When I was a boy I had a pet kitten who lived in the scullery. I sat beside her with a saucer of milk and my mother said to keep the scullery door closed.
So I left it open and the kitten ran into the kitchen and under the table. I ran after her and she jumped on to a chair. I dived at the chair to grab her but she jumped on to the worktop beside the electric cooker. I saw that the cooker ring was red hot. And then the kitten jumped straight on to it.
Maybe back then I might have needed a therapist, because I was traumatised, although not half as much as the kitten, who had big red blisters on her paws. She ran straight back into the scullery, where she sheltered behind a few biscuit tins in the corner and didn’t come out for days.
I’ve often used this story as a metaphor for healing. They say a cat has nine lives, so a week behind the biscuit tins in the scullery did wonders for her physical health. It’s as if time itself was a balm for the wound.
But I’m sure the cat was also terrorised. So I left saucers of water for her, although she didn’t urinate or defecate. Sometimes her eyes looked out from the dark in a kind of stunned fright.
Yet, mysteriously, when she eventually emerged into my arms she purred and was completely relaxed, as if by just being alone she had experienced a balm for her psychological wounds.
“So,” says I to my therapist many years later, “I think I’m like the cat. Because I like to be alone when I want to heal.”
It even crossed my mind that this is the reason I became a writer. Instead of commuting to work, I go into my own little refuge in my studio every morning, like the cat behind the biscuit tins. I stare at a screen, dreaming stories and harvesting memories. And if there are traumas that arise in my life I deal with them there, in that seclusion.
Not that I don’t value psychotherapists. I wouldn’t have survived thus far without occasional sessions and seasons on the therapist’s couch. My best friend is a therapist, and indeed it was he who often reminded me that depression can be an opportunity for new discoveries. As the Persian mystical poet Rumi says, the wound is where the light comes in.
But the therapists can only bring me so far. They can only do so much. There is a threshold in my own heart beyond which I must travel alone.
When I told my therapist 10 years ago about the cat, she stared at me with compassion. It was one of those pauses when I felt that even she with all her skill could not unravel the contradictions of my unruly psyche.
She helped me for a number of years while I was sorting out the past, and tracing various disturbing emotions back to childhood events. But I knew I needed to find a much deeper core of mindfulness than what the therapist had maps for.
I’ll go as far as Francis of Assisi might, by suggesting that perhaps the cat in the scullery was experiencing the same love when she hid behind the biscuit tins in her long-ago agony
I was convinced that a part of me, like the cat, found healing in solitary places. That in solitude I found a threshold deep down, where I experienced a sense of being in dialogue with some “transcendent other”, to use the philosopher Martin Buber’s phrase. Not a rational linguistic dialogue but an embrace of the heart. A sense of being loved even at the core of my own loneliness. And a sense of a wider cosmic Self holding me in harmony.
And I’ll go as far as Francis of Assisi might, by suggesting that perhaps the cat in the scullery was experiencing the same love when she hid behind the biscuit tins in her long-ago agony.
I’m not sure if I’m being Christian, Sufi or Buddhist when I say this; more likely I’m just a demented writer. But it’s undoubtedly the key to my life, the core of my new book, and the single fact that makes me happy as I grow older.
Certainly, there is more to my affection for cats than I sometimes admit. And since both my children happen to work with horses I know that there is more to all those lovely animals than what the world cares to admit; we are all the one thing. Our eyes are windows to the soul. And there is a threshold within that we must cross if we ever want to find peace.
All the Things Left Unsaid: Confessions of Love and Regret, by Michael Harding, is published by Hachette Books Ireland