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In 2019, I was just recovering from a devastating rape. I was suicidal all the time. I knew I needed something other than myself to stay alive. So I got a kitten.
Before I had my cat, I would spend the evenings drinking until I passed out. I drank until I didn’t know where I was, who I was or what had happened to me. I would wake up with tired eyes and nausea and tremors – but at least I would have forgotten what it feels like to be forcibly sexually assaulted by someone with a blade to their throat.
There was one night when I drank two bottles of red wine and took four sleeping pills and woke up covered in vomit 14 hours later. I vomited all over my body and didn’t wake up. I almost killed myself that night. Not on purpose, not really.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley and her cat Glen. (
My cat helped me feel again
But that’s what I learned about suicide. It’s not always dramatic or even intentional. Sometimes it’s a slow, stumbling thing. Sometimes it’s just the clumsy set of habits learned from months of desperate not wanting to live.
All these months of self-medication were driven by my conviction that if I just waited for more time to pass, if I only went to the next day, the next appointment, it would eventually get better. It didn’t.
Time does not heal all wounds. There are things that you can’t just go through. You have to feel it. Really feel it until the feelings run out. As my best friend says, the only way out is through.
My cat helped me feel things again. He helped me feel things stronger than my urge to die – my love for him and the fact that he needed me. I had to stay alive because his survival depended on mine, and when I first met him I knew that would be enough.
Pet relationships have been shown to help domestic violence survivors recover from trauma. (
Unsplash: Yerlin Matu
At that time I was reading the novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. In it, the protagonist Eleanor adopts a cat immediately after her worst suicide attempt. In order to do justice to all the destructive habits she tries to overcome, she names the cat Glen, after the brand of vodka she drinks in abundance when she is about to die. Eleonore writes:
Sometimes after consultations I wanted to buy vodka, take a lot of it home and drink it, but in the end I never did. I couldn’t for many reasons. One of them was, if I couldn’t do it, who would feed Glen? She is unable to take care of herself. She needs me It’s not annoying to their need – it’s not a burden. It’s a privilege. I am responsible. I’ve decided to put myself in a situation where I’m responsible.
I also named my cat Glen, after Eleanors.
Pets can be a reason to live
I’m not alone in feeling that taking responsibility for Glen helped me stay alive.
One last year by University of South Australia Health Science Professor Dr. Janette Young, published study found that pet ownership can help Australians over 60 avert suicide Pets gave them a reason to live.
“Pets are an antithesis to the feeling of uselessness that many elderly people feel,” said Dr. Young.
This quote sounds true to me: Suicidality feeds on feelings of uselessness and separation, but taking responsibility for a loved one helps combat that feeling.
Pets can make us feel unconditional love – exactly what we need to feel like we belong. (
Unsplash: Chris Abney
The suicide researcher Thomas Joiner says that acting on suicidal thoughts depends on two factors. The first is “felt burden”, or believing that you have become a burden to others. The second is “foiled belonging” – a feeling of social isolation and an inability to truly connect with others.
Clinical psychologist David McCord argues that because of the intense bond we can create with them and the stability of that connection, pets can counteract the feeling of frustrated belonging. Pets can make us feel unconditional love – exactly what we need to feel like we belong.
I bet pets also help us ward off perceived stress. Think of Eleanor Oliphant’s reflection on her cat: “It’s not annoying, her need. It’s not a burden. It’s a privilege.”
What if we realized how nice it is to be used by our pets, helping us understand that the people in our lives are okay with us needing them too?
“Pet care and self-care are linked”
Significantly, pet relationships may also have been shown to help domestic violence survivors recover from trauma.
A study by the US National Resource Center On Domestic Violence found that animals can help adult domestic violence survivors as well as their children recover from the stress of leaving an abusive relationship. A new program in Chicago based on similar research has also introduced “Court House Dogs” to prevent re-traumatizing victims who are going through legal proceedings with abusive partners.
If you or someone you know needs help:
It seems to me that the benefits of animals in recovery from trauma are twofold. First, they can help us feel less isolated and like we belong. Second, the sense of responsibility that comes from such an association can help us find reasons for ourselves – in other words, caring for a pet gives us a reason to support ourselves.
As academic and psychologist June McNicholas explains, “pet care and self-care are linked”.
“When pet owners go out to buy pet food, they are more likely to buy food for themselves, and when they feed their pet they also sit down to eat,” she writes. “People with disabilities often find that non-disabled people are socially awkward with them. Having a dog breaks down barriers and allows for a more pleasant and natural interaction.”
Glen doesn’t judge me if I’m too sick or too sad to get up. He just stays with me. And at the same time I know that I will never go to my bed forever because he needs me – and because the most meaningful thing in my life is to be his protector.
The combined effect of these two feelings is this: Glen keeps me alive and gives me a reason not only to survive but to be the best version of myself. And as McNicholas said, caring for Glen is an indirect way of taking care of myself, a way of tensing that muscle. The more I do it, the more confident I become that there will be a day when I can be the best version of myself not only for him but for myself as well.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a journalist and author. Her new book, My Body Keeps Your Secrets, has been published by Allen & Unwin. She tweeted at @LuciaOC_.