When I was about 13 or 14 years old, a neighbour’s newly rescued bull terrier busted through our backyard fence and attacked one of our cats. It was very lucky that this poor dog had been so badly neglected by a prior owner that he only had four teeth, so Motley (named for one of my favourite anarcho-primitivist’s, Desmond Morris’ cats – that’s another story) survived the horror with only bruises, at least physically. We didn’t know that straight away, because he ran under the house. We could hear him yowling and eventually we got him out and to the vet. He’d always been a scaredy cat compared to his recklessly affectionate sister and companion, Phoebe, but after that he was very different.
Instead of having a renewed appreciation for life having had a near death experience, he became fussy and shy and jumpy. Cats, like humans are both predators and prey animals and some of the post-traumatic stress behaviours they exhibit seem very familiar to me, now that I have had my own life-altering trauma. This trauma, while it has been devastating, has also been hugely informative for my understanding of my previous, less obviously transformative, and yet nonetheless “character-forming” traumatic experiences. I use that phrase deliberately, because that’s exactly what trauma is – it’s something that makes it feel unsafe to be vulnerable, so it seems necessary in some way to play a character. One of the most common experiences resulting from trauma is a sense of shame. To me this translates as the feeling that I have to hide a part of myself, which if discovered by others would be unacceptable. I was so good at hiding, I didn’t even know I was doing it. Dissociative experiences are the extreme forms of this, but I would contend that it’s incredibly common. I make no claim for its universality, but from various disciplines including cognitive psychology, it’s a very powerful idea of how subjects experience themselves. (Whatever à “self” is – that’s another story too.)
Various events in my life had made it seem like I’d had to wear various masks, so the most terrifying thing about the full-blown PTS was it burned through me so hot, it destroyed the unacknowledged defence systems which I had layered around me. I was completely skinless. I’m a big fan of the notion of post-traumatic growth, but I recommend that you never promote the idea to someone in the middle of “stress disorder” bit, because you might get punched in the face. However, the reopening of the old wounds allowed me to understand how the hell I had got to this point.
Cats hide their injuries so predators won’t see them as vulnerable and therefore easily overcome. They can never reveal that they are injured freely. Without a lot of trust, and/or complete despair a cat can’t admit that it is not whole. People often claim that cats are naturally solitary creatures like tigers but that’s not true. Cats are clannish and while not as co-evolved with humans as dogs, they are domesticated, despite rumours to the contrary. While they can survive, possibly, without us, the life of a feral cat is nasty, brutish and short. They need their people, just like humans. So what is happening for a human person (rather than a person who is a cat) when, for whatever reason, it feels like showing vulnerability, to the people who are closest to us, and may be caregivers, is dangerous?
To understand this, we would have to first accept that human subjectivity is not singular. Descartes’ humonculus has left the building. When a human is injured, they have a distinct ability to hide their injuries even from themselves. This could be so that they don’t have to deal with the dissonance of dishonesty when admitting that they are hurt feels like it might invite further injury. So the masks get created to form the protective layer over the shameful wound. The trouble with masks worn too long is that they stick to the face. It’s both incredibly painful and potentially exquisitely liberating to have them removed.
Now, I have become fussy and shy and jumpy. I’m hoping that is a temporary, although I certainly feel that I simply cannot go back to the life where I’m not always on the lookout for the vicious dog approaching from a seemingly safe environment. And I certainly haven’t lost all the masks, but I see them for what they are now. They’re not “me”. I’ll let you know when I work out what that is exactly, but for the moment all I know that if I keep pretending I’m not injured when I am, I can’t really become whole.