Mental Illness: Why Love and Acceptance Must Be the First Line of Treatment

Our son recently returned for a restorative stint at home, bringing with him the latest addition to our family, Sammy the cat, or “The Meister” as we call him.

Photo by Polina Kovaleva on

He acquired Sammy during one of the COVID lockdowns last year when he was experiencing burnout. He was living alone, at a particularly low ebb because he was unable to work at his job in hospitality. Not eating properly or taking his medication, the environment provided the perfect conditions for someone with ADHD to slip back into depression.

The idea of a cat didn’t appeal to me

Admittedly, when he first suggested a cat as a companion, I was resistant. Many friends of mine are now raising the pets of their adult kids and after almost thirty years as pet owners, my husband and I are now looking forward to a period when we can rent nice properties again and go away without the worry of leaving them with strangers.

But despite my many (illegal) visits to my son’s apartment to try and keep his mental health in check, he was slowly sinking under the strain, and it wasn’t long before he embroiled me in an illegal mission to collect Sammy from a western suburb of Sydney with some of the harshest lockdown restrictions. Masked up, heads down, we drove through the unusually quiet streets to be introduced to the newest member of our family.

“Scaredy-cat” is an understatement to describe Sammy

Sammy is the most anxious cat I have ever met. He jumps at the sight of his own shadow and the noises his own body makes when he moves, and there were times in the early days when I visited our son’s apartment when he would actually hide in his litter tray to avoid me. Although he was never aggressive, each time my son foisted him onto my lap, it was clear from the way Sammy’s body turned limp that every agonising second he was there he was planning his escape.

Fast-forward a few months and I was still struggling to warm to him, perhaps because of his clear refusal to acknowledge me as the matriarch of the family (with the respect I believe I deserve) or to cow-tow to my many innovative attempts to connect with him. I suspect that my froideur had something to do with the loss of our son’s deposit on his apartment for the cat’s damage to the carpet.

Nevertheless, I like to think I am the bigger person and when the boys turned up at our family home, I welcomed them with open arms, even providing Sammy with a safe space (from me) – a furry cat cube in which to hide from his wicked grandmother.

He didn’t leave his box for the first month

The only time he left the cube was when our son closed his bedroom door. Each time I ventured into the room and tried to stroke Sammy in his box, he did everything to avoid my touch, either by hiding under the cushion or this Houdini move where he pushed his body so far back against the wall behind him, it was impossible to reach him. Nevertheless, he was productive during his transition to our home, developing a handy left hook as an additional mode of defence.

There were a couple of occasions when I enticed him out with toys or expensive treats – because for a street cat, Sammy is surprisingly gourmet in his choice of cuisine – but each time I thought I was making some progress, he reverted back to his street behaviour and slapped me back down where he thought I belonged.

It was more than a month before curiosity got the better of Sammy and he began to venture beyond the boundary of our son’s bedroom door, only to be thwarted by the territorial behaviour of our terrifying Spoodle. Luna is used to our undivided attention and each time he got close to the living area, she chased him away and set Sammy’s intrepid explorer skills back another few days.

Then, to our surprise, one day he appeared on my husband’s desk chair in the study, which is helpfully tucked under the table and out of direct reach of the dog. And even though physical contact with him continued to be a risky venture, occasionally he let me to stroke his paw gently before swiping it away or thumping me – I should point out here that my son calls this “playing” and that Sammy is more Jekyll than Hide with him.

Slowly, over the past month, Sammy’s steps to integrate with our family have gone from strength to strength, albeit they are ALWAYS on his terms – because he is a cat, after all. Suddenly he is everywhere, from the bench top as he impatiently awaits his food, to sitting outside my bedroom when he thinks I’m not looking.

This morning we caught him checking out the dog’s bed

Evidently, whatever trauma Sammy experienced before the RSPCA found him on the streets had a lasting effect on him and he must learn how to trust humans again – something that can only be done with patience, love and understanding.

Though it is frustrating when animals don’t perform for us the way we want or expect them to, people with trauma behave in the same way – and a perfect human example of this is the character of Marianne in “Normal People”, the book by Sally Rooney.

Several times a year, our son experiences burnout because of his struggles to to meet the demands of a neurotypical society. He needs time out to recalibrate from the sense of overwhelm caused by the exhaustion of continually trying to meet the weight of expectations that we (inadvertently) and society place on him. His ongoing battle with his mental health issues mean that he reaches a point when he can no longer leave the house without feeling nauseous and feels permanently angry and fatigued. Unfortunately, because he doesn’t look disabled, there is little compassion for his struggles; he is seen as lazy, entitled or weak in some way.

People who have lost trust are often defensive and oppositional

However, with love and acceptance – what I believe should be the first-line of treatment for people with mental illness – people like him feel less isolated, judged and ashamed. Though “tough love” may be the gold standard approach to care for some mental illnesses, it is a risky choice for some and one that doesn’t necessarily work for those people who have completely lost the ability to function. It is not an easy route, either, because people who have lost trust, like Sammy, are often defensive and oppositional.

In the three months since my son and Sammy returned home to live with us, we have watched them come out of their respective boxes and flourish. Slowly, we are reintroducing boundaries – which for Sammy means not scratching my rugs or chewing the leaves of my artificial plants – because we know that they are as vital to them as they are for us. But the hope is that with some time to heal and just “be”, both will find the confidence and strength to move on to the next period of their lives.

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