I did not have a pet growing up. My mother hates animals, and my father knew how to keep the peace. Not having a pet growing up, I didn’t know what I was missing.
When I met my wife, however, she came with a cat. His name was Shelby. This is him:
He was a proud, aloof, and very British cat. He liked me, but he loved my wife (he would drool when he picked him up). He was strong and independent, an outdoor cat, and fought like hell to protect his territory. But when it came time for us to leave England for the United States, we had to leave him behind. Although he went to a good friend of ours who we knew would give him a good home, it was still a sad parting. A few years later, he died.
Over here in the U.S., we were renting for quite some time, and couldn’t adopt a new pet until we were able to buy a house. When we did, it wasn’t long before another cat became part of the family: Pia. Here she is:
She couldn’t be more different from Shelby: intensely social, very vocal, at times psychotic, and with a deep intelligence that covers knowing how to open doors to what her humans want from here at any given moment. And she adores me.
We have a routine. Every morning I pick her up and we cuddle for a few minutes. She doesn’t leave me alone until this happens. Every night when I come home, I lie on the couch and she jumps up on my chest, settling in the crook of my arm, and falls asleep for an hour or two. This happens every day without fail.
There is a point to this, too, beyond sharing essentially my entire social life (yes – two cats). In the decades since I left home, I’ve learned a great deal about myself, and about people. My day job keeps me in the service industry, and I help dozens of people a day. Often, I see people come into my store with animals: most often dogs, although the guy with the parrot is probably my favorite. I know these creatures for what they are: service animals. Some are for blind people, some are in training, but many more are therapy animals, there to help that person cope with something in their life: a great, unknown weight that drags them down and stops them from the simplest of things, like going out in public.
I feel for these people deeply, because I’m one of them. My depression, my bipolar, manifests in drawn-out waves of intensity, and there are times when I can’t get out of bed, either – never mind going out in public or making it to work. I know what it’s like.
And since getting Pia, I know exactly why these people have therapy animals. As much as they are a tool for coping with loss, trauma and mental illness, there are so much more than that: they are a symbol of something so many of us are missing in our lives.
You see, while animals most certainly possess a wide range of emotions, there is a level of self-awareness they lack. As D.H. Lawrence once said:
“A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.”
Animals get their love and care from others, and reciprocate in kind. Their lack of self-awareness translates into a lack of self-pity, which in turn translates to something we so desperately need: unconditional love.
Pia will love me whether I am happy or sad, high or low, ecstatic or depressed. She will love me when I’m there every day, and she’ll love me when I return from a week’s vacation. Pia’s love depends solely on how I treat her, and not on the fickle whims of human self-absorption. And why would I treat her with anything but love in return?
Whether I’m happy or depressed, Pia is a reminder that there are things in the world that are wholly good. That despite what people do to each other and have done to me, there is something – some creature – that loves me anyway.
That gives me worth when I feel worthless. It gives me hope when I’m in despair. And it gives me love when I feel abandoned by everyone around me.
So why am I telling you about my pets? Because I believe everyone in the world can benefit from socializing with the incredible creatures we share our planet with, and for those of us who struggle with our mental health, they might just change our lives.
Or maybe even save them.
Photo Credit: unsplash-logoAnete Lūsiņa