Two weeks ago I fell in love with a special little someone- a kitten! I met a beautiful Russian blue, eight month old kitten. I saw her at Petco when I was there buying cat food for my regal black-haired Egyptian god in a cat’s body, Ra. I wandered into the section with the shelter pets just to see the sweet little kitties brought there by the shelter. I saw the sleek gray cat, and she looked at me and I looked at her, and I knew that we were meant to be together. Although it was short notice, I let my mother know about bringing home a kitten and begrudgingly got her approval.

I was warned as I filled out the paperwork for the adoption that she had been in an abusive household and was ultimately returned to the shelter. She could be unfriendly, nasty and hiss at people. It was because she was afraid and had been mistreated by those who were supposed to take care of her. I told the sweet ladies at the shelter that I had worked with humans that had suffered trauma, including foster children, letting them know that I could handle this. “You can’t bring her back.” I was told. I assured them that I had no intention to do so.

“Take her back!” exclaimed my mother after less than a week of living with the kitten. We were staying with my mother after our recent move from the San Francisco Bay, just until we got our own place. My mother liked the idea of having her with us, as I took over the majority of cooking, cleaning and was a cupcake-baking queen. That is, she liked having us there until now. Our other cat was well-trained and mellow, sleeping on the furniture and occasionally sauntering over to us for food and attention. The new kitten, for whom we had auspiciously chosen the name Oona (the Celtic fairy queen associated with the moon), was a feisty one. She was also acting out of her trauma history: afraid of people, hiding, hissing, clawing and biting when someone tried to hold her. I repeatedly explained that someone like her, whether human or feline, is going to be scared in a new space and will take time to adapt. They must be approached with warmth and given room to explore at their own pace. They must learn to trust those around them and believe that they are safe. Changes are inevitable but people will need time to adjust to them and learn new coping skills. With some patience and understanding, this could be accomplished, I just needed the other members of the household to know how to handle her.

My younger brother offered to have Oona is his room, but quickly learned the needs of a small cat could be disruptive to his quiet routine. He adored her, but would recoil when the kitten was unfriendly or defensive, then complain to my mother, who in turn would scold me like a small child. It was certainly not my intention to disrupt the household. I just wanted to give a good home to this little one, and knew how gratifying it was for my husband and I to have fur babies (especially since we were deliberately waiting to have human ones). I told her that if we returned her to the shelter, it would risk having her put down. “You can’t save them all!” I was disturbed by this comment, and refused to relent, and got up and walked away. Keeping Oona and training her past her abuse history was a bigger task than I had thought originally when adopting her, but I knew I was up for it. This was more than saving a cat, I was symbolically saving myself.

Growing up in an abusive household, then getting educated and trained in mental health meant that I had dedicated much time and energy to my own healing process. After moving away for college and going on to graduate school, I was required to fulfill a number of therapy hours before I would be allowed to graduate. I had learned, practiced, and for several years now taught self-awareness, healing, and empowerment techniques. I had received accolades for my work and was very popular amongst the students at the campuses where I taught. However, despite the energetic and intellectual giant I had become, I was still the “too sensitive” little girl in the eyes of my family. Although I had changed and grown new patterns of relating, communication and understanding the world around me, some of the destructive behavior patterns that I saw in my family were still the same. When I tried to bringing attention to some of them, people did not want to hear it. I was often ignored, dismissed, or told that something was wrong with me.

“You’re just being too sensitive!” as if all the years of verbal, psychological and physical abuse was just my imagination. Some people cope by learning coping skills, whereas others use defense mechanisms or self-medicating (with addictions) to not deal with their pain. This came to a head upon moving back to my hometown and in with my family.

I had numerous sit down discussions with my mother that started out as disagreements, small misunderstandings, even shouting matches since we had moved. I had to set and reinforce boundaries about time, chores, responsibilities, and roles in the family. I had repeatedly, and sometimes resentfully expressed how tired I was of being the family therapist to others without receiving back the same kindness and support. At worst I was treated as the family scapegoat and martyr in a crisis situation where someone did not want to own up to their own issues. I now saw the new kitten, in a sense an extension of me, being made as an excuse for unhealthy behavior in the household.

My core wounding was like the abused kitten: hurt, fearful, untrusting, not knowing what to expect. Would I be accepted and loved, or rejected and thrown out? Again and again I consciously decided to be the adult and speak my truth as nonviolently as possible, express my needs and desires, and ask for what I specifically needed to have changed. I even left for a couple of days to have more space for myself to cool off, trusting my husband to take care of the cats and advocate for me (which he did wonderfully).

My family saw that I was standing my ground. After having some time to think they seemed to understand more. I was an adult now, and no longer a helpless child. I stood up for myself and would set the parameters for the kind of relationships I wanted to be in. If anyone wanted to be part of my life, they would have to learn how to do so in a healthy way, and not in the old dysfunctional way.

After reconnecting, we decided to have a family meeting every two weeks and openly discuss our concerns and household issues, rather than allowing things to sit and fester. We will have a safe space to openly talk, share, and process what is happening for us. Everyday issues as well as old wounding will have a chance to be met in the open air with hopefully compassion and willingness to listen. Only when a wound is acknowledged and uncovered can it be can it be healed.

My family also decided to take some communication classes together. Even though I teach nonviolent communication and family systems theory, it is a good idea to go through the process with my family so we learn and relearn together. Oona, the kitten, may have been a catalyst for a lot of important discussion and change. Change is inevitable, like the phases of the moon. Our little moon goddess in feline form has helped to bring to light much needed healing for everyone in the household. Some think that cats have magical properties, and my felines have demonstrated that this is definitely true.