What the animal does
On processing trauma through pets.
It’s ridiculous, really: face flushed, voice trembling, yelling at an animal for doing what an animal does. After all, they have bodily functions and get bored and need love, just like any of us. You realize this, and then spend guilt-ridden hours scratching behind their ears and under their chins, trying to get back.
I’m sorry I yelled, it’s just that I love you, and I was scared you were going to get hurt, you hear yourself saying, your parents’ sentiments coming out of your own mouth. Suddenly you see how the cycle perpetuates, because that isn’t the whole truth. The truth is that the animal triggered you by doing what the animal does: mirroring the very behavior you loathe within yourself.
You realize that you get impatient when the dog dallies too long on a walk because you don’t know how to slow down, play around, and sniff things out. You get frustrated when the cat invades your space, underfoot each time you turn around, because you feel that you are too much for people, always coming on too strong; inserting yourself into other people’s lives because you haven’t built your own. You shush him when he meows a little too loudly because you feel you don’t deserve to speak. You grumble when he pushes his wet nose into your face in the wee hours because you’re ashamed of your own anachronistic schedule. You get exasperated when he doesn’t eat because you, too, have food issues, scrutinizing his bowl like your mother used to monitor your plate.
It’s no wonder people refer to pets as children, for they serve a similar function. Animals are intuitive creatures that walk between worlds, and the ones that find us reflect our inner states. One morning I awoke burning with confusion and creative frustration, and found the cat perched next to my shoulder, staring at my throat. He gingerly placed a paw upon that chakra, then drew it back, and did this over and over again, until I began to cry. Head swirling with all I needed to express and had spent a lifetime keeping in, this continued until I felt calm, and then I got up and wrote.
Animals, too, experience trauma, but they intuitively know that the answer is getting it out: after a stressful event, they quite literally shake it off, moving the memory through their pain-bodies and their body-bodies and reprogramming their nervous systems; re-membering and remembering that they’re safe and alive. But many of us humans in the Global North learn to hold our trauma in, because we have no established cultural framework for externalizing suffering; with no system for reframing wounds, we ascribe them as personal weaknesses. Our child selves, in turn, construct stories about what happened that make everything our fault, because the alternative is too scary: in a world where the adults are unsafe, we will surely die. Animal societies are less complex than ours, obviously, but we can learn something from their somatic processing—letting past and present versions of ourselves be seen, heard, and embodied, letting our bodies do what they need to heal.
So I let the animals climb onto my chest and kiss their little heads, holding them while I cry, and at the same time, I am holding my child self in my arms. I pet them while they eat, telling them everything I wish I had been told: It’s safe to nourish yourself; it’s good to be in your body; you deserve to be here, exactly as you are. After all, that’s what this whole Earthly experience is all about: affirmation and holding, seeing and hearing; validation of our right to exist.
Sometimes you need someone to tell you it’s okay to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full; to poop and pee, vomit and cry, make noise, take up space, and need love. Sometimes you need someone to hold space while you experience what’s really happening in your body, rather than receiving another person’s version of reality. Sometimes you need someone to rub your back while you emerge into your body, and sometimes you need support just to take the next breath.
I bury my face in fur and whisper, it’s okay, you’re safe now, nothing’s going to harm you, and I’m really talking to all of us, because it’s all our pain, shared in one big collective body. The animal is just doing what the animal does, after all, and we must always hold it gently.
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