What the love of cats taught me about myself

Annalisa Barbieri has had a lifelong horror of cats. But with her family desperate for a pet, she finally relented and opened her home to Sidney. Here, she explains how she overcame her fear

I never thought I’d kiss a cat. Or like them, or be in a room with them. Cats, to me, were evil and unpredictable. A classic projection, if ever I saw one, of fear manifesting as dislike. Intense fear. Intense dislike.

But then I became a mother and, as we all know, maternal love makes you do strange, selfless things occasionally. My children started asking for a cat. I said no, of course. My home was my safe place. No cats allowed. For some years they asked for a cat, on and off. Eventually, the “why we should get a cat” lists started getting toilet-roll long and I started thinking, maybe we can get a kitten. Kittens are cute. I started watching videos. Kittens were cute.

We started looking. Rescue centres, breeders. Some breeders we came across were properly bonkers. One excluded us on the basis that we said we had a school fete to attend and she wrote an email thick with venom. “If you’re going to put your children before any potential kittens,” she wrote, “then you don’t deserve a cat.” Another said we couldn’t have just one but had to have two. One was already one too many for me.

This did nothing to quell my fear that the cat world was not a world I wanted to be part of. Then Covid came. We got to the top of one rescue centre’s list only to be told we couldn’t meet the kitten first – it was show up and take it. I didn’t want to do this. Temperament was important. My friend Anna told me about a cat that had come via a newsagent’s advert, which turned out to be “demonic”.

Eventually, we were offered a kitten we could meet. His owner, J, was calm and reassuring. I told her I was scared. She understood. The kitten, Sidney, was 13 weeks old, his brothers had already been taken and he had been promised to someone, but they had changed their mind. As an advocate of attached parenting, I liked that he was still with his mum.

We went to see him. He was cute. “He won’t scratch,” said J, adding, “his parents are very calm and unassuming.” These were beautiful, beautiful, words to me and, for the first time since I was four years old, I stroked a cat. He didn’t scratch. Then I played with him – hide and seek. We went away, thought about it, then went back to get him the next day. I was genuinely excited. Cat phobia cured! My friends were dumb struck, “You’re going to get a cat? But you’re scared of them.” Not any more, I thought.

The moment we got him home, everything changed. I felt overwhelmed and terrified. He was terrified, too, of course. I didn’t know what he wanted or what he was thinking. He was unpredictable and I don’t do well with unpredictable for reasons we’ll discover later. I felt he was trying to trap me into stroking him so he could hurt me. It didn’t help that I read an article that said, “Cats who go on their backs so you can tickle their tummies are just getting you to come close so they can shred you to pieces.” Poor Sidney kept throwing himself on his back in front me and I just ignored him. (Don’t worry, he was lavished with love and attention by everyone else.)

It’s impossible to explain the fear I felt – it was enormous, irrational and all encompassing. I was constantly on edge. I felt I’d let a monster into my house. “We can just give him back,” everyone helpfully said. But I knew we couldn’t. I explained it then as I’ll explain it now: it was as if I’d opened a door in my house that I had never previously known about and this door led to a room of explosives and I couldn’t, now, just shut the door and leave it, but I couldn’t go through it, either. I was stuck. I had to deal with it – the explosives had to be defused.

Then the flashbacks started. These would be of a child-me hiding behind the sofa, which is strange as our sofa growing up was always against the wall and I never hid behind it. I became hysterical during these flashbacks.

That first Saturday, my friend Tamsin (a cat pro, she has a Bengal) texted me. She knew something was wrong and came round, spending all day with me. I felt better with her there, her confidence made me more confident, calmer. “This is the most chilled cat I’ve ever met,” she said. But something else happened that day. I noticed that when Sidney was with her it was obvious to me he was playing, but when he did those exact same things with me – cat things – I thought he was tricking me, wanted to hurt me, because I’d got something wrong. That was a moment of realisation. Something shifted and I realised whatever the problem was me, not the cat.

I had not long before recorded a podcast on trauma with psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr Jo Stubley. I started to recognise some of the things that were happening to me. Something in me was being triggered, something I hadn’t processed. I hardly knew Dr Stubley, but in desperation I emailed her. She agreed to talk to me on the phone. She said a few things that were enormously beneficial – I don’t think you should give him back, you can do this. Push yourself but don’t overwhelm yourself. It’s OK to have a safe place, where there are no cats, for you to retreat to. Spend time with Sidney, but at the first sign of feeling overwhelmed, go to your safe place. Best of all was: “I’m going to gently challenge you – cats aren’t as unpredictable as you think”.

This was proper, practical advice that I could follow. Little by little I spent more time with Sidney. I realised he didn’t want to hurt me, him coming near me and rubbing his face on me was a sign of him liking me. I would have safe places where he wasn’t allowed and for some time, I couldn’t be left alone in the house with him, it was too much. But by following Dr Stubley’s advice and pushing myself gently out of my comfort zone, but never overwhelming myself, things got better. When the flashbacks came I went alongside the child and told her it was OK, that I had this now. I don’t know when things changed, it took a long time, but I know that confidence grows by doing the same thing over and over again. So that’s what I did. Until one day I found I was completely OK with it all.

But what use would any of this be to me, or you, if I didn’t try to find out what had happened to me? So a year and a bit after we got Sidney, I went back to Dr Stubley to try to find out, and also tell her about my achievement, something I’m still so proud of. My friend got me a badge saying “Well done!” But first I told her a little bit about my background, my childhood, which had been very loving and supportive, but at times some of those around me had been unpredictable. I learned to tell moods by small things – body language, voice tones. I kept trying, but the trying and the vigilance weren’t always enough. At times I got hurt. Sometimes physically, many times psychologially. You don’t forget a thing like that, it’s marked on your
psyche and becomes part of who you are.

Dr Stubley thought I had “pockets of vulnerability” which had been triggered by my cat. One of the things I’d always struggled with was explaining why I was so afraid of cats. “Have you been bitten?” people would ask, or have you “had a bad experience?” The truth was, no, I hadn’t.

“There’s something with phobias that doesn’t get talked about,” Dr Stubley explained. “We think that if someone is afraid of something, an object or animal or situation, it’s always because they’ve had a bad experience with that thing. But what we can also do is project on to these objects or animals or situations, something that’s linked to these earlier pockets of vulnerability.”

She explained that I’d become very good, as a child, at keeping myself safe by “taking the temperature of the room and reading people. But along came this little creature and you couldn’t take his temperature, you couldn’t use the usual cues you had with people.”

There was something else. I visibly relaxed when another person, someone who knew more than me, who gave me confidence, came into the dyad. In Sidney’s case it had been J, his previous owner, and my friend Tamsin, and to an extent Dr Stubley. But when they weren’t there, I felt like “the little child alone again with something which is unpredictable”. When Dr Stubley asked me who the stabilising adult might have been for me as a child, I started to cry. It had been my dad.

“You see,” said Dr Stubley, “adversity or threat only becomes trauma if you don’t have another person to help you process it. You’ve got to have the other person to help you feel safe and to help you think about it.” Eventually I became that person for myself. My own predictable adult.

It’s impossible to overstate how pleased I am with myself that I overcame this. Every time I see Sidney, I am reminded of my achievement. Sidney is indeed the calmest, most unassuming cat. He’s never scratched me. He’s never aloof. He likes me. I kiss him, a lot. He doesn’t hurt me. I can read him like a book now and that book is kind and loving. Cats aren’t unpredictable at all. After we’d had him for six months I said, “Let’s get another cat” and you know what, we did.

Listen to Conversations with Annalisa Barbieri at pod.link/1567190358


Annalisa Barbieri

The GuardianTramp

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