How My Cat’s Anxiety Helped Me Be Gentler With Myself About My Own

I was 37 years old the first time a person suggested I should be gentle with myself — and it wasn’t even really a person; it was the disembodied voice of Andy Puddicombe, the guy inside the Headspace meditation app, which my therapist had practically downloaded onto my phone for me. “I know how to breathe,” I’d grumbled at her, after spending an hour detailing the panic attacks I was having multiple times a day, and how I was getting through them with my tried and true method of barking at myself to breathe. She shrugged. I scowled.

And so I was furious the first time I sat down with that app. I had actual work to do. So much actual work to do. My regular work, plus all the work that was piling up around me because I couldn’t make it through a single day’s to-do list because of my anxiety. The panic attacks were cutting into my productivity because it took time to actually have one and then extra time to stop being woozy and shaky afterward (though, at that point, I was having them so regularly I never quite fully recovered from the wooziness and shakiness before another one kicked in). And then there was the inability to focus because I was in a perpetual cycle of waiting to have medical tests and then waiting for the results of those medical tests and then waiting for more tests and then more results. Biopsies, ultrasounds, MRIs, bloodwork: Every day I was expecting some kind of call from some kind of doctor.

The point is, I didn’t have time to sit still and breathe. I could breathe while I was pacing around the living room Googling my symptoms on my phone. Kind of. I could kind of breathe. Sometimes. I’d only completely passed out once. Recently.

Meditation, as described by the adorable cartoon in the app, was so easy. All you had to do was close your eyes and focus only on your breath and then open your eyes three minutes later and — boom! — you’re a yogi.

But I couldn’t do it.

I could focus on my breath for an inhale or an exhale, but then I’d remember I hadn’t emailed back that freelancer or given edits to that staff writer and I was running out of time to get that recap written. Inhale. Like, yes, I was bleeding constantly and my uterus was “Hmm, bigger than I’d expect it to be for someone your age” my doctor had said. What did that “Hmm” mean? Was it like a curious hmm or was it like a cancer hmm? Was it—fuck. Exhale. Inha—Had I forgotten to get milk at the grocery store? Had I forgotten eggs too? Had I even eaten breakfa—goddammit. Exhale. Why was my nose whistling like that? Was I getting sick? Had the lump in my breast weakened my immune system? Argh! Inhale! Jesus, Heather, pay attention. It’s three fucking minutes. Can’t you do anything right right now? Christ. Exhale. Why is it so hot in here? I wonder what running the air conditioner this month is going to do to the power bill. Did I pay Verizon? I did, right? I’m sure I got a confirmation em—fuuuuck. Fuck. Fuck. Inhale! Exhale! Inhale!

“It’s natural for your mind to wander off,” Headspace Andy said in my ear, “When you notice that it has, gently return to your breath.”

Gently? Gently?! Why would I be gentle with myself when I was very clearly doing this thing — like so many other things in my life — wrong? No, I didn’t need gentleness. I needed more self-discipline, more conviction, more toughness. I needed to get my fucking shit together.

Headspace Andy said meditation wasn’t like whack-a-mole, that I didn’t need to frantically club my rogue thoughts over their head. He said meditation wasn’t like stabbing balloons with a needle or a knife. He said meditation wasn’t like lassoing a wild horse, or pinning down an angry monkey. All I had to do was just keep showing up, breathe, notice when my mind frolicked off, gently pull it back and focus on my breath, notice when it wandered off again, gently pull it back and focus on my breath. Just keep breathing. Just keep noticing. Gently.

I learned to sit still three minutes at a time, five minutes at a time, ten minutes, fifteen, twenty. Within a year, I could sit still for an entire hour if I wanted to.

The first time my mind wandered off and I chuckled and thought, “Come back here, Hoagie” my eyes popped open and bugged out of my head like a cartoon character. I could never, not once, remember ever thinking anything so kindly to myself, especially about failure.

And there’s the rub. It’s not failure for your mind to wander during meditation. It’s just part of meditating because it’s just part of being human because it’s just part of the way our brains have evolved. But when I’m meditating I’m meant to be focusing on my breath; and if my mind is wandering, I’m not focusing on my breath; and that is failure. Sure, I don’t have panic attacks very much anymore, and when I do, my recovery is swifter than it ever has been — but they’re still a part of my life. And yes, I’m now aware the absolute second my chest tightens and my muscles tense and my breathing shallows because of something I’m thinking or doing — but I don’t always nip my behavior or thought processes in the bud, even though I know that would have an immediate positive effect on my physical and mental well-being. And fine, I am now able to set boundaries and say no and communicate to other people how their behavior is affecting me because my mind is warmly acquainted with a default sense of calmness, so every decision doesn’t feel like fight-or-flight — but I still say yes too much and struggle under a pile of obligations I resent and write notes in my journal about “Stop trying to squeeze juice from a rock!!!!”

I worry. Worrying makes me worry more. I spiral. I fall asleep when I’m meditating. I can’t even focus on ten full breaths, sometimes, in an entire 45-minute sitting. My mind wanders into the dark woods and leaps off a cliff. I fail.

When I hung up the phone with the vet a few weeks ago, I looked over to where my cat Dobby was perched on the back of his armchair, staring at me with giant green eyes and enormous bat ears, and said, “Buddy, great news! It’s just anxiety.” He blinked. I nodded. “Well, ‘just’ anxiety.”

Dobby’d been losing weight, and fast. The vet did a physical exam and a fecal test and a urinalysis and couldn’t see anything wrong. But it also could be: thyroid, liver, intestines, stomach, kidneys. He shaved Dobby’s neck and drew a bunch of blood and sent it off to test for every possible thing. I explained that Dobby had been pacing a lot more than usual, yelling a lot more than usual, that he’d been acting out at his brother and sister. “Stacy’s been traveling a bunch for work,” I told the vet. “I think it’s making Dobby extra nervous.”

Emphasis on extra. Dobby came into our lives like his brothers and sisters, ushered onto the slab of concrete behind our house by his mom, who we’d found in an alley and adopted, from afar. Her name was Bobbi and we couldn’t touch her; she’d been feral her whole life. But with a lot of patience, she learned to trust us. We gave her food and water. We built her a winter shelter. She’d follow us, at a distance, when she saw us out on the sidewalk. “Let’s go home, Bobbi!” we’d call, and she’d trot along 30 paces behind us. It was over a hundred degrees outside when she brought her babies to us that summer. They wouldn’t let us touch them either, but we put out canned kitten food and so much water and named them from behind the screen door where we hid to watch them eat. Socks, Beth March, Frodo, Bobbi Jr., and Dobby.

Dobby was Dobby because of his eyes and ears, the physical resemblance to Harry Potter’s most beloved House Elf, but also because he clearly wanted to be so brave and was just absolutely terrified.

After I got certified by the ASPCA to trap them and had them spayed and neutered and treated for all their street cat parasites, we brought the Bobbis inside and started the long, slow process of trying to socialize them. Dobby was always two steps behind his siblings. We sat on the floor in their room, facing away from them, not talking. Everyone ate, but Dobby. We sat in the room, on the floor, not talking, with our hand on their bowl. Everyone ate, but Dobby. We put Gerber No. 2 chicken baby food on our fingers and held them out at a distance. Everyone licked it up, but Dobby. We stroked their backs with our fingertips, like a breeze, while they gobbled their meals. Everyone ate, but Dobby. We picked them up and moved them around their food bowl. We picked them up from a kneeling position. We picked them up from a standing position. Sometimes, when his brothers or sisters would be courageous enough to come over to get a pet, he’d run at them to try to stop them, screaming in terror.

Dobby walked in circles and circles and circles, pacing the days and nights away, refusing to get closer to us than he absolutely had to.

His socialization got fast-tracked when he and his brother and sisters were diagnosed with Feline Panleukopenia Virus and we had to rush them to the emergency animal hospital and leave them for intensive care. FPV is almost always fatal to kittens. He didn’t know that, but he knew something. As we waited for intake at the hospital, Stacy opened his carrying case and stuck her hand inside. He didn’t cower or hiss or slap her away. For the first time in his life, he came to her of his own volition. He pressed his head into the palm of her hand and stayed there.

The hospital let us bring the Bobbis home earlier than anticipated because Dobby wouldn’t eat. He’d even escaped at one point and been found in a drawer. “Sometimes cats live when they have someone to live for,” the doctor told us.

Dobby still wouldn’t eat when we got him home — until I picked him up and pressed him against my chest, so tight I could feel my heart beating through him, and held out a palm full of food. He wolfed it down. I crunched up pills and put them in his food. I pinned him down and forced syringes of medicines down his throat. He sat in my lap on purpose. He bopped me on my head with his head. He rolled over and showed me his belly. He lived, they all lived.

He kept pacing around in circles.

Perfectionism is the reason I’m so hard on myself about everything, including meditation. It’s textbook: low self-esteem caused, in large part, by childhood abuse that was extinguished when I accomplished something publicly noteworthy. My successes stopped the bad things happening to me and resulted in excessive praise.

“Am I always going to be this stupid kid?” I asked my therapist not too long ago, when I’d dug up another toxic cycle I was perpetuating in my daily life because of my perfectionism.

She said, “You’re a very successful 40-year-old woman. But yes, in some ways, you’ll always be this kid.”

Dobby’s anxiety routine goes like this: I wake up early and feed the other cats; then, I bring Dobby downstairs and give him a food bowl of his own. He starts to eat and the radiator clangs and he runs away. “Come back, sweet boy,” I coo, and he does. He eats. A garbage truck drives by and he runs away. “It’s okay, my angel,” I say. “Come back.” And he does. The house makes a settling sound, our upstairs neighbor drops her phone, rain slaps against the window, I shift and the floor creaks. He runs away. “Hey, baby bear,” I say. “It’s going to be okay.” He comes back. If it’s thundering or the street sweeper is out or he just can’t relax, I put my hand tenderly on his back; he wraps his tail around my wrist; he eats.

This is how we do lunch. It’s how we do dinner. Twice a day, I put the other cats away and brush him and scritch his chin and he curls up in my lap. He kisses me on one cheek. He kisses me on the other. He purrs as loud as a lion, trills with delight when I rub his ears between my thumb and forefinger. He presses his forehead against my forehead.

I have never begrudged Dobby’s anxiety or the extra time and care it requires. He’s almost four years old now. He’ll always be a kitten, too, just a little, just like me.

One of the wildest things about meditation is it rewires your brain, literally. Neuroscientists now understand that meditation doesn’t just help people out psychologically — it increases cortical thickness (which helps you regulate emotions, plan, and problem solve); it decreases the size of the amygdala (which is where your fight-or-flight operations exist); it shrinks the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (which decreases reactivity); and so much more. It’s called neuroplasticity; it’s the brain’s neurons rearranging themselves.

And get this: The parts of your brain that regulate resilience are enhanced by a very specific part of meditation. Not the part where you settle into the space around you. Not the part where you scan down your body to build up a picture of your mood. Not even the part where you focus for twenty minutes on your breath. No, the neurons that fire together and therefore wire together to make you tougher and stronger and more able to bounce back from setbacks are the neurons you stimulate when you gently return to your breath. Your mind actually has to wander off for them to learn to work.

I meditate in the mornings. I used to do it first thing, but now I do it after I tend to Dobby’s anxiety.

Lately I’ve been doing a visualization meditation. I imagine a kind of liquid sun filling up my body, from the tips of each of my individual toes, up into my feet, my ankles, my shins, my thighs, my hips, my stomach and chest and shoulders and down into my arms and fingertips, up up up into my neck and face to the tip-top of my head. I rest my mind in the warmth, the space, the light.

When my mind wanders, like it always does, I hold out my hand like I do for Dobby. Come back, baby bear. It’s okay. 

A few days ago, when my mind was basking in that calm space my body made for it, I had a vision of myself as a child. A very small child. Maybe three. Someone was holding me and I was laughing and I was free. I felt the joy of my child self in my adult body. My chest filled up with expanding, undiluted, unfiltered happiness. I was breathing so deeply and fully my muscles felt more relaxed than I could ever remember them being. In my living room in my house in New York City, my adult self started to cry, but in what was very clearly my great-grandmother’s backyard in Conyers, Georgia, my child self kept smiling, safe and content in the arms of the grown-up holding her close.

My vision zoomed out. I heard myself laugh. I felt it rumble in my chest like spring.

The person holding me was me.

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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.


  1. I fucking bought an onion today because I just knew someone was going to cut one in my house and I’m such a people pleaser

  2. 😭💙 I can very deeply relate to you and Dobby! Yes! I just started to use the headspace app 3 days ago, my therapist suggested it a while ago before she went on a long break, and everything was falling apart so why not finally try it. The word gentle caught my attention too

  3. This is amazing! beautiful & honest a&& good and there are so many cats!! Heather, your perspective and writing is so affirming and truthful–it’s helpful and yet not prescriptive; it is deeply personal but immensely useful to others. Thank you for sharing this gentle tenderness with readers and with your sweet cats

  4. I say this a lot, but every time I need something, I happen to find it here on Autostraddle.

    My therapist has encouraged me to use Headspace to meditate. I’ve tried before, but I struggled to stick with it. This is a lovely reminder to keep trying.

  5. this is a great piece of writing. truly wonderful and touching. it will likely precipitate an “aha moment” for many autostraddlers. it will be impossible to encapsulate the importance and butterfly effect the words you’ve shared here will have. thank you.

  6. Thank you for this! I needed this reminder to be gentle to myself. Your writing is beautiful and inspiring and I so enjoyed how you wove together your internal experience with that of Dobby’s story. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  7. This made me tear up. I relate to it on so many levels as a ADHD and possibly anxiety haver. As a feral cat feeder and kitten socializer, and resulting owner of an easily stressed cat. Thank you for this beautiful piece.

  8. I like the idea of you and Donny helping each other’s anxiety.

    I passed 10,000 minutes meditated in just over a year a few days ago and Headspace really has changed my life and my brain in that time so I love that you wrote that bit about neuroplasticity. The kindness of the app and what Andy’s saying makes it so lovely to use it’s like a mental hug.

  9. I got scared away from Headspace the day my therapist recommended it to deal with trauma stuff because I was in the wrong place to all of a sudden hear a man’s voice in my bed, but this makes me want to go back to some kind of meditation. The sunshine visualization sounds lovely, as does maybe just visualizing your cat.

  10. This was so beautiful, like all of your writing, Heather. I just started using Headspace a few weeks ago, and I’m really bad at it. My mind wanders off all the time and I often don’t even realize it. But I’m trying to just keep practicing each day rather than being upset with myself or seeing it as a failure.

    • This is you doing the damn thing: “My mind wanders off all the time and I often don’t even realize it. But I’m trying to just keep practicing each day” That is the thing. It’s just doing. There is no fail/bad/better/good with meditation because all of the doing is in the trying.

  11. whew. thanks for sharing. The fact about the exact step that helps rewire the brain is just perfect and frustrating and freeing.

  12. Wow, this was beautiful and I did not expect to cry, but here I am, going through a very Dobby anxiety cycle and trying to be gentle with myself. I love it, all the Bobbis, and all the Bobbi Mommis out there.

  13. This was beautiful, Heather. Made me cry in a good way. As someone who also experiences ADHD and perfectionism (and anxiety), I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this tricky intersection. In some ways, I feel like my perfectionist streak has helped me counteract some of my ADHD tendencies? But I also feel like it’s part of what allowed me to bury the issue for so long (so as to appear “high-functioning”) and not actually get a proper diagnosis until the age of 34.

    On a completely unrelated note – You might want to think about asking your vet about fluoxetine (generic Prozac) for Dobby! Cheap, typically well-tolerated, and can make a huge difference for a lot of cats. #unsolicitedadvicefromaqueerDVM

  14. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: love love love this article.

    Realizing that sometimes being gentle with myself instead of ruthless with myself would produce better results was a profound moment in my life.

    I’m glad your Dobby is helping you on your path.

  15. I cried so hard when I read this. It reminded me of when I first started meditating after a break-up with an emotionally abusive ex-partner and I would just say to myself every time my mind wandered do her: “My love, don’t cross that river.” <3

  16. It’s super rude of you to not only write the insides of my head out in public like that, but to do it better than I would, AND to have adorable cats at me while you’re at it.

    For me it was having my kiddo and seeing her early tendencies towards perfectionism and anxiety. Wanting to be very kind, patient, compassionate, gentle and supportive with her made me realize that just maybe it wouldn’t be the end of the world to extend a little of that my own way too. I’m not very consistent about it yet, but I keep trying. I mean it’s not like it’s any fun to have your internal voice be a scornful, impatient martinet.

  17. Yes, I too cried. This is so relatable it hurts. Thank you for sharing something so deeply personal with us. Best wishes to you and sweet Dobby.

    Going to look into downloading Headspace ♥

  18. HEATHER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    i signed up for a 6 week mindful meditation class at school today entirely because of this article. if you and dobby deserve gentleness with your anxiety (and you do) then maybe, just maybe, i deserve gentleness with mind.


  19. “I have never begrudged Dobby’s anxiety or the extra time and care it requires. He’s almost four years old now. He’ll always be a kitten, too, just a little, just like me.”

    Thank you. <3

  20. Heather, thank you so much for sharing this. I super needed to read this, both for me and one of my cats!
    I have given up on learning to meditate several times because I have so much trouble being kind to myself when I can’t immediately do things, and that’s definitely something I need to work on.

    I also have two sister cats whose dynamics seem to be constantly shifting, and one of them has been getting more difficult around meal times, so I’m going to look more into how to help her. <3

  21. please excuse me while i cry from exhaustion and relief. i’m gonna redownload headspace.
    my fur baby was diagnosed with anxiety about 2 months after i brought him home. he’d been a stray for his whole 6 years and was good about the litterbox… until he wasn’t. the vet showed me an xray where he was literally clenching his whole little body, including his urethra. we got him on some prescription food and gabapentin (an antianxiety/antidepressant in cats, an addictive pain med in humans) and he’s doing really really well.
    when i told my mom that i had a cat diagnosed with anxiety, she laughed for a full 60 seconds and then we swapped stories about our most recent psych appointments. anxiety fam <3

  22. Heather. This is possibly my favorite personal essay I have ever read. My favorite piece of personal writing. I have therapy in an hour and I feel like you just opened my head up and let out all my ghosts. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but that’s where I’m at right now. Also I am crying and I love you.

  23. Heather, no joke, I had my first panic attack in a very long time this morning and lo and behold here you are with this essay. Thank you.

  24. I am reading this and crying as I procrastinate texting my boss back because she’s now worried I’m dead or something because I’ve ghosted her for the past week because I didn’t do something on time. I didn’t do thing and was too anxious to tell her and then still didn’t do thing and was even more anxious to tell her when she reminded me and I still haven’t done the thing and it’s been a week and I can’t possibly text her back now because I better have a damn good excuse for not doing the thing *and* not answering her. Instead, I am here with my cat curled up against me crying from this article, and maybe I will text my boss later tonight. Thanks, Heather.

  25. Such a beautiful piece, I related on just about every level. I’ve spent the last 3 years trying to “unlearn” my chronic anxiety. The thing that has helped the most has been my daily meditation practice which I’ve been doing for about three months or so. Prior to that I would do it on and off, never really convinced I could meditate “properly”. Once I committed to doing it every day, even if it was just a minute or two, it made all the difference. My cat, Pip, was my best friend and a source of great relief and comfort when my anxiety was unmanageable; after she passed last July I became unmoored and I had to find something that would allow me to be in the world without falling apart every time i had to face something that triggered my anxiety. Meditation was my solution, discovering how much a daily practice can enrich/center you has been a very happy discovery.

  26. I’m just sitting in this coffee shop crying – no biggie. Jeez, Heather, how do you always bring it? This resonated so hard with me – about me and my journey with anxiety and being kind to myself as well as our anxious cat, who is so different from Dobby but also so, so similar. I didn’t know I needed this read but I did. Thank you for sharing so beautifully and honestly. <3

  27. Adding to the many who’ve already said that this was published just when they needed it.
    Thanks, Heather, for the reminder. It’s difficult to be gentle with oneself. And reminders like this are so deeply touching.

  28. The only reason I didn’t cry was because I was in the breakroom at work. This was so wonderfully written, and as someone who’s been going through something similar, it was healing to read.

    Self love is so hard but it’s a daily practice but then one day you realize all that work you put into it finally paid off and it’s a little easier to breathe and life has gotten that much better

  29. What a beautiful piece. The last image, of you holding your child self, made my breath catch a bit…what a powerful moment that must have been.

  30. This is amazing. I’m glad you’re finding some gentleness. I can’t extol the benefits of meditation enough. It’s done wonders for my anxiety, my confidence, and as an athlete, it has incredible results. After 3 years, time feels slower. There are so many hours in a day. There is enough time to enjoy it all. I rarely feel the panicky rush any more. It doesn’t work for everybody, but I recommend to everyone that they at least try it for 10-30 days. If it doesn’t work, then they can move on.

    I use Headspace too but the price can be prohibitive for some people. Insight Timer is similar and free. Also, your local Buddhist centre will have in-person meditation sessions and great teachers. For North American folks not steeped in Buddhist traditions, Shambala centres are usually very welcome to noobs (in my experience). The Shambala centres in eastern Canada at least have free or pay-what-you-can sessions, and usually queer-specific meditation sessions followed by a community dinner once every few months.

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