How adopting a cat helped me recover from my eating disorder

All my life I’ve always been obsessed with something. In middle school, it was Hanson. In high school it was swimming, boys, the Internet, and writing. And, sadly, in college, it was controlling my food. I’ve always had a Type A personality and been a perfectionist. Heaven forbid someone call me up to go on a late night burger run — any ounce of spontaneity in my life was unheard of.

That’s partially why my eating disorder came to be — it was something else I could control, but it was also more than that. It was my best friend, my confidant, my security, and my life. I lived and breathed calorie counts, fat content, and restriction. I studied cereal boxes, read recipe books, and memorized diet fads online to try to subdue my desires for food even more.

I remember only bits and snippets from these days, likely due to malnourishment. I ended up taking medical leave from college — eventually, I could barely walk, because my feet were too bony, my hips cracked at every step, and I was out of breath after one block. I moved back home and accompanied my mom to work. At the time, she was a teacher’s aid in a special ed classroom.

On our way home one day, we were walking through the parking lot. I walked past the janitor’s room and heard a soft crying noise. Curious, I peaked in. There was a box full of kittens, all either white, tabby, or orange.

“Cute,” I thought, and walked on. The next day came and went, and as we were on our way home again, I passed by the janitor’s room. The door was open. I didn’t hear any crying, but there was still the box that the kittens had been in on his desk. A single black ball of fluff was curled in the corner.

“Did you want him?” said a voice behind me. I turned around to see the janitor standing there in his blue uniform.

“No thanks,” I answered and walked away.

That was Wednesday. Friday, I was walking to the car, passed the janitor’s room, and heard crying again. Confused, thinking all the kittens had been adopted, I peered inside. The black kitten was still there, this time wailing his head off. No janitor in sight, I picked up the box and walked to the car to meet my mom.

“I’m bringing him home,” I said. “No one wants him.”

I honestly don’t remember what my Mom said, or how she reacted. She may have been so happy to hear me talk and express my opinion that she said nothing.

I named him Dewey, after the youngest brother on Malcom in the Middle. I hid him in my room the first 2 weeks, scared that my Dad would make me get rid of him. While I don’t exactly remember how my Dad reacted, he let me keep him, and to this day Dewey and my Dad are joined at the hip.

While the mind of an anorexic is depleted, the mind of a kitten is one of excess. It lives to eat, day in and day out. While deep in my anorexia, I would not allow myself anything besides water, carbonated drinks, and fruit until maybe 4pm, if I thought I “deserved” it. Needless to say, when you’re woken up by 6am from hunger pangs, 4pm can feel and seem worlds away.

His first day home, Dewey woke up crying for food at least every 2-4 hours, and wouldn’t calm down until he had his fill. Luckily, I would never treat my love the same way I treated myself. A 4 week old kitten harbors no thought or idea of restricting. After some research, I determined that growing kittens needed to be fed often throughout the day, from when they wake up until they go to bed (which sounds just like how a “normal” human should be fed).

I would watch Dewey carefully every time he ate. He would dip his little head into his food bowl and not come up for air until it was emptied. Once he was full, the crying or meowing would stop, and he would either begin to purr or cuddle up on my lap, happy and ready to play.

Even though I was malnourished, weak, and confused most of the day, it didn’t take me long to start connecting happiness with food, based on what I saw in my cat. When Dewey was hungry, he would cry, not want to play, or begin biting my socks. When Dewey was full, he was playful, loving, and full of energy.

One morning after I had served Dewey his first of 5 meals for the day, I laid back down in bed. My stomach grumbled, as it usually did. I looked at the clock. 8am. I had a whopping 8 more hours until I would normally allow myself any food. Dewey’s tiny little body of black fluff jumped up onto my lap. His paws kneaded into my body, eager for cuddles and playtime. There was no doubt about it — I was hungry. Frustrated, I got up. With Dewey at my heels I walked, with purpose, into the kitchen.

I grabbed a packet of wheat bread and opened it up. The smell of its oat and grainy texture sent me straight into a state of bliss, and my mouth started watering. I pulled out a single slice of bread and cracked opened a jar of apricot jam. With more care than I had demonstrated in the past few months, except when playing with Dewey, I cradled the bread in my fingers while slathering the jam on.

Like a starved tiger hovering over his pray, I rushed back into my room with Dewey galloping along at my heels, sat down on my bed, and stared at my snack. The jam glistened in my eyes. I felt like I was looking at pure gold. With my eyes wide open, I sunk my teeth into the bread. I don’t think it took me more than a minute to finish it. With each bite, my whole body felt a blanket of warmth being draped over it. By the time I was done, I wanted to cry and smile. Smile because I was proud, and cry because it was over.

I looked down at Dewey peering back up at me with eager eyes. Black cats generally don’t look the most gentle or happy, but there was a smile in his pupils that almost seemed to be saying, “See, doesn’t it feel good? I told you so.”

“Tomorrow, same time,” I said to him. “We’ll have breakfast together again.”

Though it took me awhile for it to become a habit, by the time he was 4 months old, I was routinely having 6 snacks throughout the day with Dewey on a daily basis. Like him, I was in love with food, and in love with nourishing myself. Cats are funny animals. One minute they’re purring at your feet, and the next they could care less that you’re around. Basically, your sole purpose is to feed them. In Dewey’s case, I needed him just the same.

I don’t know why I took Dewey home that day. I was never a cat person before him. I didn’t think cats were cute at all, and growing up, I wished for a beagle like Snoopy. But after Dewey came around, everything in me changed. I was so distracted by him that I forgot about myself – and oddly enough, that’s what it took for me to recover: shifting the focus onto something else.

Although I’ve had bumps and the occasional relapse along the way, thirteen years after I first bought Dewey home, I’m happy to say that I’m at a more normal weight now after damaging my body for years. (And if you struggle with an eating disorder, please, please seek professional counsel. What worked for me isn’t guaranteed to work for anyone else.) Who knows if it was all thanks to Dewey, or if any other type of distraction could have saved my life just the same. But for now, I’d like to think that, yes, my cat saved me from my eating disorder.

Florence Ng is a content writer from California with a degree in Journalism, an affinity for frozen yogurt, and a love for cats and all things fluffy. You can find her and her cats here.

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