Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Take an Animal Break

I was going to talk this week about emotions. But I’m going to take a break to advocate for a grand old institution: the live-in pet.

My morning was lighted up today by the kitten - almost cat - who lives in our house. She will reach her first birthday in just a few days. She plunks herself down on the bed in the mornings, rolls so her stomach is up, and waits for me to do my stuff, in perfect trust and faith. Sometimes she purrs before I even get started.

Doctors have known for a long time that pets are good for the mentally ill, and if you have even a tiny bit of money in your budget for cat food or dog food – or bird or rat or lizard food, for that matter – I would urge you to get one. Some places which otherwise don’t like animals will let you keep one if you have a note from your doctor showing that a pet will help improve and stabilize your condition, or words to that effect. The love and trust of a pet is a valuable thing, and its response to you, and your knowledge that you are taking care of a living creature, are very health-encouraging things.

I think pets are a sort of energy-transformer in a living package. You give them your emotions. You pet them when you’re sad or bored or play with them just to try to feel better – and you do. It purrs or it woofs or it tiptoes over your hand, and you DO feel better. It turns your weeping into a cheep of contentment. For one thing, if your mind is a very complex and painful place, it is entirely soothing to watch a beast go about its instinctual and simple behaviors without (presumably) the kind of angst we are stuck with. Just having someone – a living presence – there in the room when you come home is a sort of blessing. Mental illness is often a very isolated and lonely place. Having company is a good thing. Company that doesn’t get tired of you or complain or tell you to just buck up and shut up and FIX your life, as people so tiresomely do. Your pet accepts you as you are, period. Even a hamster on its wheel or a lizard on its rock  is a living presence that accepts you as part of its life.

Of course, the flip side of this is that you have to provide for its care, even if you are flipping out. Food and litter or cedar shavings or what have you are minimal provisions, and if you don’t feel you can provide them regularly, then pets are a bad idea. Killing your pet rat by neglect will not make you feel any more sane. And there is the spectre of occasional veterinary needs, though many of the standard surgeries and immunizations are provided for free, or very cheaply, by the ASPCA. But if you check on local service organizations, you may find – as did a friend of mine in San Francisco – that there are even groups  that will help pay veterinary bills (I believe this one was called PAWS). Perhaps most importantly, find someone nearby who will agree to take care of your animal at short notice if you need to go to the hospital or anything else wild goes down. This kind of planning will also go a ways toward reconciling your landlord to a live-in animal – he doesn’t have to worry that it will end up on his hands.

If all this is too much, you might want to stick with plants. Living things are good. But they don’t make those cute little sounds.

Deborah is a public speaker and the author of Is There Room for Me, Too? 12 Steps & 12 Strategies for Coping with Mental Illness. She has also published two romantic comedies. All three books are available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, Kindle Editions, and other major vendors, and you can order them from your local bookstore. Or visit her web page at www.lafruche.net.