Thursday, November 21, 2019

How Emotional Support Animals Saved My Life


A photo of me with my cat friend, Mason.
I've always loved cats. I've always considered them good friends and fantastic listeners. I always knew I'd have a cat when I became old enough to move out and live on my own. What I didn't know is how much my cats would change me or my life.

A Rough Start

My life had a rocky start. At five months of age, I became a survivor of Shaken Baby Syndrome. From what I've been able to piece together through family members, my foster mother, and the newspaper, the violent shaking resulted in one or both of my arms being broken, a broken breastbone, damage to my optic nerve, and blood pooling in the back of my eyes. While surgeons were able to drain the blood from the back of my eyes, I was left with a degenerative eye condition called optic atrophy. Unfortunately, my vision has worsened over the span of my life thus far. While I'm very thankful for the vision I still have, I'm terrified of how much more vision I'll lose – especially when I notice my condition progressing.

I spent six weeks in the hospital where I developed meningitis and temporarily lost my ability to hear. After I was released from the hospital, I was placed into foster care for approximately six months. I was eventually returned to my parents' custody.

This event has always caused me to feel a lot of shame. I was told that I should never speak the truth about what happenned to me. I was to blame my eye condition on the meningitis instead. I was told that if I told the truth, people would think that I was a bad baby. The shame I still feel over this event is absolutely overhwlming.

As a child, I never felt I was good enough for my parents. I was always compared to my sister. I felt like she was the, “good” daughter and I was the, “bad” one. Everyone could see that we were treated differently, and many people told me about their observations when I became a young adult.

Emotions were not valued in our household. If I tried to express myself, I was either made fun of or discounted. Even laughter and happiness seemed to be unacceptable.

My severe vision impairment was a source of tension in the home. I always felt like I was in the way. I needed to be right next to the television to see it, for instance, which annoyed some people.

Verbal and emotional abuse were a constant presence in my life. In addition to that, I felt my parents were emotionally distant. While my father and I have a pretty decent relationship now, we had a rocky one while I was growing up. I know now that he always loved me and my sister, but I didn't feel loved by him during my childhood. My dad expresses love in a less obvious way than I needed him to. While he always said he loves me if I told him I love him, I felt disappointed that I always had to initiate that exchange.

My dad used to be a very angry person. It wasn't until he spent some years with my stepmom, Marie, that he really changed. I credit her for helping him become the person I think he was always meant to be. While I am not as close to my dad as I would like to be, we can now have civil conversations, and he tells me he loves me without me having to prompt him to say it, which makes me really happy.



A photo of me with Lita.
Relieving the Pain

In eighth grade, my mother had me start school at the Indiana School for the Blind. Though it was a difficult transition initially, I quickly came to see the residential school as a safe haven. I felt I could be myself. I had friends who understood my struggles with vision. I was actually able to participate in activities with my peers.

At 16 years old, I felt so much pain inside that I began to cut myself. I had lost my ability to identify and express my emotions. If you asked me how I felt, I'd have to tell you that I didn't know because I truly didn't.

Later that year, I was raped by a fellow student. Though I had only confided in one person about the attack, it quickly became school-wide gossip. When my mother found out, she had me transferred to our local high school. Not only had the place I considered my safe haven been ripped from me, my friends had been, too. I felt completely alone in the world.

I struggled through the rest of my high school career. I got good grades and made some fair-weather friends.

Spinning Out of Control

It's important to understand that being “fat” was practically seen as a mortal sin in my family. In high school, I began to eat less, but it wasn't until college that I began starving myself on a daily basis.

I was really happy when it came time to go off to college. I had been accepted at DePauw University.

Unfortunately, many of the things I'd buried came to the surface. I struggled immensely with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of the rape. I also struggled a great deal with Major Depressive Disorder, something that runs in my family.

Carmine in our first apartment together.
Once I moved to college, self-harm and self-starvation became my main coping strategies. Any emotion I actually felt needed to be squashed quickly. It was at this time that I began using other forms of self-harm, in addition to cutting, to cope, such as burning, hair pulling, and attempting to break my bones. I couldn't handle the depths of my emotional pain. I was crying out for the love and acceptance I desperately needed and craved – something I felt I couldn't get from my family. I wanted nothing more than for them to love and accept me for the person I was.

Between the flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and overwhelming feelings of anxiety and depression, I struggled to stay on top of all my schoolwork. This was no easy feat, given it takes me longer than the average person to read.

As counterintuitive as it might sound, my eating disorder and self-harm kept me alive. I was often suicidal during my college career, and starving and hurting myself allowed me to release enough of my inner pain so that I could continue to move forward. Though I know I expected too much of them, many friends became the people I turned to in crisis, which was nearly a daily event.

At that time, I wanted to stop harming myself. A friend and I started counting the hours between self-harm episodes, trying to stretch the length of time I could go between each one. While my eating disorder and self-harm gave me a sense of control, I was really out of control. Over time, I had to increase the number and/or intensity of my wounds in order to get the same effect.

Severing Family Ties

At the end of my freshmen year of college, my mother and I got into a very intense fight about me seeking treatment. I wanted to go to a program that tackled self-harm and eating disorders simultaneously, something I felt she didn't understand. The fight resulted in her telling me to go live with my dad. She disowned me. Though I've tried to make peace numerous times over the past 19 years, we have no relationship to this day. I've accepted that nothing I could ever do would be good enough for her, but the lack of a relationship with my mother continues to cause me pain from time to time.

I graduated from DePauw University in 2004. I had enrolled in a Master's of Social Work program and moved to Colorado the following September to begin working on my graduate degree. I felt it was necessary to physically distance myself from my family in order to get well.

Lita and I quickly became best friends after we moved here to Colorado.
A New Best Friend

One of the things I had looked forward to the most about moving out and being on my own was finally being able to have a cat of my very own. I had always loved cats. We always had a lot of outdoor cats at my dad's house in the country. When I was in middle school, we adopted a cat from our local shelter and kept her as an indoor-only cat at my mother's. The cat, whom we named Kitty, became a real source of comfort for me throughout my high school career.

My dad suggested that I take Lita with me when I moved because she was the, “friendliest” outdoor cat we had at the time. She had originally been an indoor cat who lived with a friend of my father's before she became an outdoor cat on my dad's farm, so she had already been litter box trained. To be frank, I thought she was annoying because she insisted I only pet her and wouldn't allow me to pet her brothers and sisters whenever I went outside to spend time with them.

Despite my reservations, I packed Lita up and brought her to Colorado with me. She quickly became my best friend. She followed me around my apartment, listened to the most boring social work textbooks on the planet with me, “helped” me eat my dinner, and told me when it was time for bed.

Unfortunately, I lived in graduate housing, and the University didn't allow pets in there. For a few months I was successful in hiding Lita, but the University eventually found out about her. The University asked that I either get rid of Lita or move.

Lita was helping me learn what unconditional love felt like. She was my best friend. There was no way I was giving her up. I planned to move out of graduate housing over Spring break if I needed to.

At the time, I was seeing a therapist. I told her about the situation. She knew how much Lita was helping me with PTSD and depression, so she wrote a letter stating that I needed Lita for my mental health and well-being. Lita became an official emotional support animal, and while the University wasn't thrilled about it, they recognized Lita as an official emotional support animal and allowed us to stay in graduate housing through the end of the year.

Close up of Carmine.
An Addition to Our Family

Throughout young adulthood, I experienced more sexual violence at the hands of different men. This compounded my PTSD and depression. I continued to struggle with my eating disorder and self-harm. At this point, though, I was able to count the days between self-harm episodes. I was really trying to get myself into a better place, mentally and emotionally.

In 2005, I moved into a new apartment. Not only did the landlord allow cats, but my property manager told me I could get a second cat if I wanted to. I thought this would be a great idea – I spent so many hours away from home between my classes and internship, I worried Lita got lonely.

That summer, I adopted Carmine from Every Creature Counts. Little did I know how this little orange ball of fuzz would change my life forever.

Entering Recovery

In my second year of graduate school, I began seeing a therapist at the Eating Disorders Center of Denver. She and I determined that I would benefit more from their Intensive Outpatient Program than I was from outpatient therapy. However, I didn't have the money to cover the cost - $400 per week that my insurance didn't cover. Because the center wanted payment upfront each week, it was impossible for me to enter the program. It was rather disappointing because I really needed help with my eating disorder.

In October 2005, my fiance at the time moved in with me. Between him and Carmine, Lita, and Emma (his cat), “helping” me eat meals, I slowly began the process of recovery from my eating disorder. The kitties' unconditional love played an instrumental role in my recovery over the years. I am happy to say that I've been in recovery from anorexia for 14 years now. It is no coincidence that I've been owned by Carmine for 14 years, too.

The Turning Point

Even after I got into recovery for my eating disorder, I continued to struggle with self-harm.

However, Carmine made it more difficult for me to hurt myself. He gets very upset if I go into a separate room and shut the door. He will stand outside the door and cry to be let in so he can be with me. I didn't want to cut or burn myself in front of him and Lita, so unless I was pretty sneaky about it, I couldn't just disappear behind a closed door to harm myself. I couldn't stand to hear Carmine crying outside the door. I began to put down the razor or matches, open the door, and pet Carmine instead of harming myself.

A photo of me with Carmine, Jewel, and Lita.
At this point, I was now able to count the weeks or months between self-harm episodes, but when my emotions became too much to deal with, I'd still use self-harm as a way to cope.

The last time I self-harmed was in August 2010 despite being in a very difficult living situation. Carmine is the biggest reason I've been able to stay in recovery from self-harm. The unconditional love and support he's given me over the years is invaluable. He and Lita filled the gaping hole in my heart; they gave me the love I desperately needed and wanted for so long. Though Carmine provided me a tremendous amount of emotional support, he didn't become an official emotional support animal until 2012.

A Reason to Live

I developed a chronic pain condition in 2006, which left me unable to work. I won my Disability case that year, but as anyone who is on Social Security Disability knows, it does not pay enough to rent an apartment at market value, so I applied for subsidized housing. Unfortunately, all of the buildings had long waitlists, so I had to wait quite some time before I rose to the top of a waitlist.

In 2013, I finally came to the top of a HUD/subsidized housing waiting list. I moved into the building with Jewel, Carmine, and Lita with high hopes of things getting easier. Jewel had come to live with us in 2012 because her former owner couldn't care for her any longer. She required numerous daily medications in order to help manage her chronic renal failure.

Lita hanging out on the top of my desk.Unfortunately, the building I moved into has deplorable living conditions – it is infested with cockroaches and bed bugs. The pest control methods being employed in the building are useless. At this time, I also found myself in a verbally, emotionally, and sexually abusive relationship. I tried desperately to change my boyfriend, but you cannot change someone who doesn't want to change.

By early 2014, I was suicidal. It was a feeling I hadn't had in several years. I confided in very few people because I didn't want to burden my friends with my problems.

The only thing that kept me from taking my life was my cats. Jewel had been given up by two previous owners. As I mentioned earlier, Jewel had chronic renal failure. There was no way I was going to abandon her in her time of need. Additionally, Carmine and Lita had provided me the unconditional love and support I needed to get into and stay in recovery from anorexia and self-harm. The least I could do was to see out the remainder of their lives. Adopting a cat is a serious commitment to me; I was not going to leave them homeless. Jewel, Carmine, and Lita needed me as much as I needed them.

I began to pick up the pieces of my life. I broke up with my abusive boyfriend. A friend helped me get to other HUD/subsidized housing complexes where I put my name on more waiting lists.

Starting Over

Finally, in 2017, my name came to the top of a housing waiting list, and several friends helped me move into my current apartment building – a much better and safer place to live. My furniture was so infested with bed bugs that I ended up throwing nearly all of it into the garbage. Carmine, Lita, and I were starting over in our new apartment.

That October, Lita became incredibly ill. She was at death's door, but with my love, her determined spirit, and lots of medication, she fought her way through it. She went on to live nine months longer than anyone expected she would. Tragically, she died in September 2018.

Tylan hanging out on the couch.

Lita's Legacy Lives On

Lita owned me for 14 years and had given me so much love during that time. I wanted to give another Siamese a loving forever home in her honor. In October 2018, I adopted Tylan, a seal-point Siamese who had been rescued from a hoarding situation in Thailand.

I've been in recovery now for years, but there are still times I get the urge to harm myself when I have strong emotions. Instead of reaching for a razor, a match, or a lighter now, though, I reach for Carmine or Tylan.


Carmine, the face of unconditional love.
Love Healed My Heart

You may wonder what will happen when Carmine dies. I'll be absolutely heartbroken, just as I was when Jewel and Lita died in 2014 and 2018, respectively. Carmine is my soulmate kitty, and I cry even thinking of the day he will no longer be here with me.

But I will not allow his time with me be in vain. I will continue forth in my recovery. I will hold tight to the love he's always given me. I will remember the lessons he's taught me. Carmine has helped me become a better person in so many ways, and I will never go back to the person I was before. He helped heal my heart, and he changed my life forever.

39 comments:

  1. Can't image the strength it must take to keep moving forward after all your suffered. Hope you find the strength to keep moving forward. Hugs Anesha

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    1. Thank you very much. The kitties definitely keep me going! They're very good little furry motivators.

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  2. Dear Sierra, you have an incredible story of survival and determination and we doubly proud to call you a dear friend. Hugs from all of us.

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    1. Thank you, Brian. We are so blessed to have your friendship. Love and hugs to you all!

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  3. Dear Sierra, you are an incredibly brave and resilient person. Your history of survival is breathtaking. I'm even prouder to call you a friend now I know more. Blessings to you always.
    Love Jan, Milo and Alfie.

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    1. Thank you so much! I am blessed to have your friendship. Hugs and purrs to you!

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  4. Thank you for sharing your story with us, and I admire your strength and courage. Having a good friend; human, cat, or other, makes all the difference.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I agree, a good friend makes all the difference in the world.

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  5. You are incredible. We admire you even more for hearing your story.

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    1. Thank you, Vicat! I think you are incredible, too! You're such a strong woman, and I feel blessed to have you in my life.

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  6. Wow, just wow! You are one tough cookie snd amazing also. Sending you big hugs.

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    1. Thank you! You are such an amazing and strong woman. I really admire you. Sending you love and hugs!

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  7. Thank you for sharing your story with us. We know it couldn't have been easy...but it does show how strong you really are. And thank cod for cats! :)

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    1. Thank you, Sue, Ernie, and Zoey! It definitely was not an easy story to write, but I'm glad I did. Sending you purrs and love.

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  8. WOW!!! Wow!! I ALWAYS knew you had a story to tell but I neve expected this...you are so amazing; so persistent; so brave & strong...I can't stop crying...I relate on so many levels to your life Sierra. I know the pain of being abused by a mentally ill Mother & to be disowned by her. and to be starved for food & positive attention & love. What you have gone thru' blows my mind...truly...you were NOYT a 'bad baby'. Whoever shook & hurt you is the 'bad' person. And for you to live with the Optic atrophy as a result of that abuse shows amazing strength. I understand the self harm & anorexia...my choices were alsochol/drugs & sleeping around. I attempted Suicide twice but Creator did not want me, lol. And like you, my Recovery started with a Siamese kitten named Mingflower the Merciless...we were together 18 1/2 years. Then Nlablue 'Sweet Feet' was with me for 8 1/2 yrs. Then Purrince Siddhartha Henry for almost 4 yrs. And now BellaDharma is taking care of me as I take care of her. And like you, I will NOT attempt Suicide while I have a beloved 4 legged to care for. WE are Survivors! We are Warrior Women! We have won the battles. Thank you for sharing your story...you have taken a HUGE step in your recovery. I am here to support you!! ALWAYS!!! Love Sherri-Ellen & **purrsss** BellaDharma

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    1. Thank you, Sherri-Ellen! It is crazy how much we have in common. I am sorry you have been through so much as well. I am really glad that your suicide attempts didn't work. I am so happy to have you in my life. Our furry ones are just so precious, aren't they?

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  9. I am so sorry you have been through all these traumatic events. You are brave to tell your story. Nothing is your fault. I am glad your beloved kitties have helped you find the peace you deserve. XO

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    1. Thank you, Ellen! I am so glad I've had the opportunity to get to know you. I appreciate your friendship.

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  10. From one childhood trauma survivor to another, I'm so impressed with the strength you have! Were all the coping methods healthy? No, but they kept you alive. I too have self-harmed and been suicidal (and have been hospitalized several times as a result). Congratulations on your recovery and on building a better life for yourself.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, JaneA. I'm so sorry you had a traumatic childhood, too. I think you're an incredible and strong woman, and I really admire you.

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  11. Wow! You have endured and survived. So very glad you were able to adopt the cats since they helped your survival so much. May you keep going forward and healing.

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    1. Thank you, Jan! Kitties are some amazing healers.

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  12. I know how hard it must be to share your story, but it is so powerful and you are so strong. <3

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    1. Thank you! It wasn't an easy story to write, but if it helps just one person, it'll have been totally worth it.

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  13. An amazing story - from an amazing woman. Your story isn't about what happened to you - but about how you found the courage to live. The past was what it was - regardless of what any one else says about it. There is no shame. But I understand the struggle. It took me years to dig myself out from under the mess of what I was told.

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    1. Thank you, Kat! I'm so glad that we are friends. It is so nice to have someone in my life who understands.

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  14. You are such a survivor. And that is amazing, considering all you have been through. I'm so glad you have had feline help through much of it. And that they continue helping you stay centered and more focused on healing than pain. Purrs to you.

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    1. Thank you! Feline helpers are the best little healers.

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  15. It must have taken so much courage to deal with everything you've been dealing with. I'm glad you had feline support through much of it, and that the cats in your life continue to love and guide you. May you find peace (and purrs!) as you continue your recovery.

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    1. Thank you, Ingrid! Cats have not only helped heal my heart, they've taught me many valuable life lessons.

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  17. We are so glad you have moved into a life of healing and are doing so well. We have been reading your blog for some time and have felt your pain and loss and joy and wonder. Thank you.
    My family was terrible also in other ways than yours but we have fur therapy at our house and it is the best

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    1. Thank you! I am sorry to hear that your family hasn't treated you well. You are so awesome! I'm really glad that your little furry companions have helped you. Fur therapy really is the best.

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  18. We are sending you purrayers and POTP for you and your kitties. You are a person of amazing strength and love.

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  19. It's almost as if you've lived nine lives of your very own, overcoming so much, it's staggering. I'm so proud of you and hope the best is yet to come, you deserve it more than words can say. Love and hugs to you and the kitties.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! I appreciate them so much.

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  20. Wow Sierra! I knew some of your story from our conversations when we met in person but I had no idea all that you've survived! Yes! You are a survivor and I'm so proud of your determination to move forward with your life. I'm so glad you have the cats to help you move forward. I'm here if you need me.

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    1. Thank you so much, Paula! I really appreciate your kind words and your friendship. Hugs and purrs to you, Truffle, and Brulee.

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