Despite some of his more questionable theories, Sigmund Freud was right about one thing: “time spent with cats is never wasted.” For those of us who are lucky enough to have a little feline friend at home, this statement rings true. Cats make excellent companions, especially to those of us who are chronically ill and are perhaps in need of a little more companionship and comfort than most. Our cats can make us laugh, provide much needed company and cuddles, and give us a reason to get up each day, no matter how terrible we might be feeling.
More than just being our adorable little pals, however, our cats could also teach us a thing or two about priorities and how to live our best, chronically ill lives. I’ve spent a lot of time observing my cats over the last couple of years and have decided that these are three of the most valuable life lessons we could all take from our four-legged friends.
1. Prioritise Rest
Cats are known to sleep for around 15 hours a day, on average. If you have a cat, then you will also know that this sleep can take place in any location, at any given time of the day. From cardboard boxes, to kitchen counters, cats can and will sleep anywhere. Cats know that rest is the most important part of maintaining a happy, healthy lifestyle and yet, for us chronically ill humans, rest is often the most difficult skill to master. I know that many healthy, busy people might hear us complaining about rest and scoff; thinking how nice it would be to have more time to stop and recuperate. However, when you need to rest as often as we do, you’ll know that it doesn’t always come easily and it isn’t quite the holiday that many assume it to be. Going from having a normal, busy life to suddenly needing to prioritise rest above all else is not an easy transition.
There is also a lot of internalised ableism wrapped up in the idea of rest. Quite often, we humans view rest as something that needs to be ‘earned’ by being productive and many of us struggle with feelings of laziness when needing to take several rests throughout the day. This is where we need to start taking inspiration from our furry companions. It doesn’t matter to cats if they think they’ve ‘done enough’ to earn a good rest, or if they have a to-do list as long as their tail. Rest takes precedence. If all a cat has accomplished that day is to eat and chase dust mites, they will still take a little cat nap whenever they please. I know that for us humans it really isn’t that simple, but I think we could all benefit from having a more feline approach to rest. When your cat takes a nap, take your cue from them. Find a comfortable position (maybe not the kitchen counter) to lie down, or cuddle up with your cat, close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Allow your body and mind time to switch off. I find that listening to my cats’ purrs or their snores can be very soothing. In fact, it is scientifically proven that the sound of a cat purring can lower stress levels and blood pressure in humans. All the more reason to love them!
I know that many people find it difficult to switch off, but whenever your cat takes a rest just use it as a little reminder to check in with yourself. How are you energy levels? How is your pain? When was the last time you took a rest? Prioritising rest and making little pockets of time for it throughout the day is a huge part of managing your illness. Even if all you accomplish today is rest, remember that you are not being lazy; you are giving your body exactly what it needs. Think of it as an act of self-care. Cats certainly do.
2. Setting Boundaries
Have you ever seen a cat put up with anyone’s bullsh*t? Absolutely not. Cats are the masters of setting boundaries and we could all benefit from following their lead. While I am not for one minute suggesting you go around slapping and hissing at people, I do think it’s crucial for both our mental and physical health that we communicate our boundaries with people.
Try as they might, it is extremely difficult for our friends and loved ones to truly understand what it’s like to live with a chronic illness. Nobody else will understand the intricacies of your access needs or your symptoms, so it’s crucial that we speak up and make our needs known. Think like your cat - if something doesn’t feel right to you, slap the person nearest to you. Whoops! I mean, speak up. If someone is saying or doing something that is hurtful to you, let them know. If an activity is too much for you or causing a flare up of symptoms, think like a cat and be assertive. Teaching people how to treat us is a process that involves educating them on what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, it is knowing what we need and want and being able to communicate this effectively. So don’t be afraid to make your needs known, and to be assertive enough to set clear boundaries. Not only does this teach others how to treat you, but it also teaches us how to treat ourselves. In learning to recognise and respect our own boundaries, we are also learning not to push ourselves to do more than our bodies are capable of.
3. Be Curious
Contrary to the old saying, curiosity won’t kill the cat, nor will it harm us humans to foster a more curious spirit. Cats are naturally curious about everything in their world – new smells, new people, new sounds. While the idea of exploring the new and the unknown can often feel scary to some people, it can often lead to discovering new interests and learning new things about yourself. For many of us, chronic illness has completely derailed life as we knew it, and we have had to adapt to a ‘new normal’. Most hobbies that we had before are now inaccessible to us, and we lose a lot of the things that previously brought us joy and excitement. This is where curiosity comes in.
Have you ever watched your cat try to catch a beam of light on the wall? Have you noticed how long they can sit and observe the birds for, or how much interest they can take in a dangling shoe lace? Cats take an interest in the seemingly most insignificant things, they act on their whims, caring not for the opinions of others. Have you always fancied yourself a bit of a wordsmith but never been brave enough to give writing a go? Follow that interest now and see where it takes you. Do you have a secret interest in birds? Research different types of bird feed, buy a bird book and make your garden into a little bird sanctuary that you can enjoy from inside, even on your worst days.
By being curious about new interests or new opportunities, you might discover new sides of your personality. I never considered myself much of an insect lover, but after having spent time in my garden observing the different types of insect life going on, I have since discovered an interest in insect conservation and now my garden is a little hub of activity that gives me a strange kind of pleasure to observe. Granted, it’s not the coolest of hobbies but does a cat care about how cool he looks when he’s dangling off your shoe lace? Of course not, so neither should you.
Don’t be afraid to follow where your curiosity leads you, you might just surprise yourself.