Philippa Perry on her struggle with total devotion to her cat, Kevin
Pets can highlight your mental health issues. Ask my late dad how he was, he would tell you, Fine. If you wanted more information, it was best to ask him how the dog was. Oh, the dog is depressed. My dad was doing what Freud described as projection. This is when you split off a part of you that is too shameful for you to own and project it on to someone else and you believe your stuff is their stuff. My father could not own his vulnerability, but he could dump it on his dog. I hope I would be far too self-aware to project on to my pet. Id hate to think I was that dotty, but the magazine has just asked if they can send a photographer round. Kevin isnt too keen on photos, I said.
Our cat Kevin had been a stray and came to us from Battersea two years ago when he was around six months old. His body was the size of a can of extra-strong lager. That tubular torso would press against me all night, sometimes stretched alongside me, sometimes curled up in my armpit. In the evening, he would start on a lap but his thin body would elongate itself from your ankles to your thighs like a furry tube. He was playful, affectionate and excellent at being a cat.
We followed the Battersea instructions of keeping him indoors for a month and then only let him out accompanied until he knew where to come back to. When he was ready for unaccompanied roaming, I tried to get a collar on him, but however tight I made it, he could spring it off. Even if he left the house with a collar on, he came back without it. Then one day he did not come back at all. The first time he went missing, he turned up at the Blacksmith and the Toffee Maker, a gastro pub half a mile from our house. He was returned to us swiftly by the landlord, who had taken him to the vet to get his microchip read. Getting Kevin microchipped was a very good idea. My fantasy is that he had chased the pubs resident cat all the way home and then did not know how to get back.
How to describe how you fall in love with a cat? First, the softness of their fur and their choice of your ankles to rub around makes you melt a bit. Secondly, you get used to their presence in your home and come to rely on it for company; and thirdly I think we project our love for ourselves on to our animals and believe it is coming back our way. I like to think Kevin really does love me. Whether he does or not, I love him. For most of my adult life I have lived with a cat, sometimes two, and once I lived with three. I came to appreciate their individual characters and the different ways they kept me company, amused and comforted. But my love for Kevin seems more intense.
There is a type of interaction adopted by cults and abusers when they want total devotion from you, called intermittent positive reinforcement. They start the relationship by heaping praise and appreciations on to you and then gradually begin to mock you, or ignore you, or dish out other types of cruelty so you try harder to win back that approval that you became addicted to. Kevin, having got me smitten, now occasionally ignored me, or bit me if his food bowl got as low as half-empty. Oh, sorry Kevin, Id say, and do his bidding. People who are susceptible to intermittent positive reinforcement tend to be those who have an insecure attachment style. This means they feel insecure in their relationships and compelled to work extra hard at adapting, being too nice or too paranoid, and check up on their significant other as they cannot assume, like a secure person does, that their partner will not stray.
I have been in a loving and stable relationship for 30 years I believed myself cured; thought I was now secure. My unhappy youth, when romantic attachment was about the pain of longing rather than the joy of love, was, I thought, truly behind me, yet Kevin had reignited the feeling of longing.