It’s really not fair.
Old age has made her weirdly docile. You’ll see there’s a stuffed elephant there also. That’s because I tried the elephant first.
In fact, the fire alarm went off twice in my building–they’re doing some work and messed about with the wrong wires, I guess. Anyway, it was screeching away. I didn’t know if it was a “real” alarm or not; the guy who used to put things on the stove and then wander off to sleep or shower or have sex seems to have moved out, and they hadn’t warned us about testing anything today, so it might have been.
So I picked her up, covered her ears with one hand, and set about putting on my shoes with the other. That’s when the alarm went silent.
But in earlier days, she would have been under the bed in a heartbeat. With a loud noise screaming in her ears, she would have clawed her way right around my neck and down the other side of me.
It’s totally unfair of me to see what stuffed animals she’ll let me put on her back.
But I don’t feel bad. I’ll tell you why. And I told this to a friend of mine yesterday after lunch, after her cat hissed at me and fiercely batted my hand with her right paw. My cat hisses at me every day. Sometimes, several times a day.
I know exactly when she’s in pain or even just irritated, because she tells me. And if don’t stop–because, for example, I’m trying to get that nasty hangover-like feeling to go away with a little syringed food and water–she bites me. Not hard. Just enough to let me know I should cut it out. And if I still keep at it, like I did when injecting subcutaneous fluids seemed like a good idea, then she starts seeing about how to remove one or both of my hands.
Which is why we have that deal about needles. I won’t stab them in her neck, and she’ll let me keep all my digits and limbs.
In other words, my cat sets boundaries. She tells me clearly and in no uncertain terms what is not okay. She tells me when she thinks I’m causing her pain as well as when she’s deeply annoyed. And that means I know when she isn’t.
That is the foundation for trust between us. That is what boundaries do.
I’ve heard boundaries explained as knowing the difference between ourselves and others, and I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But it doesn’t work for me. I am pretty sure my cat knows the difference between us, but I also thinks she’s not smart enough or social enough to have a self-image that might be separate than mine.
I do think she understands rights. Because part of being a cat is sometimes negotiating one’s rights with other cats–when there are other cats around. Whether you have the right to eat from all of the cat dishes, or just your own. Whether you have a right to sleep in the favored spot in the sun. Cats work that kind of thing out. No, they might agree. Someone else can only eat out of my dish when I’m finished with it. Or, they might agree that alpha cat can eat out of whatever dish she damn well pleases, whenever she feels like it. It depends on the cats.
But rights are rules we agree on. Sometimes they are fair and reciprocal, and sometimes they are not. But they have to do with with our security, our well-being and our comfort.
I’ve taken my cue from my cat. For one, you don’t need to jump all the way to drawing blood if someone challenges your boundaries. Try hissing first. Use your words.
Months back, I was sitting on the bus next to a young man who had that familiar problem with his knees. You know, that difficulty young men seem to have in keeping their knees anywhere within 3 feet of each other. He was all up in my space.
Irritating. And I didn’t have brothers, so I’m not all that great at dealing with it. I have a tendency to assume that someone who violates normal social boundaries (like you don’t touch people on the bus if you can help) does so because they don’t care. Which is sometimes the case. But sometimes people are distracted, or just a bit stupid. You know, like me thinking it was a good idea to put stuffed animals on my cat’s back.
And I asked him, “Would you move your knee please?”
“Sorry,” he said. And did. Just like I would have taken the elephant off the cat’s back if she’d hissed at me. I was a person just being a bit stupid, but not malicious.
And I wonder if that’s part of why it’s so difficult for abuse survivors to trust. Our rights have been violated so often and so profoundly, that we don’t know how to stand up for those rights. We don’t know what they are or what we would want them to be. We don’t expect to be allowed to assert them if we knew.
And when we have set boundaries, no one listened. If we started at the hiss, we had no choice but to move onto biting, and then to drawing blood. Often enough that maybe now we start with drawing blood. With an end result that then we both are hurt afterwards.
That process of developing trust doesn’t have a chance. There is never that moment when someone we are starting to care about violates our boundaries and we tell that person to stop, thereby getting to see that he will stop. And this person we are beginning to care about never gets a chance to see that we will tell him when to stop before he’s really hurt us.
You end up with one person who feels continually trampled, and another who is a bundle of nerves wondering when he is going to put a foot wrong. That isn’t trust.
That’s an attempt at mind-reading, and regardless of our amazing capacity to transmit emotions just like looking at each other, we just aren’t that good.
I owe a lot to this cat.