Many years ago, I moved back to our family homestead in rural Maine. A number of factors brought me back there, and it’s a little too complicated to get into in this post, but suffice it to say that the core reason I moved there was that I wanted to be there to help build a legacy for my family.
What I didn’t count on was that about a month before I was going to move out there, my brother fell in love. The woman who was to share his life for the next 10 years struck me as a very generous and kindhearted, if a bit melodramatic.
I was thrilled to be a part of this family, working with my brother and his wife to build our collective future.
But as time passed, things began to change. My brother’s lady friend (who by that point had become my sister-in-law) started acting snappy toward me. As a classic survivor of childhood trauma, I tried to make things better by being obliging and trying my best to follow her rules of engagement.
The trouble was, those rules of engagement seemed to be in a constant state of flux. Everything I did to try to be helpful, from picking up dog food on the way home to cleaning the table before supper, was met with criticism.
This situation continued to escalate. I found myself being harangued by her whenever my brother wasn’t around. Coming into the house to bathe for work (I didn’t have running water in my place) became an exercise in girding my loins against her steely resentment.
I did my best to remain compassionate. I knew that, in my brother’s own words, she was "not a well woman." I also knew better than to try and counter her arguments or talk back, so I resorted to the tactic that had helped me to survive a similarly nutty childhood: I said nothing and just let her vent. When she’d had her say, I went back to my little apartment and hugged my cats, trying to let go of the stone in my heart.
Every day my despair grew. I felt unwelcome in my own home — the home that I had sacrificed my financial freedom to build, the home where I felt trapped because I couldn’t afford to continue paying the loan I took out to build the house and rent a place of my own.
On some level, I knew that this was seriously unhealthy, but I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept my head down and tried to stay out of the way.
Until my sister-in-law started in on my cat, that is.
About two years into my three-year stay, she decided that she had it in for Thomas.
She found his collar by the chicken house one day and came storming up to me, waving the collar in my face and accusing him of killing her chickens. There were no dead chickens to be found, of course, and no sane cat would mess with a flock of chickens (and roosters).
A couple of months later, I was told that I was to keep my cats inside all day and only let them out at night so that they wouldn’t kill her chickens. Oh, and I must have my cats back inside before I left for work, otherwise she couldn’t be responsible for the consequences.
A couple more months later, I was just about to leave for work when my sister-in-law came stomping up the stairs to my place, screaming and crying that Thomas had killed all the chicks in one of the portable coops and there was blood and guts everywhere and I had to clean it up.
I knew there was no point in arguing, so I changed out of my work clothes and into some sweat pants and checked out the scene. There certainly was carnage in the chicken coop, but it was clear to me that this was not the work of a cat. I told her that a cat would never kill like this, that their habit is to take one creature, eat it, and sleep.
She screamed through her tears, "Well, maybe Thomas went crazy when he got in there and now ALL MY BABY CHICKS ARE DEAD!!!!!”
I cleaned up the mess and went to work. On that day, I decided that no matter how, I had to get out of there. If anything else happened, I was afraid that she’d demand that my brother take lethal action against poor Thomas — and through a number of other incidents, I’d come to the heartbreaking realization that I couldn’t trust my brother with my or my cats’ safety, either.
It wasn’t until I realized that my cats might not be physically safe that my wounded mind and heart were able to engage in some "escape planning."
It’s terribly sad how easy it is to dismiss abuse or find ways to cope with it because there seems to be no way out.
The good news is, I did get out. I found a job an hour away, provided a sound logical reason why I couldn’t stay at the family homestead — to invoke emotions and express the fact that I felt unsafe would have led to disaster — and moved into a new apartment close to work before the first snow flew.
Have you ever been galvanized into action or forced into the awareness that you’re in an unsafe situation by watching how other people treated your cats? Please share your stories in the comments.
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.