A few weeks ago, after my dear old cat died, I looked for a new one. Enter BosBos (pronounced BoesBoes), almost two years old. Half Egyptian Mau and half Arabian Mau, he suffered abuse in the streets of Egypt before being flown to an Egyptian cat rescue last year. Now, as a newcomer to West Hartford, he is teaching me about violence, safety, and priorities. Since trauma affects humans and cats in many of the same ways, what I am learning is stuff I can use any time I see frightened, anxious people.
1. Never turn your back on strangers. Your first job is to take care of yourself. As BosBos knows, if you don’t shoulder this responsibility, no one else will, and you’ll be sorry. Once you grow up, you are on your own, and no one is watching your back. Sure, you can trust people a little, if they show that they are worthy, but you never want to trust anyone 100 percent, since a mistake could be fatal. Always have a Plan B. When BosBos eats, he keeps his back to the wall and the food dishes in front of him. That way he can raise his head any time to see what I am doing.
2. Keep your feet on the ground at all times. In a world of big animals you want to stay connected with the earth. If you are suspended in space you are trapped. You can’t run if you need to, and you will feel helpless. To some extent this is a boundary issue. We all need to have our personal space respected. As I saw during my work in agencies, if mental health workers forcibly restrain an angry, defiant child, the child usually gets more agitated rather than less so. When someone is wildly upset, either frightened or angry (or both), it’s best to back off. That way you seem less threatening. This rule holds for animals of any type, age, and size.
3. Cat carriers are bad news. When BosBos sees a cat carrier, he has a flashback to the terrifying hours he spent in a huge, loud jet on its way to the States. Most people with phobias will go to great lengths to avoid the trigger. For people, anticipation can be a big part of the problem. Repeated exposure to a trigger may reduce the the fear over time. Recently discovered techniques that interrupt the fight-flight-freeze mechanism in the brain can work in minutes. I can try them with BosBos but not until he relaxes when I hold him.
4. Before entering an enclosed space, make sure there’s an exit as well as an entrance. If there is only one way in and out, you are easily trapped. Prey animals such as rabbits are aware of this hazard. Confirm that you have a viable Plan B before you take risks that may not pan out. For instance, alert a friend and plan an exit strategy before going on a first date with a stranger. If you are a woman, ask yourself how many precautions you take when you must walk down a deserted city street at night.
5. Scan your environment for changes that might bring trouble. BosBos expects to see me carrying mail, books, plates, and cups or glasses. But if I pick up a broom or even a small vial of flea deterrent, he slips away, sensing a potential threat. Nothing escapes his attention. He tests closet doors to see what’s on the other side. He leaps onto shelves, tables, and desks and pokes the objects he finds there. He is constantly exploring his surroundings. Familiar stuff becomes safe over time. Changes need to be carefully checked out. Order and predictability are key. When humans feel overwhelmed, it helps to slow down and deal with things one at a time. Habits and rituals organize and calm us, making life feel more manageable. They let us go on automatic pilot, freeing our brainpower for other, unique challenges.
6. Watch out. BosBos associates loud noises and sudden movements with danger. Children who have grown up in chaotic homes where violence or substance abuse (or both) were issues may make the same connection. Even as adults they may be afraid of any display of anger if it has consistently been linked to aggression. They must learn that anger is useful and can be communicated appropriately, but this message will be received only when everyone is calm. In the heat of the moment, when animals or people are in distress, drop your voice and move slowly. Try whispering or singing. Most animals will find you nonthreatening, too, if you are eating.
7. What people say is less important than how they say it. Angry, frightened humans and beasts, in defense mode, are drawing on primitive areas of the brain. Since the executive thinking capacity goes off line when we sense danger, it is useless to reason with people in distress. Instead, communicate through the five senses. Avoid towering over children or animals in trouble. Make yourself small. Let your body language be reassuring as well as your tone of voice. Back off so that the sufferer has a chance to regroup. When BosBos first arrived in my house, he hid behind the couch, squeezed tightly between the upholstery and the wall, out of my reach. In this way he reduced the amount of new sensory stimuli he had to deal with while imposing a physical barrier between him and me, a stranger.
8. Eat well, get rest, and stay in shape. BosBos grew up in a hot place. He thinks days are for sleeping, which he does in the dark space under a dresser. At night he becomes frisky, eager to stretch his muscles, and ready for overtures from me. He has a good appetite. He knows that exercise keeps your digestive tract functioning smoothly. Animals live in their bodies more fully and more appreciatively than many people do. BosBos wouldn’t dream of ignoring his body’s demands.
9. Be nice to those who are nice to you. We show respect and caring when we give and receive pats. We all want more than anything else to please the most important people in our lives. BosBos likes to cuddle and nibble my fingers.
10. When possible have a ball. It’s exhausting to be watchful and guarded all of the time. Find opportunities for silliness and play. BosBos enjoys a small foam ball that he can bat from one end of the house to the other. In this way he takes a break, relieves tension, and enjoys the moment at hand.