I have what I refer to as emotional support animals – principally my husband. He goes with me to places and into situations that upset me, like a dentist appointment or a class reunion. He puts a comforting hand on my shoulder and encourages me.
My cats provide emotional support as well. They ground me when I’m upset and help me calm down. They give me something to focus my attention on instead of the turmoil in my head. They soothe me with their purring and distract me with their antics.
You would think that the animals I identify with most would be cats. I do believe that if I could be any animal, I would choose to be a cat – as long as I could be one of my own cats and not an unwanted, feral stray.
But the animals I identify most with are bunnies and armadillos. Here’s why.
There’s an expression among chefs – when they’re absolutely slammed with work, falling further behind with each passing minute, they describe the situation as being “in the weeds.” I use the phrase a little differently. I was experiencing a mixture of anxiety and depression, totally overwhelmed, though not necessarily with work. Every day brought new challenges that terrified me. Every day I found myself immobilized. And every day I found myself retreating. I felt like a little bunny hiding in the weeds.
That became the shorthand my husband and I used to describe the feelings. He would ask me how I was feeling, and I would reply, “I’m hiding in the weeds.” When I couldn’t express what I was feeling, he would say, “Are you hiding in the weeds?” and I would nod. That’s how I felt – like I had to hide from the flood of feelings and problems that beset me. Like I needed a screen of weeds to offer me what little protection they could. Like I had to be ready to jump at any minute the next time I sensed a threat.
I moved past this phase. After years of therapy and medication, I no longer need the weeds. I have stronger forms of protection that come from inside now. (My husband does calls me “Bunny” as a term of endearment, though.)
Armadillos are another story. Again, though, my fascination with them was in relation to another form of protection, seemingly more solid than weeds.
Armadillos are covered, of course, with bands of scales that protect them from most dangers. They can also roll up in a ball to protect their soft underbellies. I tried to develop hard scales that would prevent trauma from invading my fragile emotional makeup. At times I even rolled up into a ball (or at least a fetal position) when I had a meltdown.
Eventually, I did learn that if you wall off your feelings, it’s hard to get back in touch with them. And the good emotions get blocked off as well as the bad ones. The armadillo armor was not a viable solution for the long term.
I also learned that the armadillo has another defense mechanism. It jumps straight up about two feet into the air, presumably to escape from or startle any predators. Unfortunately for the armadillo, their main predator is the automobile. The little critter’s jump puts it at just the right height to be smashed by the car’s bumper. As a defense mechanism goes, it’s not really what you’d call successful.
That’s when I realized that neither were mine. When I got jumpy – when my anxiety was out of control – I was often smashed by onrushing difficulties, the very ones I was trying to escape.
So, bunnies are out. Armadillos are out. Where can I find an animal to identify with in terms of protection? We’re back to cats, I guess. They at least have claws that they can choose to extend or sheathe. I like the idea of bringing out a defense mechanism only when I really need it.
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