The Cat Who Walks By Himself Is A Caregiver

March 3, 2013

GatewayMy mother raised me to be both a reader and cat-lover. One of our favorite stories was “The Cat that Walked by Himself” from Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories.” Whether childrens’ story or reconstructed fable, Kipling tells us about the domestication of animals and the peculiar nature of cats, loving yet solitary and always with their own agenda.

For my family, this individualist feline was the model for how we related to the world around us. We traveled as military brats in the years before email and Skype, when long-distance phone calls meant a death in the family and when friends were temporary in nature, limited by the two or three year span of duty in any particular base at home or abroad. Some, it’s true, responded to this by become hail-and-well-met extroverts but by and large my siblings and I became introverts We read, we dreamed, we became self-sufficient with a rich inner life.

It’s now understood that introverts are not the same as “shy people.” Although we may have social anxiety or rusty social skills, introverts are those who draw energy from being alone. Groups and gatherings can drain our energy and leave us emotionally spent. We “recharge” in our quiet places. Opening up to a stranger, even with good reason with someone with the best intentions and purposes, can become a difficult task.

I’ve been through that period of shyness, emerging with help from many factors: Coming out as gay. A couple of years of therapy. And yes, Paxil, an anti-depressant SSRI that also treats social anxiety. Being with my extrovert partner Freddie for over twelve years has given me constant models for more sociable behavior, making small talk, and especially giving compliments as an ice-breaker or social lubricant. It also doesn’t hurt to have moved back home to Texas where saying “sir” and “ma’am” and exchanging a few polite sentences with any random neighbor, stranger, or service provider are simply taken for granted as a way of life.

Now that I am more and more a caregiver, I’m looking back at Kipling’s cat and wondering if he has some new lessons for me. In the story, this cat asked for what he wanted, made a deal, and took care of a baby without giving up his essential self and identity. Something in this idea speaks to me.

As a caregiver, I’ve looked after Freddie in some ways as long as we’ve lived together, thanks to his falling off a ladder a couple days before he moved into my house. That time was just a three or four month recovery period, followed by a return to normal activity, or whatever passes for normal.

It’s really been over the last four years that caregiving for me has become more intensive and increasingly non-stop. Diligent reader me, I’ve pored over many different articles, web sites, and books for caregivers. I’ve participated in email discussion groups. And I’ve talked to doctors and social workers. One thing that I often find missing in the advice for caregivers is a sense that it needs to be tailored for your personality type. How, specifically, does the introvert approach caregiving?

For example, one frequent suggestion is to join a support group. As an introvert, I tend to move to the edge of any group and spend most if not all of my time listening instead of speaking. The very idea of joining a group makes me cringe. I’ve never been a “joiner” of any sort, not from Cub Scouts through sports teams, only reluctantly in choirs and never in clubs. I am a group of one.

And of course, as an introvert my approach to this is first to spend time by myself, whether it’s walking the dogs – well, not quite by myself – or working in the garden. I can sort through my thoughts and work through emotions and come back a little more at ease and able to cope with the next challenge.

With today’s technology, there is also the virtual group. It is not necessary to meet in person to share one’s heart and mind, worries and fears, hopes and dreams. I have a couple of friends and family who I connect with more through email or Facebook than in person. Maybe if we lived closer we’d actually see each other. Be that as it may, like Kipling’s cat I wander off and come back as I may. My introverted self does not actively seek out others, although sometimes they serendipitously appear.

The second thing I do is read. And I do mean read. Last Christmas I was given a tablet and I’ve finally gotten into reading those e-books that seemed too much to handle on my little smartphone screen. I find that reading other caregivers’ stories gives me a point of connection. Sometimes I pick up a tip that I can use, other times it’s just getting the sense that “I’m not the only one.”

Another frequent suggestion for caregivers is to ask for help. I am, of course, not just an introvert but also that quiet self-sufficient person who always did everything for himself. My home is not just my castle, it’s my sanctuary. It’s hard sometimes to let other people in, especially when their services are combined with a loss of control. I want to clean my own house, thank you, even if – especially if – a couple of the rooms are an unorganized mess. My stuff is my stuff, and I still cling to the wish to deal with it. And when those home-health workers come to visit, oh, if only they could schedule more in advance and always be on time.

Here again, Kipling’s cat has something to teach me. I don’t have everything I need. He wanted the shelter of the cave, the warmth of the fire, and a bowl of milk. He made a deal with the Wise Woman to obtain what he needed without giving up his essential self.

What can I do to name what I need and find it, ask for it, while keeping my sense of control, sanctuary, and self?

We have a cat, Gateway, who’s been with me about fifteen years now. I think I’ll go talk to her and see what she has to say.

Note to reaaders: I try not to ask for nor give advice, and I will make it clear when I do. Here’s some: My advice is think carefully about what caregiving strategies work best for you, and do not assume that any particular method that works for another is the best for you. Seek your own path and follow it, and the best of luck to you and yours.


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