Who Rescued Who? My Cat Helps Me Deal With a Life of Chronic Illness


I was a junior in high school volunteering at a cat shelter for honor society hours. It was a great mood boost as I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and Asperger’s Syndrome a few months prior. I lasted for about two months before I had to quit abruptly. My stamina fell flat, my bones and muscles ached, and my short-term memory had more holes in it than Swiss cheese. At the age of 17, I had developed the body and mind of someone far older, and I didn’t know why, but it didn’t help my depression any.

I begged and pleaded with my mother to get a pet, as I had read that they help with mental illness and autism. She caved and we went to the very shelter I volunteered at. It was the first time I would have a pet all to myself and didn’t have to share with my older brother. I was ready and excited for the responsibility.

Knowing nearly every cat by name and temperament, I knew exactly who I wanted.

"I want Gizmo."

"He was adopted yesterday."

"Okay. I’ll go with Millie, then."

"She was adopted, too."

By the third one my mom started to realize I was interested in black cats. She pulled me aside and told me the cat I pick can’t be black, can’t get on the counters or furniture, and has to be mellow.

I stood there and in my mind went through the cats as if they were all in a catalog in my brain. "Oh! I know!"

I went to the adult cat room and looked behind kitty cubes until I found Tanner hiding from his more rambunctious roommates. Even when I was volunteering there, he would stay in the shadows and never make a sound. He reminded me of myself. At that point, I had less of a grasp on my Asperger’s. I was still shy and confused about how to interact with people around me, often feeling uncomfortable to the point of tears in a room of people. I barely talked unless spoken to and loud noises just made me want to curl up into a ball. I was weird and had few friends. I couldn’t even keep my first job because it was too much stimulation.

He was perfect.

Having a cat was a lot better for me. He wasn’t like what I expected at first, either. He didn’t curl up in my lap, he preferred his bed over mine, and he wasn’t as playful as the other cats I had seen. During my senior year, I was overwhelmed with the pressure of being valedictorian and the stress around me that I snapped. I was so depressed I shut down, became mildly catatonic, and was sent to a hospital. My family came for visits, and every time, my mom would tell me how Tanner would scratch at my door at night and meow. For me. I was so far down that I didn’t think anyone or anything cared about me, especially not this aloof ball of fur who didn’t cuddle with me. I was touched. I wanted to be with him again and snapped myself out of it enough to go home after three days.

I got home and was still left with my failing physical health. No doctor could figure it out. I got so weak and ill that I had to leave my high school and finish school in an alternate program. Pretty soon, that ended too because I couldn’t get out of bed.

Slowly but surely, Tanner started to want to be with me. He’d lie wherever I did (and sometimes on me and my sore spots), follow me wherever I went, and once I even found him trying to lift my hand after I had collapsed on the floor. I could talk to him about anything, and playing with him got me out of bed. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia that year, just before I graduated high school as co-valedictorian.

I entered college and made new friends. I joined clubs with people I didn’t know and got a new boyfriend (who I asked out first!). I answered questions in class and could manage to exercise a bit.

Fast forward a few years to 2013. I woke up one morning unable to feel the left side of my body and the right side of my face, I couldn’t eat or drink without choking, and my foot felt like it was in a pit of fire ants. After another five months, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Tanner has been through it all. He lies with me (in my bed!) and naps until I can get up, greets me at the door when I get home from two jobs, and cuddles under blankets with me. He lies on my sore spots and purrs the pain away. I can talk to a whole group of people as if I’d been doing it forever.

I can’t be a normal 21-year-old, but if Tanner can accept it, I can, too.

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About the author: Brielle lives in Youngstown, Ohio, with her kitty, Tanner, and her mom. She is an English major at Youngstown State University, with one more semester to go. She writes about cats, cosplay, and anime on her blog. Keep up with her and Tanner at Tanner the Kittie.

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