Archive for June, 2010

For the past two weeks, I’ve been battling a cold lodged in my throat. A nagging cough wakes me up to duel in the middle of the night. I’ve been drinking cup of water upon cup of water, trying to drown it, kill it. Consequently, I frequently have to get out of bed to use the bathroom.

The apartment is a tiny L-shaped attic unit – “the maid’s quarters,” someone told me it must’ve been, though my British friend Louise calls it “the kind of apartment you find in England,” which makes it sound more lofty, and chic. There’s one short straight hallway from my bedroom to the dwarf-like kitchenette to the rudimentary bathroom with its slanted shower ceiling and matching curtain rod, which sometimes makes me wonder if I am living in the remnants of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie set.

In the summer heat, everything feels more cramped and clammy. Coping with PTSD makes my life during the night complicated to begin with, but with a cold, as I try to maneuver in the darkness, everything is disorienting.

The clock casts its red glow: 2:32 a.m. I exit the bathroom and begin to walk the short path that leads back to my bedroom. I am passing Hannah’s food bowl area when I see a huddled shadow and feel something soft slither under my bare right foot.

“Huuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” I am gasping, I am jumping back. Then I am paralyzed. The noise that comes from my throat makes it sound as if I am being strangled. My thoughts run frantic. What is it???? My heart is thumping against my collarbones. Dissociation fogs my brain. Am I sleepwalking? Have I come upon a nightmare? Then I realize: it’s Hannah.

It is not the moment I stepped on her tail but the subsequent noise coming from my throat that makes Hannah leap away from her bowl and land two feet behind me as if she is diving into a bomb shelter, her body hunkering down, ducking to escape annihilation. Her paws press the surface of the floor.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I beg as I bend to see if she’s injured. I try to pet her, comfort her, make it up to her, because I cannot bear the way she looks at me, frightened and shrunken, as if I am a perpetrator.

People who love me have told me they’ve seen that look in my eyes, my face and body, directed towards them. It’s a survivor thing: give us a trigger and, for an instant, we don’t see the now, we see the past. It’s a reflex, a regret, I’m trying to heal, write over.

After a moment, Hannah scampers away, and I let her go because I know that trying to convince her I am me will just make matters worse. And anyway, I think, deep down, she knows. Later, it will occur to me that maybe, in fact, she was not running from me at all, but mirroring my own hysteria.

In the morning, when the sun comes up, Hannah greets me with a nose kiss and rubs her head all over my hand. She purrs as I put my hand to her belly, and I make note to take her cue. — TLS

What do you think? Please leave your comments below. To learn more about the book Hannah Grace, click here. Check out the May and June archives to read previously-posted Hannah Grace stories.


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It’s okay if you laugh.

Four years ago, when the Saint Meow’s shelter manager inspected my studio apartment for “cat-proof” clearance, she took one look at my loveseat, which I had covered with a plastic shower curtain, and almost denied the adoption.

The shelter manager’s blonde eyebrows bent downward. “The cat is going to go on the couch,” she murmured. “Maybe this isn’t the home for her.”

I did not want Hannah touching my things – my heart. I was afraid, even though I had been health-cleared by an allergist, that this cat would cause me to die. My belief was irrational, I knew, I had been over it again and again with my therapist: there was nothing to fear. Ultimately, my desire for a pet trumped my phobia. I felt a yearning surge in my chest, and I quickly removed the plastic.

The manager sighed as she handed me the guardianship form for Hannah – I added the second name “Grace” to rhyme with “Trace,” my nickname – and, after I signed on the dotted line promising I would never choose euthanasia under any condition, the no-kill shelter manager left me, and my new three-year old pet, alone.

Then, I did not know what to do: I had gotten what I wanted and I was terrified.

Hannah, during our early 'studio days.'

So was Hannah. She cried all night and refused to eat for almost two days. When I tried to pick her up or hold her close she panicked, flailed her paws and wrenched her body free from my grasp. When my hand approached anywhere near her face she flinched. She resisted petting, unless it was in her charcoal-colored kitty bed, which I had placed atop a storage crate in the corner of the small studio: only there was it okay to stroke her back and ears. She ran, as if for dear life, from any contact that was not on her terms.

I had thought we could heal from our traumas together. Then, I was not so sure.

Today, everything feels, and is, different. Looking back at my behavior, I understand my anxiety about becoming close to Hannah was deeply rooted in my past: I feared attachment as much as I craved it. Looking back at Hannah’s behavior, I understand she felt the same. Together, we stepped across the threshold to a new way of being, living.

According to Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman in her landmark research book Trauma and Recovery, “traumatic events call into question basic…relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community” (1997). Looking to case studies compiled by Pat Sable in “Pets, Attachment, and Well-Being Across the Life Cycle” (Social Work), “pets can be a vehicle to facilitate awareness of [an individual’s] intimate attachments and attachment behavior” (1995). As well, she points out the reciprocity of attachment in the animal-human bond: “animals need attachment for protection and survival…[and] disrupting a pet’s attachment by abusing or neglecting it, or abandoning it, is not only cruel but undermines a foundation of attachment” (1995).

If pets become vehicles for exploring issues of attachment, and trauma breaches attachment, then the pet-human bond becomes a stage for the interplay and resolution of the effects of trauma on attachment.

This idea of cat-human mutuality in the trauma-recovery process serves as the backbone for the stories that appear in this blog, and in the book Hannah Grace.


What do you think about the mutuality of the cat-human bond? Have you and your pet healed from something or grown in certain ways together? Leave your stories and comments or questions below. Check out the May and June archives to read previously-posted Hannah Grace stories.

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{Writer’s note: The following is a chapter excerpt from Hannah Grace and is therefore a bit longer than usual posts on this blog. To read previously-posted Hannah Grace stories, check out the May and June archives.}

A year ago, I almost lost her.

On a cold winter Saturday, Hannah began vomiting half-dollar- and pancake-sized neon yellow puddles on the couch. Pink-tinged pools of bile spread on the bathroom tile floor.

There were the series of inconclusive tests: blood, ultrasound, x-ray: Dr. Adam Parker, the clean-cut dark-haired late-thirties veterinarian, spoke in a measured tone but the alarm in the air was palpable as he pointed to a gray-white spot on the x-ray: “This is an area of concern.”

I left the clinic for the car, where I called my brother, because I was supposed to meet him for his birthday: I was late. I got his machine, told him where I was, and then I stopped – my mouth contorted, my lungs pushed at my ribs. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I said, each time less audible until I finally let go of the fight. I simply lost control of myself: the sobs took over and I hung up the phone without saying goodbye.

I never knew a cat could make me feel so much.

Hundreds of dollars later, test results inconclusive, I bottomed out my already-scant emergency funds for further medical care. When Dr. Parker suggested I place Hannah in an animal hospital, I felt like a selfish and irresponsible person saying, “I don’t have the money.”

Dr. Parker responded with a gentleness that surprised me: “I understand,” he said. “If it’s cancer, we’ll know soon enough. Then no amount of financial debt would help Hannah.”

The prognosis was poor, but not yet grave. I imagined Hannah in the hospital overnight, alone and afraid in the dark. I did not want her to spend her last moments imprisoned in a cage. I wanted to take her home, where she would feel safe, and where she could die on her own terms.

Dr. Parker offered to instruct me over the phone on how to treat Hannah on a daily basis. If things got too bad, he said, it would be time to put her down.

I was not prepared. Administering anti-nausea pills proved almost impossible. Hannah resisted strongly, despite her overall weakness. I tried to tackle her and hold her down in order to shove the pill into her mouth, but she deflected my aim with her body, wrestled from my grasp, and then vomited in chain-reaction. I felt like a perpetrator, but I also felt powerless. I’m trying to help you, please, I begged, kneeling on the floor, as if Hannah might comprehend. I cried, I don’t want you to die. Finally, I learned to tie her up in a towel, dissolve the pill in water, and inject it into her mouth using a needle-less syringe. My whole body shook like crazy as my mind’s eye shifted, the scene playing out in my head as a split-screen movie – I saw my sick cat being force-fed medicine; I saw myself as a little girl, abused – as I pressed the plunger and ejected the whitish liquid into her mouth, then lightly blew on her nose to make her lick and swallow.

Then, Hannah retreated, hid in a corner under a rocking chair for half a day, then all day. She wouldn’t let me near her. I wondered if this was how a cat gave up on life, said goodbye.

“I think it’s time,” I heard my voice shake on the phone, “to put Hannah down.”

“Are you sure,” Dr. Parker said as a statement rather than as a question. He began to enumerate other options but I didn’t hear him.

I interrupted, sputtering, “I don’t want her to suffer anymore!” Or maybe, the truth, I did not think I could survive the suffering.

Hannah, January 2009

Halfway through the two-block walk to her death, the carrier much lighter than ever before, Hannah began to whine from inside the hard plastic crate. It was the first time I had heard her voice in several days.

“It’s okay, sweet girl,” I tried to comfort her. “It’s okay.”

But she did not stop whining. By the time I reached Dr. Parker’s office, I believed she was telling me, through her insistent tones, that she wanted to live.

“I’ve changed my mind,” I said when Dr. Parker entered the exam room.

Dr. Parker knelt down on the floor to sit beside Hannah, who promptly vomited at his feet. “I understand,” he said, looking at Hannah and wiping the floor. “It’s okay, girl.”

I bit my lower lip to keep from crying. “Is she in a lot of pain?” I asked.

“It’s hard to tell,” Dr. Parker said, “Cats are good at hiding pain.”

As we sat with Hannah, together, Dr. Parker explained that he knew this was a tough decision, but Hannah was my first pet and he’d seen a lot of cats become deathly ill and then pull out of it. If Hannah were ten or eleven, he said, he’d have told me to put her down right after seeing the x-ray. But she was young, so cancer would be rare, and if it were cancer she’d continue to decline, rapidly, and then we would know it was time to put her down. But what showed on the x-ray could be severe pancreatitis, in which case she could pull through.

There were a lot of “coulds” and “ifs” and I wanted a definite. I wanted diagnoses and decisions – life and death – to be black and white. What I had to learn was to tolerate the unknown, for Hannah, to hope, to love, without a guarantee of what might happen.

I brought her home. As soon as I opened the carrier door, she went to her cat bed, curled up in a ball and began to knead. I sat next to her, my hand stroking her back, watching in awe how she instinctively self-soothed. With my thumb, I gently touched the fur on her forehead, the soft space between her now yellow-tinged eyes.

“You’re a good girl,” I said. “You’ve always been a good girl.” I was talking to Hannah, but I was aware that I was also speaking to myself in the past: I was saying goodbye to a little girl who was hurt and dying inside. I wanted her to know she was not bad. What happened to her was not her fault. She never did anything wrong. I wanted to set her free – let go.

Hannah became very still. I touched her paws. They were cold. “I love you,” I said. I heard very soft, weak purring. “Goodbye my sweet girl,” I continued. “Thank you for changing my life.”

Hannah, March 2009

Sorrow consumed me then. I left Hannah for the couch, which was covered with damp vomit stains and fur. I was sobbing, beside myself. To my surprise, suddenly Hannah was there, hopping up, sitting next to me. She leaned her body against my thigh. She felt so small as I held her close, rubbing her ears and the sides of her cheeks. She purred weakly but distinctly.

“I’m here,” I said. “I’m here as long as you need me.” Hannah remained beside me for a long while, her body unmoving, except for her tail, which thumped on the couch cushion like a contented dog’s.

It was two months before she stabilized, but she survived. I did, too.


I was so moved by your comments on my last post, “On Grace” — I hope you’ll continue to share your thoughts below.

Also, if you would like to read about a particular Hannah Grace topic, please leave your requests!

© 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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In The Art of Living: Pets, researcher Erica Fudge states that, for the human, “the cat-flap becomes… a marker of insecurity and a symbol of the threat represented by a pet.” When I adopted Hannah four years ago, physical and psychological “cat-flaps” exposed themselves: Hannah penetrated my sense of security. Hannah Grace, the book, portrays some scenes of “cat-flaps.” This is one:

One night, when I had just drifted off to sleep, Hannah found an opening in the sheets at the foot of my mattress, hopped up, and frantically tunneled towards me. I awoke, disoriented. My mind’s eye shifted my perception of reality from the present to the past: I did not see a cat; I saw a perpetrator.

This was the PTSD: like an electric shock, the quick pounce of some body – Hannah – on my legs sent feelings of terror, powerlessness, and betrayal through my body as memories of sexual assault flashed through my mind. Why are you doing this to me? I yelled out in the darkness, my hands pushing her – him – away.

I chased Hannah around the small studio space where we lived, hearing her claws tap and scratch and slip against the hardwood floor.  My mind raced with raging thoughts of revenge, a common emotion for triggered trauma survivors. In this moment, I hated Hannah. I chased her into a corner, then hissed at her so hard her fur blew back. I hated myself, then, for what I was thinking, feeling, doing. Maybe someone should take her away, I thought, or arrest me. I should give her up. I buried my face in my hands, fell in a heap on the floor, and wept.

After a long while, I felt a tail reach across my shoulder and brush against my back.

Hannah 're-wrote' my fears with calmness, normalcy.

Over the years, Hannah has “pounced” on my insecurities: she has helped me push through the wall I once erected to block out painful issues from my past. She has “inoculated” my PTSD-related fears around the bed, and the bathroom; she has pointed out, prompted me to process, what kept me a prisoner in my own isolated cell. She has opened up a new world to me.

I know that I have touched Hannah, too: Hannah, who would hide in a corner and not let a hand near her four years ago, now tags my leg to play “chase,” romps around the apartment, lifts her nose upon my cheek, head butts my arm, and nudges my palm to her belly, purring for as long as she pleases.

We are re-writing traumatic associations, together, we are healing, we are transforming past experiences of hate to present loving kindness.

This, I believe, is grace.


Has your relationship with a pet changed you? Feel free to leave your comments below and/or share your story! Click here to read more Hannah Grace stories.

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