I learned a lesson recently about how much my illness limits what I’m capable of, and I learned it in the most painful way possible.
For the last couple of years I have thought about getting a cat. I love cats. I haven’t had one since my childhood cat, who we’d had since she was a kitten, and died in December 1998, when I was eighteen. I’ve always expected that I would get another cat one day. The years that I lived in Edinburgh pre-ME I only lived in flats with no direct access to a garden, and I didn’t want an indoor cat, but since I moved back to Peebles, in a house with a garden, I began thinking again about getting a cat.
I’ve gone through the same pattern for the last couple of years. I would decide it was time to get a cat, I would search the local cat rescue websites, I’d fall for a particular cat and I’d get all excited. But then reality would kick in, and I would question how sensible it would be, given how incapacitated I am by my ME, and I live alone. I’d eventually decide against it, until the next time. This has been going on for at least two years.
Well, it turns out that all the reasons that had stopped me from getting a cat, were correct, and I discovered this in the most difficult way.
More recently, due to the isolation I live in, and how lonely it is, I began to focus on the company a cat would give me. So many people said it would be so good for me, that having a cat would be therapeutic, and I decided to trust that, and just do it.
A couple of weeks ago my mum took me to visit a local cat rescue centre. I told them that ideally I wanted an older cat, partly because it would likely be less active and just want to sleep and cuddle, and be as low maintenance as possible, and partly because I felt sorry for the older cats that no one else wanted. The first cat they introduced me to was fourteen years old, and had been at the shelter for over a year, longer than any of their other cats. That is what sold me, I felt so bad for her, being overlooked for over a year because of her age. She was really small and so pretty. She was also grey and white, the same as my old cat. Initially I had decided against a grey and white cat because I didn’t want to feel like I was getting a replacement cat. But she was the best option of all the cats they had, and I wanted to give her a lovely forever home for her old age. I told them she was the one, and we arranged for me and mum to collect her the following week.
The day after I met her I started to have doubts. The same thoughts that had stopped me from getting a cat previously were filling my head, and my gut was telling me not to go through with it, but I foolishly decided to ignore that. Everyone else was so sure this would be so good for me and my mental health, that I decided to just focus on the excitement of having a cat for company. The excitement was genuine, I really love cats, but so were the doubts. I felt regret almost immediately after my mum and I went to collect her.
She did not enjoy the car journey home, both puking and pooing in the cat carrier. When we arrived home and I opened the carrier she headed straight for the box I had prepared for her, with warm woollen blankets and a hole cut out the side, so she would have a safe place to be when she wanted to hide. She didn’t stay in the box for long, after a few minutes she ventured out and ate some biscuits, then she set about exploring my bedroom. I had been told that when re-homing a cat it’s best to keep them in one room for a while, to help them adjust, and she would let me know when she wanted to explore further. Well she let me know almost immediately. I was expecting her to stay in my bedroom for a few days at least, but she wanted out within a couple of hours. It was fascinating watching her explore, she was very thorough. First she had a wander around the bathroom, looking back at me every now and then, then she headed upstairs to my living room/kitchen. She did the cutest thing when she wanted to see something higher up, standing up on her back legs like a human. She gave herself, and me, quite a fright when she tried to jump up the defunct chimney and slid back down crashing onto the top of the fake wood burning stove sending candles and chimney dust everywhere. I quickly realised that this was a remarkably active senior cat, she was a kitten at heart, not an old lady.
I really enjoyed watching her investigate my home, and I loved that she was clearly becoming comfortable with me. I had been told that she had a tendency to swipe at people, which she did once, and there were a couple of hisses, but generally she was sweet and playful and she kept headbutting me in that lovely way that cats do when they want attention and head scratches. She had the loudest purr and the deepest meow I’ve ever heard, it was not a sound I was expecting to come out of such a dainty and feminine looking cat. One of the loveliest things about her was her desire to be near me, she followed me everywhere. But despite how sweet and lovable she was, I also felt weirdly scared, and really really anxious. I was feeling the enormity of this new responsibility that I had for a another living creature. I began to feel incredibly overwhelmed.
I need to rest, a lot. Most of my day is spent resting and moving as little as possible in order to preserve what little energy I have, so that I can do essential tasks like eat, brush my teeth, go to the toilet, take my medications and attend my medical and counselling appointments. But now I was constantly having to get up off the sofa to remove her from places she shouldn’t be, rescue her from places she got stuck and investigate loud noises coming from the other room, thinking I was going to find her injured and/or the room in chaos.
She slept for an hour or so in the evening, but she was awake all night. Awake and very energetic. Due to the noise she was making – crashes, bangs and wallops, and meowing very loudly, I barely slept either. Again I kept having to get out of bed to tend to her. She’d get herself stuck and meow until I rescued her, or she’d be bounding around the living room upstairs from my bedroom, and even with ear plugs in, I heard her almost every movement. She wasn’t being naughty, just very eager and excitable in her explorations. Perhaps naively, I hadn’t anticipated the exertion it would require from me. This constant having to get up and down to deal with her, which of course was on top of all the routine stuff involving feeding her, dealing with the litter tray (until I could let her go outside) and playing with her. It was too much physical activity for me.
In the morning, after practically no sleep, I really began questioning whether I had done the right thing. I did know that this additional activity required on my part would reduce as she settled down into a routine, began to sleep through the night and have the freedom to get outside. I also knew it would take time for her to settle, but I completely misjudged my ability to cope with it, well, my ME’s ability. I realised that I just would not be able to cope with the few weeks it would take her to settle. Sleep is never restorative for me, but getting almost no sleep has a massive impact on my body and symptoms over the following days. Given how dreadful I felt after that one night, I knew I couldn’t go on like that. I had made a mistake, and I began to think I should return her to the shelter.
I spoke to a few people about it, and most had very good arguments for keeping her, telling me that this settling in period would not last forever. But these people don’t have ME, they don’t know what it is like to (attempt to) function on an energy/activity level that has decreased to anywhere between 3-10%, occasionally creeping up to 15% on a “good” day. She was a lovely wee cat, and was not to blame at all, but I realised that if she stayed, I would crash, hard. I’m not back to my pre-Iceland level of ME, and I feel like I was only just beginning to recover from the ten weeks it took me to complete my PIP form and the summer heatwave. I simply cannot cope with another major crash.
There was also something that I just hadn’t considered at all. On less good days, sometimes even on normal days, I struggle with any movement within my vicinity. It’s why, when mum comes over, for example, I can’t cope with her knitting while we chat, or just while I rest, because the movement of her knitting gives me vertigo-like symptoms. On my worst days, actually, even on my normal days, I struggle to do things like wash my dishes, and sometimes I can’t even cope with my mum washing my dishes for me, because of the movement and the noise. It was the same with the cat. After my sleepless night, just the movement of her grooming herself, out the corner of my eye, made me feel lightheaded and dizzy. Also the smell of her cat food made me feel nauseous, and in such a small house, I could smell it from every room. I’ve never been bothered by the smell of cat food before, but my ME makes me hypersensitive to various things – medications, noise, light, temperature, alcohol, food, and now it turns out, smells.
It was the most difficult and painful decision, but after long talks with my mum, sisters and the shelter, I decided it was best to return her. I could barely talk while I was on the phone to the shelter, they were nice about it, but I felt terrible, and was sobbing throughout the call. I was sure they were going to add me to some international cat re-homing blacklist, and maybe they have. I donated all the cat food and litter I had bought to the shelter, not that this helped to ease my conscience at all.
My sister came round with my niece and they took her back that afternoon. Unfortunately it was another puke and poo inducing car journey for her, and I hate that I put her through that. I felt like a monster as I put her back in her carrier, which, from her protestations, she clearly remembered from the previous day. I also hate that after a year in the shelter, I gave her a taste of a ‘normal’ life, she seemed happy in my home, then I took it away from her. I currently feel like the worst person in the world.
I hope that by returning her after twenty four hours, as opposed to waiting a few weeks then returning her, she won’t remember me. Cats first become attached to places, as opposed to people, so I know/hope she won’t have become attached to me, so won’t miss me. It’s not like she was aware that I had intended to keep her forever, for all she knew it was only ever going to be a day/overnight trip, like an extended vet visit, but with no vet, a chimney to explore and lots of toys. I really miss her, she was so sweet and was great and entertaining company. She will make a lovely pet for someone, if they can just see past her age.
Maybe if I already had a cat before getting ME, and it was with me from the beginning of my illness, I would be able to cope with it far better. But I cannot cope with the settling in period, and there’s no way around that. I so wish I had trusted my instincts, and not done it. I let myself get swayed by the opinions of other people. I guess the one good thing about this whole thing is that I do know now for sure that I was right and that I can trust my instincts when it comes to what I can handle. But I wish it hadn’t come at the expense of this wee cat. I let her down, and I let the people at the shelter down, they were so happy to see her be re-homed. I feel absolutely sick about what I put her through. I also let myself fall for this cat, and now I don’t have her. My house feels empty, and so do I.
I might try again one day, but only if my ME has improved significantly, and only once I’m living in a larger house with a spare bedroom that can contain the cat during the settling in period. I will not put another cat, or me, through this again, not unless I am absolutely 100% sure about it. After my sleepless night with the cat here, and twenty four hours without eating due to my anxiety, I slept twelve hours the following night. I felt relieved the next day, but also really sad, because I missed her, I still do. I wanted to keep her so much. Even if I’m well enough one day to try again, it won’t be the same cat, and she really was something very special.
This has been yet another reminder of just how unwell I am and how much ME is depriving me of. Usually when I test the waters and overdo it, the impact is only felt by me, but this time it wasn’t just me who was affected, an innocent cat was too, and the guilt I feel for that is enormous.
Do you want a cat?
If anyone reading this (who can easily get to the Edinburgh area) has been thinking of re-homing a rescue cat, and likes the sound of this wee cat, please get in contact, which you can do here. I can send you a photo and let you know where you can find her. But please be sure you can absolutely give her a home for life. Please be a better cat mum or dad than I am.
Also, please, if your first instinct is to try and give me after-the-fact advice on how I should have handled it, please don’t, that is not helpful. It’s done, I made the right decision, I feel utterly crap about it, but I don’t regret it.
Update! After I returned her, the shelter made her their ‘featured cat’ on their website. This extra exposure worked and she has now found her new home!
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