It’s been a rough couple of weeks.
In the past two weeks, my website was down for days. I had to buy a new computer. I unknowingly spent $2334 in Texas Holdem Poker ads on Facebook, and I brought my cat home from my neighbor’s in a garbage bag. The first three events are pretty self-explanatory, but let me elaborate on the cat situation, which was by far the most upsetting.
My beautiful Jeffrey (Silly name. I know. He was already crowned when I adopted him.) was lying outside by the front walkway, three feet from his front door, sunning himself. I remember admiring him and giving his head a scratch as I walked back in from getting the mail. I subsequently made a quick trip to the grocery store. Not less than an hour later when I was bringing the groceries in the same walkway, Jeffrey was gone and there were clear signs of a struggle.
My cats are contained by an electronic fence. (Yes, it does work for cats. It takes longer to train them, but it does keep them in their own yard and gives me peace of mind.) I know there is a whole debate about whether cats should even be allowed outdoors. The concerns are valid. This was my compromise.
After knocking on neighbor’s doors and several treks around the neighborhood frantically calling his name, Jeffrey was nowhere to be found. I went out with a flashlight one more time that night before going to bed. I had six cats. Occasionally, the battery on one’s electronic collar dies, and the cat gets to explore beyond the yard. So, I tried to assure myself there wasn’t any real reason to panic just yet, even though the evidence out front sent my amygdala into the red zone.
After scouring the neighborhood at the crack of dawn the next morning with no luck, I later hear from another neighbor that my neighbor directly across the street found a dead cat on his lawn that morning. I rush over there to discover a lifeless Jeffrey in a garbage bag and in the big green city garbage can.
Upon taking him home and out of the bag, I found Jeffrey with his electronic collar still on with his purple ID tag containing all my contact details still clearly visible on his neck. He wasn’t a bloody mess but did have some puncture wounds on his abdomen.
To make a long, sad story short, it wasn’t until that night when the across-the-street neighbor’s bulldog, which had discovered a way out of his fence, came over to my front porch that I surmised what most likely happened. The neighbors vehemently denied their dog having anything to do with Jeffrey being found dead in their yard.
In the days that followed, not surprisingly I shed lots of tears and demanded answers from the neighbors. Surprisingly, I found myself yelling angry words at them and stirring up a neighborhood feud. I say surprisingly because I thought I was beyond that kind of behavior with all my mindfulness and mental health tools. Obviously not.
While the whole experience has been hell, it has also been a valuable lesson – as most painful things in life are if you let them teach you. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned so far. (I’m sure there’s more to come.)
Realize that emotional maturity and growth aren’t steady states.
While I’m a long way from the woman who tried to commit suicide ten years ago, I haven’t reached monk status yet. I asked my son if he thought monks got emotional and lost control, he assured me that they did not. Oh well.
Unfortunately, it’s not like we graduate from one level emotionally and never revisit it. In times of stress, you are going to dip back into instinctual reactions and regress – unless you’re a monk. When emotional, your brain activates your amygdala, the fear/emotion center, and shuts down the frontal lobe, your thinking brain. Unless you mindfully insert conscious thought and decision, your behavior is going to originate from your primitive amygdala, which results in emotional reactions not thoughtful response.
OK. So, I could have done better than yelling cuss words at my neighbor and wanting to rip his throat out when he said, “It was just a cat.” This experience is a good lesson in extending compassion to myself and reminding myself that “I was doing the best I could under the circumstances with who I was at that moment.” Maybe next time I’ll respond differently. Maybe not. But I’m not going to beat myself up about the way I did act. I was understandably upset. Jeffrey wasn’t “just a cat” to me. He was my part of my family.
You have to actively choose to help yourself by working with your thoughts.
The events were perfect for me to fall back into my old harmful thinking patterns of torturing and “shoulding” myself. Every time one of these toxic thoughts popped up, which was a lot, instead of following it down the rabbit hole, I had to decide to consciously counter it with a kinder, more supportive thought.
Toxic thought: “It was my job to protect him.”
Counter thought: “You provided the electronic fence for his protection which worked fine for over two years. You had no reason to believe it wouldn’t continue to be adequate.
Toxic thought: “How long did he lie there alive? Hope he didn’t suffer. I can only imagine the terror he felt.”
Counter thought: “He might have died quickly. You don’t know what happened. He had a good life with you for nine years. This kind of thinking isn’t helping you.”
Toxic thought: “I can’t believe how I acted. I should have done better.”
Counter thought: “I was understandably emotional and in pain. I did the best I could at the time.”
By reframing your thoughts in this way, you can change the past. You can’t actually change what happened, of course, but you can change how you feel about what happened.
Recognize that your feelings are tools.
In the paragraph above, I am not suggesting that you stuff or judge your feelings. I’m asking you to take a look at your thoughts to see if they are helping you or hurting you. Feelings aren’t right or wrong. They just are, and they are tools to help you discover what is going on at a deeper level and what you need to do to heal.
As the week went on, I found myself getting angrier by the day. Anger is usually a sign that a boundary has been violated or that you have given your power away. So, on the third day, I asked myself what I needed to do to take my power back.
I called animal control to see what my options were at that point.
I just wanted the incident recorded somewhere in case I ever needed it in the future. Because I had not witnessed the dog take Jeffrey, all the agency would do was issue a warning to the owners for not containing the dog the next night. That was enough for me.
It didn’t change anything, but it did allow my anger to dissipate and allowed me to return to a sad calm.
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