I’m panicking. Nothing is OK. Nothing will ever be OK. And then —
Warm, soft fur. The pressure of a small but sturdy body leaned up against mine. Big brown eyes with barely discernible tufts of eyebrow hidden in fur, arched upward in an expression all too easy to anthropomorphize as concern. The tiniest sigh of contentment. A sweet, musty corn chip smell that sounds terrible when you put it that way — but really, it’s so comforting. My family’s dog, Dodger, always knows when someone needs him, and we've needed him a lot lately.
Minerva has her own ways of giving comfort. She’s much more likely to bop you on the nose than she is to climb onto your lap, but she fills every day with her bursting, vibrant personality. She plays fetch (yes, the cat plays fetch — the dog does not), climbs over and onto everything, and is happy to have full-on back-and-forth conversations with you, probably about existentialism or something. And every so often, she’ll deign to bless me with an epic cuddle fest. I nuzzle my face into her soft tufts of tabby fur. She smells like a mix between a newborn baby and a sweater you’ve left hanging in the closet for too long. It’s right up there with Dodger’s corn chip ears.
Dodger and Minerva are essential members of our family. We talk to and about them constantly. We seek them out for cuddles or happy distractions.
We watch TV or read on the couch with the comforting weight of their little bodies always close by. We chase them and wrestle with them and revel in spoiling them with treats and new toys. The excitement of a pet over a new or long-forgotten toy to explore and interact with is one of the purest and simplest instances of joy to witness — it never gets old.
I try to imagine my life if Minerva and Dodger had never made their way to our family, and I can’t.
I try to imagine weathering the storm of my father’s death without these animals by my side, and the thought alone nearly capsizes me.
In what’s been the most difficult year of my life, animal companionship has been as essential to my mental wellbeing as the extra time I’m spending with my family. Relationships with animals operate on a completely different level from human interaction, one that transcends language. When I struggle to leave the house or recoil at the thought of talking to yet another person about the status of my grief, there are two little creatures who are just happy to see that I’ve gotten out of bed to feed them. And in return for caring for them in the most basic ways, they remind me to do the same for myself.
They trust us and love us without any ideology or reasoning attached; they just know that we feed them and keep them safe — for them, that is more than enough.
Minerva reminds me to eat dinner with a series of increasingly impatient chirps at sundown. Without her, I’d easily go without eating most nights, much more likely dissociate and ignore my body until it aches for food and water.
Dodger reminds me to walk outside and breathe in the night air when he needs to be let out. It’s worth standing barefoot in the California cold to see him prance about the backyard, inspecting the trees for any of those pesky bird intruders he works so hard to protect us from. Sometimes he cleans his paws in the grass with an Elvis Presley dance party — it's my favorite of his many quirks.
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Both of them are so attuned to the here and now — listening, looking, smelling. When I watch them, I am reminded of all the things happening around me that I ignore so readily. The rumbling of the ice maker, a shift in temperature as the thermostat comes on, the subtle swaying of trees outside casting shadows of branches on the living room walls.
Minerva likes to walk up to a window and holler for someone to open it for her so she can perch on the sill and watch the world go by. I like to sit with her sometimes and look out myself, taking a minute to acknowledge that although the world feels dimmer and grayer than it once did, the sun still rises each morning. The birds still make their way across the sky.
The world keeps turning, and animals have taught me to notice.
There are lots of things our souls ache for that modern life helps us to conveniently forget, and animals don't just help us to remember those things — they ARE one of those things.
We need each other, but we also need all the other sorts of life that we share the world with. We need flowers and green things to remind us of the quiet beauty of just living, and we need the love of animals to remind us of all the different ways that living can have meaning. They trust us and love us without any ideology or reasoning attached; they just know that we feed them and keep them safe — and for them, that is more than enough.
As I was writing this, Minerva leapt onto the table across from me and meowed for my attention. I turned to look at her. “Hi, baby girl,” I said. And she looked at me for a long, long time. She bent her ear to listen to some laughter coming from the other room, a sound I’m always glad to hear these days. She sniffed the air slowly and attentively, never breaking eye contact.
And then she closed her eyes, long and slow — a gesture of trust and affection. I love you.
I love her, too — more than words can say. So I slow-blink back instead.
OCDame is a column about chronic mental illness by Jenni Berrett. While she’s no doctor or counselor by any means, she does have extensive experience in being batshit crazy — which she doesn't think is as bad a thing as the world would lead you to believe. Each week she puts that ongoing experience to good use by writing things that have been stuck inside her heart for too long in the hopes that they will help unstick somebody else’s heart, too. Find more articles from OCDame by clicking here. You can also shoot Jenni an email (at any time and about any thing, just so long as you remember the whole aforementioned Not Being A Doctor situation) at firstname.lastname@example.org.