Although Bessie has lived inside with me for more than seven years, she’s still a wild, untamed and terrified little cat — just as she was when I brought her in from the cold on a freezing December night years ago.
Bessie and her sister, Molly, had lived on the streets around my house with their mother. They were a few months old when their mother suddenly disappeared. I took them in with the assumption that I could teach them to trust humans if they were loved and cared for. After all, I had done that repeatedly with other cats who had turned into loving companions.
But Bessie and Molly never learned to trust. They enjoy food and a safe place to sleep and live, but they have never accepted that it’s safe for me to touch them. Something in their feral genes or their early life on the street has taught them that humans aren’t to be trusted. So I just accepted long ago that I could give them a safe place to live but that they would never want human love.
In the last month, I’ve had reason to think I might have been mistaken. Maybe with even more time and work and love, Bessie might change.
Nearly a month ago, I had to catch Bessie to shave some mats out of her fur. She had gotten something into the fur of her back and she hadn’t been able to clean it out, so it had matted. She has only three legs, so it’s harder for her to clean some parts of herself than it is for other cats.
It was an ordeal to catch her — as it always has been — but I caught her and used the trimmer to shave the mats out. And while I had her, I thought I might as well take the chance to love on her again, in the hopes that she might accept it this time, even though she never has before.
Oddly, Bessie did something unusual that night. Out of the blue, I felt her muscles relax a little bit. She let me stroke her fur and she stretched out as though she might be enjoying it, grudgingly of course. She even purred quietly.
Over the next couple of weeks, I saw a remarkable transformation. Bessie started allowing me to love on her — at times, not always — and she didn’t always run from me. One day when I rubbed her as she lay on the fireplace mantle, she even lifted her one back leg — to expose her underside and show me where she wanted to be stroked. It was shocking and it made me very happy.
I was once in love with a woman who was emotionally falling apart. I didn’t understand what was wrong at the time, but her behavior scared me. We had planned to marry. Most of the time, she was a brilliant, loving and amazing woman. Every now and then, she was unexpectedly a crying, angry, scared person — an emotional wreck.
When she was in the grips of whatever that was, she was like a feral cat. There was nothing I could do to help her at those times.
I backed out of marrying her because I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t have the patience to figure things out or consult an expert. I later understood that she was almost certainly suffering from some degree of a condition called borderline personality disorder. By the time I understood how I could have helped her — and provided an emotionally safe environment in which she could to heal — it was too late.
That relationship is ancient history, but I keep thinking about other people I know who are hurting — emotionally damaged in some serious way — and I can’t help but realize that dealing with them is a lot like dealing with a feral cat.
I know a very kind and loving man who has been living with a wife who’s been severely depressed ever since an emotional breakdown about a decade ago. He’s long-term tired and he’s frustrated and he’s lonely. He feels as though he’s lost his companion to a terrible illness called depression. He’s given up on her. If he didn’t feel so obligated to take care of her, he would walk away from her.
I can’t blame him, because I walked away from a woman I loved, too, and I didn’t deal with 10 years of dysfunction.
Sometimes we give up on people too quickly. Other times, we put up with far too much for far too long. I don’t know where the happy medium is. I doubt there are any rules.
There are times when you have to cut people out of your life. When people are causing physical or emotional damage, you have no choice. But when you have the time — and the risks are low — time and love can heal a lot of hurts, as long as you don’t give up.
I’ve come to believe that the woman I gave up on could have been emotionally healthy with enough love and support — given enough time and an emotionally safe environment. I’ll never know for sure, but I think so. And my experience with Bessie serves as a reminder that you never know when someone is about to finally respond to your love and patience.
Bessie will almost certainly never be a normal house cat. She’s always going to be skittish. There will be many days when she’s still going to run away and not let me touch her. (Today was one of those days.)
But there are days when she can relax and accept love. There are times — not often — when she can let go of her fear enough to lie on my chest and purr while I rub her.
I think a lot of people are the same way. They’re so damaged that they can never be completely over whatever has damaged them. They’ll always be scared. They’ll always have emotional triggers that make them run away.
But if you love someone and you want to make that person part of your life for good, things can change with time, love and patience. Providing a consistent loving environment can earn trust. And in the trust of that safe space, there can be room for healing.
Some of us will never completely get over damage that we’ve experienced. And others have experienced really difficult damage and nothing is going to help them at all. But for many, time, love and patience will earn some trust for you — if the effort is worth it to you.
I’m willing to invest that sort of effort into a love relationship if it’s necessary. I was once too afraid of what I saw and I didn’t think I could do it, but I know now that I can hold onto an emotional tornado and wait until the storm is over. It’s a conscious choice.
I might not always be quick to learn, but if I give her enough time, Bessie is going to teach me how to love her — and in doing that, she’s going to continue teaching me how to love hurting people, too.