When Your Pets Teach You
by guest blogger Elisa Vitalo
There’s an illusion when you’re a teenager that college is the time of life when you “find” yourself. You explore your artsy side, date different people, take a philosophy class or two and learn all about who are as a person. Once you graduate you should know who you fundamentally are and the rest of life is about building on that foundation.
I bought into this illusion hook, line and sinker when I was younger, and by the time I was 25, I couldn’t understand why I was still frustrated and depressed. I had a good job, was working hard and was on the fast promotion track at my company. I had the perfect 20- something career; it’s what I’d always wanted. So why was I still miserable?
As I prepared to apply to graduate school, I knew I needed to figure out how to overcome my depression if I wanted to succeed in an MBA program. So one day I started an experiment. Each day I would write down the things that made me happy that day. If I didn’t know why I was depressed, I could at least try to identify the things that actually made me happy.
What I discovered after a few weeks was that the only two things that consistently made me happy were my cats, Holmes and Otis. It could be their nighttime cuddling on my bed, Otis’ loud purr when I scratched his head or Holmes’ role as my morning alarm clock, but almost every encounter I had with them made me truly happy. Some days, they were the only things that made me smile. At first, I felt like some pathetic cat lady. But then I thought, “Maybe there’s something more to this.”
When I started exploring the idea more, I realized that I was miserable because I never wanted to let people in emotionally or lean on them for support. I had always been fiercely independent and regarded this as one of my best qualities. The only two creatures I really relied on (and who relied on me) were the cats. And it was in that relationship where I found the greatest happiness and fulfillment.
It was really an epiphany for me. Two cats made me discover that the fiercely independent, career-driven woman I thought I was in college wasn’t me at all. In order to be happy, I needed people, relationships and the opportunity to nurture and support others. I was actually the “mama bear” I’d never wanted to think of myself as during my college days.
It’s been four years since that experiment and I’ve never been happier. I still have a good job, but now I spend just as much time strengthening my relationships as I do strengthening my career. And, of course, I still have Holmes and Otis curled up on my bed every night, looking for head rubs and Whiskas treats. Except now they’re not the only ones I look to for support on a daily basis. (Though they’re still my favorite creatures to receive it from.)