Like most cats, Buster loves paper bags. He likes plastic bags, too, but those are for licking. Paper bags are for pouncing on, climbing into and creating cat-forts.
Buster is a rescue cat. He was mistreated before we got him, and although he’s been with us many years, he still fears having something grab him by the neck. He wears a collar, but that took 18 months of careful work. Despite that, he loves being a lap cat and is the most
fearless foolhardy of our cats.
After I emptied the groceries from Trader Joe’s, I dropped the bag on the floor. Buster was in heaven–he crawled into it, he rattled around it, he jumped on top of it, slid down the length, and stuck his head through the handle. In the split second before it happened, I knew it had been a mistake to leave the bag handles intact.
Buster now had his head through the bag handle, and while there was plenty of
room, he was wearing the bag, and for Buster that meant the bag had him by the neck. Old fears roared to life. Buster headed down the hall full-tilt, the bag in pursuit. I tried to grab the bag as he went by, but that made it worse–now I was lunging for him. At least in his imagination.
As he came by again my comforting voice was lost in the bag rattling and flapping. The sliding door screen simply popped off the track as he burst through the open door and started a frantic lap around the pool. I hoped he wasn’t going to fall in, it’s too cold to voluntarily jump in, even after a cat. The pool towels were still outside, so I grabbed one, and when Buster made his second lap of the pool, I dropped the towel over him and scooped him up. He was so terrified he wet himself, the towel, and me.
In a second, I had the bad off his head, and sat down with a wet, shivering, terrified cat. With the bag gone, Buster did what Buster does when someone is holding him and saying calming things to him–he began to purr. In a few minutes his heart rate settled down and he let me give him a sponge bath. Particularly because I kept the bag of cat treats in view, and rewarded him when we were done.
After the drama, I began to think about his reaction. At first I thought, “he knows that bag won’t attack him; he knows it’s not alive.” But then I realized that I do the same thing. Well, not with a bag, but with old memories that still scare me. Given a trigger to set off anger, fear, or shame, I run around emotionally, not capable of calming myself, not caring what I do as long as I try to outrun the painful emotion.
The solution, of course, is to stop running, sit with the emotion and notice that it no longer has a hold on me. It never did. All I needed to do was pull it over my head. But calm thinking and planning is not what happens when old triggers are pushed. Panic and frantic emotions take over. At that moment, we need a calmer, cooler head that can see the bigger picture to hold us, comfort us and assure us we are safe. And until we learn to do that for ourselves, we will be no smarter than Buster.
–Quinn McDonald learns something every day, even if it’s from Buster. She teaches what she knows through coaching or writing classes.