About a month ago I went through quite an ordeal. But I didn’t do it alone.
Shadow “Bubbins” Fazio was a dumpster kitty. I found him last July, and while his care was meant to be temporary, he’s become a permanent fixture in the Fazio household. Which made my departure from Vietnam and return to The States far more complicated than it would have been otherwise.
It was a trip that took about 5 days, 40 hours+ of which were literally in airports or on flights. It was the only way I could guarantee that he’d be in-cabin with me for the bulk of the trip, rather than flying in cargo.
I’ve seen the shape of cats after a few hours in cargo, and the idea of a 15 hour international commute with domestic flights sandwiching it was an unbearable thought. Needless to say, he wouldn’t have been the same Bubbins thereafter.
So I managed, after much investigation and adding days to the commute, to reduce his cargo time to a one hour domestic flight in Vietnam, and then a whole lotta time with me in cabin through three additional flights to land in Colorado.
And because it was so long, I now know things I never thought I’d learn… like how much litter is needed in your carry-on. Like how to provide a kitty toilet on a 15-hour flight. I even know that there is less radiation in the airport scanners than we receive from cosmic radiation on long haul flights… by about 50x. I know this because I put Bubbins through two of them. #nosuperpowersyet
Why am I telling you this?
I don’t know… it’s snowing. I haven’t seen snow in years. Not gonna go outside. Might as well tell you about my cat.
Just kidding. Kind of.
There are lessons, perhaps. And these lessons start with another species of animal.
Some of you may have seen a study bouncing around social media last year regarding rats and motivation. It contained a disturbing experiment where rats were placed in water and left to… literally sink or swim… until they all eventually sank.
The idea behind the study was rather simple. The swimmers are motivated to survive. Those who drown are cowards and aren’t worth the pellets they’re fed.
Before I researched the backstory of the study, I only knew what you probably saw, some version of:
Swimming Rats and the Power of Hope
Here were the nuts and bolts upon further investigation:
A Norwegian researcher placed domesticated and wild rats in a jar of water. Upon initial attempts, and a couple deaths, the domestic rats could, and did, swim for DAYS before drowning.
The wild rats, on the other hand (that are notoriously strong swimmers, fierce and aggressive), all died within 15 minutes.
I know, I know. What kinda shithead drowns rats just to watch em die. But ethics aside… lessons.
After the first round of murders, the doc decided to throw a few more in the jar. But this time, moments before he imagined the wild rats drowning, he picked them up and held them for a while. Then he placed them back in the jar. Low and behold, they swam as long as the domesticated rats - 40-60 hours… and then drowned.
Moral of the story: we’re all gonna die. And someone in a lab coat is likely watching.
More optimistic moral of the story: hope, even in rats, matters. The smallest emotional connection to other - faith that they weren’t alone and could be saved - increased the rats’ motivation, their will to fight and survive, by 200 times.
And so I return to Shadow. I knew the hardest part of the journey, his time in cargo with strange sounds and turbulence and no indication of when or if it would end, would be the hardest part of the journey.
So I knew the time spent in his carrier in transit to the vet, time spent alone with the vet, and bringing him home with comfortable sights and smells and treats and cuddles was critical preparation for his long journey.
When I picked him up in Hanoi, his back was arched, his nails were extended, and his pupils were dilated. He was traumatized.
As soon as we got to the hotel we made a safe, quiet place. And his treats were waiting for him.
No doubt he was on edge, but within an hour he was racing around the whole room and investigating every corner and crevice. I planned for two days in Hanoi to make sure if nerves had time to fully relax.
Putting him back in his carrier two days later was not fun. I knew that he knew the carrier likely meant dark hole, loud noises, loneliness, even though he’d be with me for the remainder of the trip. He didn’t know that yet. And he was indeed scared.
But every hour that passed… and there were 40 more of them, he was more relaxed and compliant. He talked to me when he was hungry. And he told me when he needed his litter. He survived getting carried through security checkpoints without attempting to flee and riding shotgun as I sprinted through LAX to make my connection.
And when we arrived in Denver, it took ten minutes before he was out of his carrier, eating, and racing around like the long journey never happened.
There are mind-body tools that can prevent the onset of trauma. And there are tools that can help one recover from it. But they either require modulation (safety signals) from the medial prefrontal cortex (imagine leaping when you see a snake, and only moments later relaxing as you realize it was a nonthreatening, coiled rope), or mechanical, bottom-up regulation from the reptilian brain through breathing, movement, or touch.
Cats don’t have conscious control over either of these devices, and so, just like the rats, need environmental conditions that signal safety. Those conditions can be rehearsed - the drowning rats being held, or Bubbins going in car rides, being crated, or being left in the care of strange people in strange places, before being released at home with treats and care.
And here I come to the main point of the letter - hope doesn’t need to be understood. It just needs to be felt.
Imagine if you had 200 times your current fight.
Whether you’re building a business, salvaging a relationship, experiencing depression, struggling in the personal growth domain, or just plain tired and don’t know when, or if, things will change, you can make it.
While I’d recommend everyone learn the basics of breathing, physical structure, and awareness that allow one to gain conscious control of the fear-hope spectrum (techniques internal to Weightlessness training), that can feel near impossible if one is already fighting against the current.
But the moral of the story is that you have 200 times the fight in you, and that, through no comprehension of your own, YOU CAN ACCESS IT. But you’ve got to create the conditions, at least some of the time, that mirror the feeling of safety and success.
We’re all in cages of our own making. And if it isn’t one that leaves you fulfilled, then you, like Bubbins, can practice coming out on the other side in order to tap the confidence to fight the current even harder.
This doesn’t need to be sophisticated or technical. It just needs to approximate what you imagine that version of yourself feels and does, if even for a moment. What kind of environment would give you that space.
Consider space, sounds, scents, tastes, company, etc.
You’ve got to rehearse the outcome.
I don’t really want to break that last line down. It’s an important one. And I know that those reading this are particularly switched-on and capable of translating it for themselves. Examples I might give might be as limiting as they are liberating, and I think best to leave it there.
Believe in your power.
Rehearse your outcome.