Most of you are probably aware that I lost my kitty Noble Fur last December, in the most awful way. The short version is that she was killed by a dog as she was spending time outdoors, something she did every day. If you missed the memorial diary, here is the link:
Noble Fur, A Memorial Diary
As you can imagine, her death still haunts me. She had been my constant companion for six years. We brought joy to each other’s lives. She helped me endure those endless days spent at home during the first year of covid, and she kept me company on my long working trips to the other side of the continent. Every day, I visit the place in the woods where she is buried. And I’m a guy who never visits the gravesites of human friends and relatives who have passed away.
The purpose of this diary is not to rehash what happened to Noble Fur. Addressing a larger issue, it seems that nearly every time in my life that I have suffered a tragedy, someone will step forward to gleefully play the blame-the-victim card. Or if I’ve gotten into a bind, someone will attempt to use that situation to control my life. Sure enough, it has happened again. Certainly I am not alone in this regard. I write this diary in an effort to help readers recognize abusive behavior, and to deal with it in a way that keeps their dignity intact.
I’m not a psychologist, but some of my life’s experiences led me to study certain aspects of psychology. I learned some basics by virtue of having a college roommate who was a psych major. Later in life, I found myself in situations where people attempted to control or dominate me in one fashion or another. Out of necessity, I learned enough about aberrant behavior to help me navigate such situations as well as I could.
Let’s travel down memory lane, and then return to 2022.
One of the worst offenders was a boss I had when I was a young forester. Ed (his real name) would call me “son” and demand things of me that were not required of anyone else (and were against company policy). Things came to a head when I was transferred within the district. Ed decreed that I must move to a small town that sat beneath the smokestacks of a competitor’s paper mill. It was a dreadful place, and only a handful of houses were for sale. I wanted to live in the larger town (population 50,000) that was also within my working area, and I had found a house that I really liked.
I had a series of meetings with Ed in which I politely asked for his blessing, so that I could go ahead and make an offer on the house that I wanted. Each meeting turned out the same, with Ed flashing his smug, self-satisfied smile while calling me son and firmly repeating his demands. But he had one Achilles heel, the fact that his demands went squarely against company policy: No other forester was required to live in a specific town. He threatened me by saying that if I went over his head and took my story to his boss, that “you’ll be cutting your own throat.” Indeed, the informal company motto was Don’t rock the boat. But I noticed a hint of desperation in his voice when he made that threat.
What did I do? I went over his head, got my way, bought the house that I wanted, and kept my dignity. Ed made my life miserable for a couple of years. However, he was overweight and smoked heavily. One day he decided to get up from his desk and actually go to the woods. It was a fateful choice, because he had a massive heart attack a long distance from the nearest hospital. I went to his funeral to make sure he was really dead.
Although bucking Ed’s authoritarian streak was good for me emotionally, the fact that I had rocked the boat caused my name to be on the list of candidates for the next reduction in force. I knew at the time that this was the best outcome for the long run. The company’s repeated layoffs had wiped out so many jobs above mine that a viable career path barely existed. But in the short run I found myself in a desperate financial situation. I ended up living with someone who very likely had borderline personality disorder in addition to being bipolar. I learned what it was like to live with an abusive person, and to lack the financial resources to get away. During that time, I gained more knowledge about controlling behavior than I ever cared to learn. I vowed that I would never again let an abusive person get the upper hand, and I’ve kept that vow.
Over the span of a few years, I got back on my feet financially. Twenty years ago, I went into business for myself. This put me in a situation where nobody can tell me what I can do, or where I can go. But occasionally someone tries. And that takes us to the present day, where I’m dealing with the loss of Noble Fur.
One step in the healing process was to volunteer at a local no-kill cat shelter. Volunteering gave me the chance to be around cats, do some good for the world, and maybe find a kitty to adopt. This brought me in contact with two women, the volunteer coordinator and the shelter director. I will call them VC and SD for short, rather than using their real names. Right away I noticed a tendency in both of them to micromanage. Oh well, they were literally herding cats, so I initially gave them the benefit of the doubt.
Naturally I told them about Noble Fur, and the tragic way that she had died. Rather than expressing empathy, both of the women focused on the fact that I was not constantly watching Noble Fur when she was outdoors. They never said it out loud, but they put the blame for her death squarely on my shoulders, while completely absolving the neighbor who was letting a killer dog run free.
Most of my interactions were with VC, during my volunteer sessions. Every time that I mentioned the possibility of adopting a cat, she would immediately bring up Noble Fur’s death. I tried all sorts of logical arguments. As a field forester who works alone in remote places, I have to assess risk all the time. How far down that muddy road can I drive? Is it safe to walk down that steep slope? How close can I approach that hornet’s nest without getting stung? How much water should I carry on a hot day? And so forth.
Every facet of a cat’s life involves risk, too. When Noble Fur showed up at my house in 2015, she was a free-ranging cat. In the first six months that I had her, she had three injuries that required trips to the vet. One injury was serious enough that she needed abdominal surgery. In addition, I sometimes found her relaxing in the middle of the street in front of the house. Her fur was the same color as the asphalt, and she could easily have been run over by a careless driver. After she was leash trained, she had a tendency to run up a tree and get hung up on a limb when the rope ran out. So I tried to keep her away from trees. Indoors, there are hazards too. Cats might hide in clothes dryers, or get hung up somewhere and get strangled, or ingest poisons. Or the house might burn down while the owners are away, which is what happened to one of my friends.
After a few conversations with VC, I knew that her controlling personality would prevent her from actually listening to logical arguments. I made them anyway, usually in the form of a question, to see how she would respond. Basically she would completely ignore the logic and return to the blame game.
Meanwhile, I had chosen a cat that I wanted to adopt. It was a young adult male who had been adopted by a family when he was half grown. The family had to return him because one of the children was seriously allergic. The kitty was very affectionate, and quickly bonded with me. I told VC that I was ready to adopt. She texted me with instructions to meet SD a few days later.
I drove all the way across town, with a pet carrier in the car. I almost bought cat food that morning while on a grocery run, but there were enough red flags that I avoided the purchase. When I arrived at the shelter, out of the 70 or so cats wandering the building, the cat nearest to the door happened to be the one I planned to adopt. I was petting him when SD sauntered down the hallway. She promptly informed me that, because of what happened to Noble Fur, that I was unfit to adopt any of her cats. I told her that I was sick and tired of her blame-the-victim mentality, and that I’d never darken her doorstep again. There were no pleasantries to exchange. Not “I’m sorry things didn’t work out,” nor “Been nice knowing you.” Out the door I went, and I never looked back. She did not have a monopoly on cats. I can find one elsewhere.
In my personal life as well as my business life, I look for win-win solutions. Controlling people look for win-lose outcomes. Had I adopted the cat, there would have been winners all around. The shelter would get their adoption fee, and have one less cat to care for. They’d continue to have my volunteer services. I’d be happy; and above all, the cat would have a new home.
Instead, everyone loses. SD and VC imagine themselves as winners, but the reality is different. Saboteurs possess a remarkable ability to look upon scorched earth and declare victory, without the slightest hint of self-doubt.
So, what is the message that I want to convey from this long, rambling diary? A few important lessons:
• Learn to identify the personality traits of toxic people.
• Recognize the techniques they use to control a conversation in order to get their way, or to make you feel guilty.
• Never apologize or grovel to a controlling person (unless you have truly wronged them). They see it as a sign of weakness, and will escalate their behavior.
• Be willing to walk away from a situation where you are being debased, even if it means going home without a cat.
• Cut toxic people out of your life whenever possible.
In loving memory of Noble Fur.