loud, long meow that leapt up from the floor. I recognized the sound, a voice crying, I’ve been hurt, love has died, hope is gone, I’m so afraid.

Her tail tip was broken, her crème-calico coat smelled of garbage, and her ears were plugged with dirt. She flinched whenever a hand went near her. She would not eat with her back to anyone, if she ate at all. Her name was Hannah, and when I rescued her I had no idea that she would, in turn, also rescue me.
– TLS

© Tracy L. Strauss, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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