cultivating empathy.

We have an orange cat named Loki. We picked him up in a grocery store parking lot when he was a very small kitten, abandoned much too soon by his mom. On one of our early visits to the vet, the doctor was checking his reflexes, and all he said is “he’s slow.” He wasn’t very kind about it. And later another vet would tell me that orange cats are nothing but problems, so what was I thinking adopting one?loki2

I’m not here to say they were wrong. Loki has certainly brought with him a host of challenges (could we have picked a better name?). Since he was little, he’s had stomach issues, sensitive skin, severe anxiety, and a tendency to meow quite loudly all through the night.

The day before we moved to Idaho (a 30+ hour road trip) he had a panic attack that resulted in an emergency vet visit, shots, and a shaved, blistered neck that pretty much looked like Freddy Krueger’s face. Although his hair eventually grew back, he continues to struggle with severe anxiety. We have not been able to figure out any external factors or what prompts his behavior; he loves the other animals in our house; he enjoys spending time with Michael and I; he is well-fed and playful; his litter is regularly changed; and, he is otherwise healthy. I have even tried everything our vet recommends—from lavender-scented collars to hemp oil—but he doesn’t react.

Currently, he looks like he is going through chemotherapy. Large chunks of hair are missing from his head, and he has several open wounds on his neck from scratching his stress-induced hives. And the best part is that he stress-pees (yes, this is a thing) and not in his litter box. After having a particularly rough night the other night (I got peed on…), I lay in bed both frustrated and heartbroken for this poor creature.

I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t threatening to kick him out. I only wanted to help him.

And in that moment, I realized that I empathized with him in a way that wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t understand (in my case, both first-hand and second-hand) what having a mental illness involves.

Because I love him and he’s my family, I will continue to try to understand what he’s going through by googling seemingly ridiculous things like “why does my cat have acne” and “why did my cat pee on me.” And I’ll do my best to remember, in the really tiring times, those moments when he brings me nothing but joy, like now, when he’s purring and resting his head on my wrist as I type.

So why have I told you this story about my cat?

If you’re not a cat person, you’re probably thinking, this is exactly why I don’t have a cat. But perhaps you can relate to the frustrations of trying to understand a loved one’s mental illness. I’m not at all equating human and animal mental health.

But I feel that God brought Loki into my life because he knew we would need each other.

Loki has made me more patient and understanding and a better, kinder human being.

Whether or not you have personal experience with a mental illness, I guarantee that you know someone, either close to you or an acquaintance, that does.

Instead of being angry or confused at why God brought this person into your life, pray to understand how this relationship can change both of you—for the better. My husband I learned this the hard way—yes, with Loki—but even more so with each other (shout out to all the spouses out there who love those of us with mental illness; it is not easy!).

So, listen to those you don’t understand (meowing counts); then care enough to research, to try to understand what they’re going through; then continue to listen to them some more.

The hardest part of a mental illness is feeling like you’re alone and that no one could possibly understand what you’re going through.

But the more we talk about it; the more we’re willing to be vulnerable and honest; I believe that both in and outside of the church, we’ll find that the ability to empathize becomes natural.

As a church body we must share in both our comforts and our sufferings (2 Cor 1).

This is how we grow.

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If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.

 

 

 

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