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Archive for April, 2011

You know that episode of “The Brady Bunch” when Marsha gets hit in the face with a football? The “Oh, my nose!” moment that gets replayed over and over again? This past Wednesday, during my cat socialization volunteer shift at the shelter, I found myself reenacting that scene, live, but with a feline and PTSD combination twist.

Shelley*, a 2-year-old orange tabby stray, was sitting peacefully in her cage in the adoption wing. Thinking she looked like Hannah’s little brother, Sam, I bent down to talk with her at eye-level. Shelley rubbed her body across the metal grates of the closed cage door, seeking my affection, then sat upright and faced me politely.

“What a sweet kitty,” I said, when, all of a sudden, Shelley’s two front paws reached through the cage grates and, as if clapping two cymbals, she brought her claws together on either side of the bridge of my nose, swift and hard.

Feeling physically stunned, I stepped back: “Oh –” I cupped my hands over my nose, unable to say more. I shook my head, trying to recalibrate my senses. Then I stood, feeling a warm wetness beginning to slowly trickle down my cheek.

Aware of a PTSD reaction beginning to spill from within, I wondered, was my nose bleeding? Was it broken? Whoever heard of a cat breaking a person’s nose? Adrenaline made my thoughts become irrational and scattered. My fingers trembled and my legs shook. Embarrassed, not wanting anyone to see me vulnerable, I rushed to the nearest bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. Blood was leaking from an angry gash on the upper inner bridge of my nose, which was beginning to swell, and two smaller tears in the skin below each eye made my face look like a used dart board.

In that moment, I did not see myself in the reflection, but, rather, I saw myself as a child who had just been attacked, though not by a cat. I wondered if I would die.

When a PTSD reaction is triggered, realities of the present and the past get mish-mashed, as food in a blender. With the switch – adrenaline – turned on, unprocessed trauma gets reactivated in the nervous system and combines with present-day reality. On the exterior, the facts are seen and they are clear; but, pushing up against the outside realm, from the inside, is a heightened life-or-death response, an affective remnant of the past, which clouds the senses like a distorting scrim on a video camera lens.

Several minutes later, knowing I could no longer hide my bloody face, I told someone what happened. As I was tended to by a staff person, who asked me to describe the details, my mouth contorted and I held my breath, trying not to cry, while I relayed the course of events, thinking Shelley just wanted to play, thinking I had been stupid, I had done something wrong. That, of course, was how it went when I was a child playing “Doggy” in the living room with my father, when things got dark and closed in.

As I got ready to leave, I saw Shelley sulking in her cage, which two staff people were about to open, in order to take her into mandatory quarantine. I had gotten an animal in trouble, lessened her chances for adoption, for love, and I felt guilty. It was my fault: if I hadn’t wanted to forge a connection, this would never have happened. I thought this then; I thought this now.

I went home to clean my wounds. Tears were streaming down my face, mixing with my blood in the garret bathroom sink, as I bent over, sobbing. Hannah wove herself around my calves and meowed, as Sam nudged his head into my ankles quietly. I did not want to interact with them; logically, I knew who they were, but I was afraid they would hurt me.

For a while, I stood at the sink, letting out my grief, knowing it had nothing to do with what occurred with Shelley. I contemplated what happens when we live in cages, both literal and figurative, when we are bound by past-driven fear and abandonment: the stray cat inside a shelter cage; the person within a psychological prison cell, the barren, sound-proof room we’ve spent years building behind the pad-locked door, and the key – love – which we have thrown away.

As I blew my nose and reached for the hydrogen peroxide I had purchased to treat Hannah’s acne, doused a cotton ball, and blotted my face, I thought about how, all my life, I did not want to need anybody, be with anybody, human or otherwise, because I did not believe I would survive the devastating loss of a relationship’s end, which I predicted before it could even begin. The problem was, I craved connection.

So did Shelley. And Hannah, and Sam.

To borrow a line from another television show, “Lost,” what happened happened. It can’t be undone. Like that scene from “The Brady Bunch,” some days we may find flickers of our past replaying in front of our faces: Pow! Right in the kisser (or nose, or eye)! But such “attacks” don’t have to make us feel helpless.

If we allow ourselves the fullness of experience, we can leave behind the confines of our lives, to reach out, from within. I know. I’ve witnessed it, with my two cat-scratched eyes, with my two kitties by my side.

TLS

*Name has been changed to protect the innocent.

Check out “Writers and Kitties,” a website with photos of famous writers and their cats!

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Hannah & Sam, integrated at long-last.

The water stain, damp to touch, spread wide upon my bedroom ceiling like an eye, its pupil dilating. The garret ceiling, I surmised, would soon become the lens, or peephole, as it were, through which the universe would bear witness to the recent personal and professional chaos that had unfolded in my life. Trying to avoid further drama, and the garret landlord, I went to the hardware store for help.

“Nothing,” the store manager said, “will stop a leak except for your landlord fixing the roof.” When I mentioned it appeared as if someone had painted over the stain spot once before, the store manager labeled my landlord “lazy” and “cheap.”

“Anyone can hide a problem,” he said. “But it won’t go away until it’s fixed. In fact, avoiding it will only cost more in the long run.” He asked how long I planned to stay in this apartment. I told him I’d hoped to be out a year ago.

“Don’t worry,” he added, “The ceiling won’t cave in, unless we’re talking about you still being there another year from now.”

I thanked the store manager and, realizing there was nothing else I could do except restart my search for a better apartment, I phoned my landlord to explain the situation. My landlord said, “Can it wait until Monday? I have a bad cold.”

I felt half-relieved: I did not want my landlord in my apartment, sick or well. Particularly, I did not want him in my bedroom. The prospect made my mind spin in a PTSD-ridden way. I recalled how I had been told by my movers, when I first arrived at the garret, that I would have to give up my mattress and box spring should I decide to move out, as they barely fit up the garret’s narrow staircase and going up is a different story than going down. If logic followed, then, I should not be concerned if the leak became worse and torrential rain poured down and ruined my bed. In a sense, it would simply kill two birds with one stone, or flood, to be more accurate.

With my mind gripped by agitation and uncertainty about the facets of my future, I walked down the short garret hallway towards the bathroom, when a feline moment of life-affirming beauty caught my eye: Hannah and Sam were sitting, together, on the back windowsill. I had never seen Hannah allow Sam to be this close, and she allowed his company for the next twenty minutes. At one point, Sam stood and moved his head closer to Hannah, as if to give her a nose kiss. Hannah turned her head slightly, affectionately, then pulled back as if to say, “don’t push your luck, kid.”

When life gives me lemons, rather than make lemonade (which won’t fit in the dwarf-sized garret refrigerator), I watch Hannah and Sam. Witnessing their moment, I am filled with the joy of felinity. The miracle of their integration, something I never believed would truly be achieved, helps me stand back from life’s despair. Such fruits of love bear hope and healing.

TLS

Writer’s Note: A chapter from my first memoir, Personal Effects, titled “The Drive,” has been accepted for publication by South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction and Art. Look for it in their September 2011 issue!

Do your pets help you hold onto hope during tough times? Share your experiences, comments, and thoughts below.

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