Hello My Old Friend

What fostering a feral cat taught me about fear.

Jennet, day 3 (photo by author)
These are scary times. We're trying to deal with a virus we don't understand led by governments who seem to understand even less. It’s an unpredictable world and, increasingly an angry one.

At the same time, this Change of Life thing isn’t for pussies (I’m going to assume I can get away with using that term as I’ve included some very cute cat pictures!)

We're changing in ways we can't predict. It's sometimes hard to tell what's a health concern and what's just this very particular form of ageing. It's hard to know what health challenges are going to be with us forever and what to do about that. It's hard to admit we might be losing some of the desirability and vitality of our youth.

At the same time, hormonal changes mean our bodies are dealing with anxiety and stress in unfamiliar ways. When we have less estrogen we produce more cortisol, our ‘fight or flight’ hormone. As our progesterone levels drop we may also be less affected by GABA, a chemical that calms our nervous system. It doesn't happen to everyone, but if you find you feel edgier or more anxious during menopause, there may well be a reason for it.

People do strange things when they’re afraid. We squash fear down and then it often expresses itself in anger, hate, defensiveness, confusion, isolation, apathy, depression, illness.  

With an animal, it's just there - in its pure form. There's no pretending.

Jennet was trapped from a feral colony and brought to Rescue Kitties, a small volunteer-run rescue in Manchester, and she gave birth around 24 hours later — as you see she’s barely more than a kitten herself. I'm told her rescuer needed a trip to Accident and Emergency! She came to me once her kittens were weaned.

Jennet, day 7 (photo by author)

To start with I kept her in a crate, for her security — and for the sake of my skin. She hissed and spat and I didn’t even try to touch her for several days. I sat by the crate and blinked at her and sang Molly Malone, which is the only song I know all the way through.  

And then she came to me and rubbed her head on my hands. A couple of days later she began to purr and trill. Then she got her claw caught in my jumper and panicked and hid for another few days.

Then she came out again. She took chicken from my hands. She began to greet me excitedly and to call for me to come to her. But even then sometimes I’d touch her head, in some misunderstood way, and I’d watch her cringe and retreat. I'd sing Molly Malone again and she'd blink at me.

Jennet, day 16 (photo by author)

I let her out of the crate. She marched up and down purring and trilling and rubbing, flopping onto the floor in pleasure. Then there’d be an unexpected noise or movement through the window and she’d be hiding in a corner again.

Jennet didn’t just bring her fear. She brought her hunger — she was still a little undernourished after feeding her kittens. She brought her affection and need for connection. She brought her playfulness — I find her catnip mouse in strange places so she’s definitely playing with it while I’m not looking. Like all cats, she brought curiosity — though she’s not made it to the windowsill just yet. Those things weren't warring with fear - when it comes to survival fear comes first - they were just waiting for fear to subside before they could be expressed.

This is the thing. When you look at fear like that you realise you can't conquer it. It's not a battle. Neither can you rationalise it. You can't say "I'm going to beat you" or "this matters more than you" or "don't be silly". You say, "what do you need?

If you need me to back off, I will.

If you need me to talk more quietly, I will.

If you need me to lie here, just breathing, I will.

If you need patience, you’ve got it.

If you need gentleness, you’ve got it.

If you need love, you’ve got it.

What if we said that to our fear? If we didn’t have those long conversations with ourselves where we try to rationalise our fear and, more often than not, end up justifying it and feeling worse. If we didn’t attempt to swallow it down and carry on as normal until it forces its way out through our dreams, our unwellness, our voice, or our actions.

Fear if your friend. It probably saved your life more than once. I could tell you tales of the times it saved mine. I bet it saved Jennet's too, as a heavily pregnant kitten on the streets of Manchester.

What if we spoke to it with love and patience?

Oh Hello. It’s you again. What do you need?

A moment, a breath, a word, a walk, a rest, a conversation, a plan.

Or I can sing Molly Malone for you.

Jennet Day 18

Apologies for the jerky video — keeping Jennet in frame is a challenge — I wanted you to see her happy! (video by author)

Update: 20th October 2020. Jennet goes to her new home today! She has become a happy, confident cat. She’s made it to the windowsill and will have a garden in her new home when she’s ready. She has begun to play with me and is very fond of dangly things. Best of all, she will come and sit close to me when I sit or lie down, just for a short time. Her new owner is delighted to have her and she will have a lovely life.

Saying Goodbye to Jennet