Schizoaffective Disorder Bipolar Type ll. Quite a mouthful of American psychobabble. It’s a real psychiatric BOGO – buy one, get one free. A little bit of schizophrenia, and the more depressive side of bipolar disorder. Ask me how much fun it is to own one of these. For a very long time it was my proverbial albatross, what defined me. I was very dependent on those who loved me and were always there for me: my sister and brother-in-law, my brother, and a couple of good friends, and my cats.
My first was Hermes. I didn’t think I could love an animal until Hermes, but he opened my heart. I was living in NYC in those days, working as an actor/singer, on the road a lot and very paranoid. I was also anorexic and addicted to exercise. Hermes came into that life, with that Andie – erratic, frenetic, unstable – and until the day he died, never knew me as anything different. But he adored me anyway. He slept with his head on my shoulder every night, and licked me all the time. It was my first experience of unconditional love and I didn’t know how to handle it.
Less than a year after Hermes came to live with me, I adopted another homeless kitten – Ariel. The vet had told me Hermes needed a pal. He was right and the two cats became inseparable. They slept nose-to-nose, all curled up together; it was beautiful. Ariel was a poet in his way, very sensitive, and always needed an invitation to be stroked – an invitation he always accepted. He was smart and funny and loved to play “fetch.” And, like Hermes, Ariel was a lover.
Hermes and Ariel came with me on the road everywhere when I worked out-of-town, which was constantly. They knew airports and cat carriers and taxicabs all too well, but the three of us were so connected I knew it was better for them to be with me than to be home with a stranger. Meanwhile, they were keeping me alive and focused. Having them with me kept me from going over the edge. When you are mentally struggling and not being treated for it, your life is full of secrets, and so was mine. It is very exhausting to try to seem okay when you’re not. How I managed to perform onstage will forever be a mystery. But the cats were there, needing attention, requiring me to stay at least focused enough to take care of them, and I did–because they showed me so much love, the kind that I had never known growing up. They were teaching me what love really is.
So it stood to reason that when I moved to England to pursue my career, Hermes and Ariel would come with me. I was very manic during my first few years in London, which is a feature of bipolar illness. Mania was a kind of high, a feeling of invincibility, needing little food or sleep, something I called “the buzz.” I loved the buzz. I was deliriously happy when I had the buzz. But I was still undiagnosed and untreated and, as they say, “what goes up must come down,” and eventually I would crash. After more than eight years of this kind of torment, I became too ill to even audition, and my sister and brother-in-law brought me back to the US for treatment. By this time I weighed 89 lbs. I had to put Hermes down before I left London, because he had had a stroke and I couldn’t really ask a friend to take care of him. Ariel went with a friend, and I cried for 8 hours on the flight back to the US, mourning their loss and my entrance into the unknown. I felt bereft and alone.
Fast forward 5 months down the road. I had been getting treatment for 4 months; then my sister moved me into an apartment and I got Singleton. I knew that I needed an animal to keep me straight and everyone, including my treatment team, agreed. Interestingly, Singleton slept with me the exact same way Hermes had, and I immediately felt that kind of love again. We played and cuddled and slept together. Singleton was teaching me what Hermes had begun to – that love doesn’t end with loss, and if the heart stays open, there is always room for more.
Singleton died one night when he was three. He encountered one of those poisonous frogs during his evening wanderings and passed away right outside my bedroom window. I was lost and hysterical. I clung to his stiff body for hours, while my landlady’s son sat with me. I was a mess. How would I survive?
Singleton was cremated and I still have his ashes by my bed. I lived alone for awhile, but knew that I couldn’t do that for long. Finally my sister took me to another shelter and there I met my mother. She was just a kitten then and so tiny, very zen and self-contained. Really special. I called her Dulcibella because the people at the shelter said she was the beautiful, sweet one.
Dulcie did not sleep with me the way Hermes and Singleton did, although she did sleep on my bed. It took me a while to figure her out, and I’m sure she had her doubts about me. She wasn’t full of play, but she bonded with me pretty quickly and soon she followed me everywhere. She started going on walks with me – without a leash – and if I told her to “stay” and went across the street to the store, she would sit on the corner and wait for me. And be sitting there when I came back. People got to know me as “the girl who walks her cat” and pretty soon, the whole neighborhood knew my Dulcie.
People who would say, “I’m not a cat person!” loved Dulcie. She became my mom. She nursed me when I had a cold, she crawled into my nightshirt at bedtime and slept next to my skin. She took care of me. She groomed me all the time, and talked to me softly when I was depressed. She reflected back to me my best self and made me a better person. She taught me that love is unbounded, but knew when to leave me alone. She licked my tears. Even on her last day in this world, when she could barely lift her head, she licked my tears as I told her I loved her. She showed me what it meant to be truly and unselfishly mothered. My own human mother wasn’t able to do that, but Dulcibella was. All my life I had felt like an orphan, but Dulce gave me that which all children crave, even if they don’t know they do. Nurturing.
So when she died, my Boo-Boo, I knew it was because she felt her job was done and I didn’t need her anymore – even though I felt like I did. She knew I was going to be okay without her. She had given me all she had to give. And while I grieved and wept, I knew she would always be with me because she had left the best of herself within me. She had shown me love like I had never known, and now I believed in it – that kind of love. I no longer felt unmothered.
Now I live with 3 cats and a small dog, Chloe. I am on medication and have been doing extremely well for many years. And now, I am the mom. But I give all credit to Dulcie. She showed me how it is done. And even though I am the mother now, don’t think for a moment that I am not given far more than I give. The animals that share my life continue to lavish me with all they have in the way of affection, and I bask in their love every day. Our love is unconditional, the way true love is meant to be. They love me with or without makeup, messy or put together, stinky or aromatic. They love me whether I am up or down. And I can accept that love because Dulcie taught me how to receive. I owe my life to all the animals that have shared their time with me. But to Dulcie I owe everything.
More personal essays: The Importance of Forgiving Yourself
Photo: Andie Levine