Posts Tagged ‘PTSD’

Sam, the night before his vet visit: keep calm and carrier on.

Sam, the night before his vet visit: keep calm and carrier on.

Unlike when we lived in the garret, the new apartment is practically drama-free. This has left me with a lack of interesting material to relay to the reader about Hannah and Sam. Not that anyone is complaining, of course.

A few weeks ago, it dawned on me that Sam was guarding the refrigerator not for a second helping of his duck dinner but for the mouse that might be hiding in the hole in the corner pocket, an unreachable spot for not just a human but a cat.

I was adamant that Sam was not going to catch an escapee mouse as he did when we lived in the garret. I didn’t want to have to dispose of a corpse, for one thing, but even more importantly I didn’t want Sam to acquire a parasite from a mince-mouse meal.

Unlike in the garret, our current apartment has a maintenance team, and they filled the hole upon my request – in fact, they measured it (5×7 inches!) in order to seal it properly (such a deed would’ve never crossed the mind of the garret landlord).

IMG_1560Still, you can bet I worried anyway when maintenance moved the fridge and I spotted what looked to be mouse turds on the floor (mixed in with some dried up peas I’d spilled a week after move-in). I had no idea how long the turds had been there—perhaps as long as the previous tenant. So, at Sam’s yearly appointment with Dr. Parker, our vet, last week, I asked if it was a concern. The answer, thankfully, was no.

I knew going to the vet was going to be a nightmare for Sam, and that even getting him “familiar” with the carrier days or weeks before was not going to quell his anxiety, as it didn’t last year, or the year before, or when we moved. I used the Feliway spray and Rescue Remedy, again to no effect. I hated having to chase Sam around the living room—while Hannah hid under the bed—and extricate him out from under the couch, a crawlspace not intended for a cat Sam’s size. I held him in a towel as I lowered him into the carrier and shut the door. His whimpers turned to terrible screams, and an old lady who lives downstairs came running. I think she thought I was in the process of killing a child.

“It’s my cat,” I told her.

Her chest heaved, “Oh, there, there,” she cooed at Sam. “It’s okay.”

IMG_1519Sam got a clean bill of health and even—dare I say—enjoyed sitting on the scale (he lost a half-pound since last year, to the delight of Dr. Parker), despite his persistent crying jags. Our cat sitter, who works at the vet clinic, tried to soothe Sam with petting, but he was inconsolable.

“I know, I know,” Dr. Parker said softly to Sam, examining him gently. “You have such a hard life.”

Sam whimpered in agreement.

After it was all over and Sam was back in the carrier, and I took him to the reception area to pay the bill, a familiar stench permeated the air: in his upset, Sam had lost all bladder and bowel control.

IMG_1606When we finally arrived back home, Sam scrambled out of the carrier (Hannah was still under the bed, probably worried she was next) and, after cleaning the carrier and putting it away, I sat down on the couch, let out a breath, and closed my eyes, trying to still the vibrations in my mind. All that screaming had activated my PTSD.

Sam quickly forgave me, of course. It was dinnertime, after all. And soon enough, he and Hannah were on the couch, sleeping soundly.


Does your cat or dog enjoy seeing the vet? Share your stories and comments below.


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Hannah turns 10 years old today.

Hannah turns 10 years old today.

We met during a crisis – I was coming to terms with a life-long trauma; she was abandoned by an abusive owner. It was May 2, 2006 when she was dumped at my feet at Saint Meow’s shelter in Cambridge, Ma., at the estimated age of three. I stood there, stunned.

She looked up at me with her green eyes and let out one long cry. Before I could think, I told the shelter manager, “I’ll take her.” She was my first pet. Together, Hannah and I learned what it meant to love safely again.

Hannah, post-adoption, age 3.

Hannah, post-adoption, age 3.

Hannah almost died of life-threatening pancreatitis in 2008, when she was five, but today she turns ten, and she’s healthier than ever. When I asked what she wanted to do for her birthday, she said,”sunbathe.” So be it.

Happy 10th birthday to Hannah! We thank all of this blog’s readers for continuing to follow our story as it’s developed over the past three years. Stay tuned…



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Hannah, guardian kitty.

Hannah, guardian kitty.

Last Friday, April 19, at 6:45 a.m., I awoke in my tiny attic apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, startled by the sound of an incoming text. I’d been having a dream in which I was running from two assailants who were bent on killing everyone in their midst with guns and bombs. I was frantically trying to find a place to hide, but nowhere was secure.

Such a nightmare is not unusual for me: I have PTSD. I didn’t know the reality that’d been transpiring while I was sleeping.

I sat up quickly and reached for my phone. The text was from the New England Conservatory of Music, located in Boston, where I’m liberal arts faculty: “Due to public safety concerns, NEC is closed…”

Seconds later, I received a text from a friend in Jamaica Plain: “Are you at home? Just checking in case you haven’t gotten the news to stay in. It’s all very unsettling.”

DSCN1275Was I awake, or was I dreaming? I turned on the television and saw the reports of bloodshed that had occurred in my town overnight, the death of one of the marathon bombers, the current search for his armed-and-dangerous brother. “Shelter-in-place”: I was not to go outside or answer the door.

What was happening was real. Surreal.

I began to panic: could the suspect on-the-run be hiding in the basement of the house where the garret was located? In the basement, there is a washer/dryer machine accessible to tenants in a neighboring house through a cellar door, which I’ve frequently seen left unlocked or open to the outside parking lot. As I watched the news, I was suddenly alarmed. My nightmare was still fresh in my mind: I needed a reality check, so I messaged a friend who knows I have PTSD.

My friend assured me that it was near impossible that the suspect was in my basement at that time, because the local news reported he’d been seen on foot in Watertown, a few miles from where I live, around 6 a.m., however it was a good idea to check the door. She wrote, “Be quick.”

In times of stress, Hannah and Sam serve as my danger gauge. If an intruder (or even a friend) were in the vicinity, I knew that Sam would be hiding under the bed. Hannah would have her nervous facial expression and twitching ears. But now neither exhibited signs of anxiety – they were curled up, relaxed on the bed.

I went downstairs with my legs shaking, holding my breath. The cellar door, to my relief, was shut and locked. Quickly, I returned to my unit and secured the triple locks on my door. Even though I live in an attic, I left the shades drawn.

In the days after the bombing, I’d witnessed so many Bostonians experiencing a mental state I’d had as my “normal baseline” for years: intrusive memories, intense fear, anger, sadness, shock. Over the course of my decade of recovery treatment for PTSD, I’d accumulated a stockpile of mental artillery to respond to the aftermath of traumatic events. I put them into practice.

On Wednesday, when a friend told me she couldn’t concentrate and was “in a fog,” so much so that she accidentally dropped a plate of food where she thought there was a counter, I recommended she avoid the media. How many times did we need to see the bombs go off, or hear the screams of terror as we watched spectators and runners collapse or flee? Once was enough: we understood the depth of destruction and pain.

In our attempts to mobilize, to emotionally arm, there’s a fine line between facing facts and re-traumatizing ourselves, the latter of which causes further harm.

But Friday, I couldn’t turn off the TV or Internet. As I watched events unfold, I felt numbness climb from my feet to DSCN1278my limbs to the top of my head. I trembled with the fear of traumatic experience.  The tenants who live below me weren’t home. Hannah and Sam, the “rescue” cats, were now sleeping.

I felt isolated.

For a time, I couldn’t receive or make calls – phone service was flooded – though I could get voicemails and texts. I posted status updates on Facebook. Thirty-nine and single, I tweeted, “It’s 1 of those times when I wish I didn’t live alone.”

I wanted to hug someone. I wanted to be hugged.

To my surprise, people I knew and people I’d never met reached out: Novelist Sarah McCoy responded, “I empathize. One of the scariest few days of my life was being in apt alone during hurricane.” Boston Globe blogger and professor friend Delia Cabe wrote, “Yes, at least you can talk to us here. I’ve had those moments when I was isolated like that.” Author Jenna Blum tweeted, “You’re not alone. The Twitterverse is with you.”

For the next several hours, social media was my home base. I baked a pumpkin loaf cake and posted a photo. Others listed what they’d contribute to our “lockdown potluck.” Sam came into the living room then, begging as usual for dinner. I opened a window: Hannah hopped up to look out at the world.

DSCN1271Saturday morning, the terror over, I left Hannah and Sam, and my apartment, and walked down the street, reveling in such basic freedom. I took the T to Harvard Square, where I ran into an acquaintance and her friend at Starbucks. We shared a table and our shellshock. As we chatted over coffee and tea, I learned that they too lived alone, aside from their one or two felines. While our pets always provide us a source of companionship, during the lockdown we felt a keen separateness from the world, a longing for people.

We were relieved now, in arm’s reach. We embraced each other, and the simple pleasure of living.


cs-gy-88x31-4 What were you, and your pets, doing during the lockdown? Share your experiences and other comments below.

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Hannah, the contented.

I still haven’t mastered the art of the vet visit.

This week was Hannah’s annual checkup. Last year, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that affects the liver, and includes such symptoms as vomiting and a lack of appetite. After months of steroid treatment, in October her liver level tested at the higher end of the normal range, so Dr. Parker recommended a re-test in six months, before then if her eating habits or behavior changed. During these past few months, Hannah’s appetite has remained normal – although she won’t eat her entire meal in one gulp (in the fashion of her brother Sam), she does finish her food, most days. Of course, the night before her annual vet visit, when I took out the cat carrier, she refused half of her dinner, and, for hours, Sam hid under the bed.


Sam, always the prankster.

Going to the vet holds a host of anxieties for the cat, but for the human, especially this human who has PTSD, it’s a whole production of mental and physical coordination. In years’ past, a vet visit would completely unhinge my ability to hold a thought in my head, and would send my mind back into the terror of my childhood. I’d have to refer to my pre-scripted (on a Post-It) list of statements and questions for Dr. Parker. Now, I manage to “keep calm and carry on” as well as can be expected when one is trying to get an unwilling cat into a carrier and transport her to a vet clinic in time for the appointment: layers of fur on one’s shirt, and some sadness and/or guilt for the inability to explain to the feline that she is safe and you’re not giving her away, will always be a given (for me, at least).

Five years ago, Hannah almost died of life-threatening pancreatitis and I’ve tiptoed around her ever since, fearing I might otherwise upset her to the point of psychosomatic-induced death. I worried about her wellbeing at times to the point of driving friends (and Dr. Parker) crazy. It’s taken a long time to work through my visceral fear of losing this being whom I love.

DSCN1224This year, on the verge of her tenth birthday, Hannah, at a trim 7.95 pounds, has received a clean bill of health. Dr. Parker says she has one of the best teeth he’s seen in a ten-year-old kitty (and I’ve never brushed her teeth, as I have to do for Sam). And, the great news: Hannah’s liver is functioning normally. She has exhibited a change in behavior – she has become quite insistent on cuddling on the garret chaise, during which time she rubs her wet nose and mouth, forehead and ears, all over my hands until my palms are drenched and my arms are covered with fur; she has also begun a practice of sticking her butt in my face for minutes at a time, which, Dr. Parker says, is simply her way of asking me to scratch her back near her tail, something she never liked before. I’d thought she’d been trying to tell me something was wrong, like she was the time she developed struvite crystals in her urine and kept running her tail (which was wet with pee) along my hand.

“Do you have any questions?” Dr. Parker asked.

For the first time in a long while, I didn’t. I felt suddenly relieved and happy, and my body relaxed. “I guess I just have to get used to the fact that Hannah is healthy.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Parker. “No more kid gloves for her.”

I tend to think of a cat’s lifespan – both physical and emotional – as reflective of a human’s, but at warp speed. Hannah has reflected to me the salvaged life of an abuse survivor, a kind of healing I never thought was truly attainable. I’ve always questioned its veracity. Now, I know such recovery is real, and to be trusted.



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Three’s Company


The forecast for this weekend is…more snow. Okay, I shouldn’t complain – afterall, it’s winter. But I’ve spent one too many weekends shoveling out my car, while Hannah and Sam lounge about the garret, sleeping or playing. This makes me cranky.

Thankfully, since my last post, both Hannah and Sam have been healthy, enough that my only trip to the vet has been to pick up more prescription cat food. Hannah will have her annual exam in early April, at which time we’ll test her liver to be sure her enzymes are still in the normal range.

Of course, this blog, and my life with Hannah and Sam, has been a backdrop to a larger issue: healing from post-traumatic stress disorder. My cats have both taught me (and each other) a great deal. As I sit with them on the garret chaise in the evenings, Hannah to my right and Sam to my left, I’m grateful for their presence. Three’s good company.

ImageA week ago, I published an essay, “My Deep Dark Secret,” in Salon about a particular (non-cat) aspect of my healing from PTSD. I submitted the piece on Tuesday, and by Thursday it was accepted, and by Friday evening it was the cover story. To be honest, at first I thought about withdrawing my manuscript, because I feared what people would think of the truth I wrote on the page, but then I was tired of hiding behind my shame. So I stopped hiding, and then everything changed.

Since the essay’s debut, I’ve received an overwhelming amount of emails, Tweets, and messages from people in response. A few sexual abuse survivors wrote to tell me they could relate, and that my essay gave them hope. I also heard from someone who runs writing workshops at a women’s prison in Florida, who said that many of the inmates had been sexually abused as girls, as I had, and that that led to a life that led to where they are today. She told me she was going to share my essay with them, to show them that healing is possible. I was so moved by that I just about cried.

Healing is possible. With time, acceptance, and the love of others, healing – whatever the kind of suffering or cause – happens.



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Photo of Hannah & Sam, which I shared with my date.

How about a post that doesn’t mention cat pee or poop?

Recently, I went on a blind coffee date with an attorney. He ordered spearmint tea and baklava and declared, “If I ever have a pet, it’ll be a black and brown cat!”

“You mean a tortie?” I asked.

“Huh?” he responded.

“Never mind,” I said, taking out my phone where I store a photo of Hannah and Sam. I showed it to him. “I have two cats.”

My date studied the picture of Hannah and Sam sitting on a windowsill together when Sam was just a year old. Whenever I’ve shared this photo with anyone the usual response is, “Oh they’re so cute!” or “Hannah is pretty,” or “The look on Sam’s face is priceless.”

My date looked a bit perturbed. “You have skinny cats,” he said. He looked up at me then and I saw he had crazy eyes.

Now, I didn’t reject my date just because of his response to the cats. I’d spent over an hour with him by that point, feeling disoriented by his egomaniacal speech and strange point of view on issues of culture, money, and parking spots. But now I felt it was truly confirmed: this wasn’t going to work.


DSCN1041I spent the first two weeks of January at a creative writing MFA residency at Lesley University – local, but very long days, which kept me away for regularly-scheduled cat feedings and required that I set up the automatic timed feeders for Hannah and Sam.

The first day, I was in such a rush that I knocked one of the feeders over, causing kibble to spill all over the garret kitchenette floor. Sam was more than happy to help me clean up. He moved his mouth across the floor as if he were a vacuum cleaner. Over the course of the residency, my mind scattered, I’d repeat this klutz performance more than once.

The hectic residency schedule left me with no down time, which aggravated my PTSD-related anxiety. I slept little, and in the morning had to rush the cat feeding. Normally, Sam eats his breakfast in one gobble, but Hannah eats only half, then takes a break. In order to prevent Sam from eating her food and make sure Hannah gets her nutrition, every morning I put away Hannah’s bowl after her first round, eat my own breakfast, then present the bowl to her again, at which time she eats the remaining food, but only when she’s assured that Sam isn’t going to intrude. She looks around anxiously, part-paralyzed with the anticipation of the orange tabby pushing his way into her bowl. Sam cries if I place him in another room, which only causes Hannah to leave her bowl and sniff the door where Sam is. So I don’t put Sam in another room. Instead, I take out his favorite multi-colored string toy and we play on the other side of the room. Seeing that Sam is safely occupied, Hannah lowers her face to the bowl and crunches on one kibble at a time.

Hannah and Sam wait for me to come home after a long residency day.

Hannah and Sam wait for me to come home after a long residency day.

During the residency, I became impatient with the timeframe of this method, but I took note of Hannah’s mindful eating, an approach that created great calm for her. She reminded me of the importance of slowing down, to digest one thing at a time.



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wrappedaroundtheradiatorWhen I last blogged, Hannah and Sam had come together. Unfortunately, in the days that followed, all that went to pieces. Sam began to get aggressive with Hannah several times a day, and they started fighting a lot, so that I actually consulted with an animal behavioral expert at the Animal Rescue League of Boston where I volunteer. Although I help answer calls that come in to the behavioral helpline, now I was the one in need of advice.

And I got some great instructions on separation and rewards, which I put into place. But what turned out to be the real culprit was a physical issue: feline constipation. For the past year or so, Hannah has been the one with that notorious problem so it took me a long while, through a process of elimination (pun not intended but it does seem to apply here!), to figure out that it wasn’t Hannah but Sam, who, quite the contrary, has always had a reputation for stink-bombing the garret with his litter box deposits.

DSCN0987I began to notice Sam crying intermittently before using the litter box, but it wasn’t unusual for him to cry for attention when I wasn’t in the same room, so at first I’d passed it off as nothing. But the tiny slivers of stool continued to diminish in size and got lost in the piles of litter amidst the regular-sized Metamucil-induced poop, so I began to give Sam a dose of Hannah’s daily teaspoon of fiber, then discontinued his portion after a couple of days, in order to track whose poop was whose. And it turned out to be Sam. At times I question my own anxiety due to having PTSD; I ask myself “is this a real problem, or am I making a big deal out of nothing?” But still I worried about Sam.

It wasn’t nothing. In fact, it may be a medical issue – when I talked with the vet (oh the joys of discussing the size, shape and consistency of feline poop at length, along with the signs and symptoms of feline penile blockage), he said it’s unusual for a two year old cat to have constipation, so I’m giving Sam a half teaspoon of Metamucil daily for the next two weeks. If the situation doesn’t clear up, I’ll need to bring him in for an exam, a trip I know Sam desperately wants to avoid. For now, however, the Metamucil seems to be doing some good. There is more poop in the litter box, and more in the garret than ever. I’ve been finding poop in the hallway and on the carpet. At least Hannah and Sam have been getting along better.

IMG_0878On an altogether different note, Wordpress has sent me this blog’s “Year in Review,” in part: “600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.” For whatever that’s worth….

In 2012, readers viewed this blog from 44 countries. The most popular post was (embarrassingly for me) “Cats & My Coccyx“!

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2013, and thanks for your continued readership throughout the year!



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