This Day, This Moment

Old pen & ink drawing of girl reading by the fire with her cat sitting next to herBoth of my cats are still alive, so you can guess what I am thankful for today. Turns out there are a lot of people around who have been traumatized by euthanasia decisions, which does not surprise me at all. It’s the emotional equivalent of asking someone to decide to put their own child to death. In states where euthanasia has been legalized, that only applies to adults, because a child can’t legally consent. And I think we recognize that asking a parent to make that decision would likely haunt them for the rest of their lives, no matter which way they decided.

My vets have really gone above and beyond for me, working within my very limited income, giving me far more of their time than I am paying for, and doing their best to address my introvert need to understand everything very thoroughly and my HSP emotional intensity. I’ve been grateful, and felt bound with them in the apparent intimacy that a crisis creates.

However, talking with friends and reading online forums (and getting more sleep), it has occurred to me that they are practicing the non-human equivalent of conventional medicine, about which I have had serious reservations since my teens. I can’t fault their compassion, but they work in averages, often losing sight of the fact that averages are the sum of variations, not similarities. They move to a euthanasia conclusion much too quickly in their own minds, having been taught that this is humane, and once so moved, stop considering other solutions.

I am not blaming them for that. I cannot conceive of how they can do the work they do. It would demolish me for life after two days. When I have time to read again, I want to peruse the Clifton strengths with an eye to the veterinarian personality – caring enough to inspire the trust of animals and humans, but detached enough to endure the daily sight of suffering and anxiety, and take to heart only those cases they are able to resolve happily.

Vet clinics are also businesses, and the bottom line has to come in somewhere, even if it does not come first. I imagine one of the harder parts of the business is saying no to those with sick pets and no money. But there are costs and salaries to be paid – their decision to recommend euthanasia must consider factors that have no place in any decision of mine. My gratitude made me forget that they are consultants. How I interpret and apply their advice is up to me.

The thing is, I am not sure I believe in euthanasia for our animal companions. Rationally, it seems to make sense – IF we assume that avoidance of preventable suffering trumps everything else. But that’s a big if. Amongst ourselves, we assume that every moment of human life, pained or otherwise, has value. I am not at all convinced that it should be different with animals.

Black orchids with a red center against a pink backgroundThe will to live is a strong force in every living creature. It has to be. It is something we have in common with all other species, across all boundaries. And suffering is a normal part of life. It teaches us and transforms us. The justification for euthanasia confuses dying with death. It is a death that has skipped dying. We don’t really know what we are taking from animals by doing that, and not knowing, I have grave doubts about the assumption that we are doing them a loving favor.

Something an especially supportive friend in this struggle said really jumped out at me. She said, “Your animals are dying.” That cut right through the complications. I think she meant it to help me focus on the decision about how they die, which is where I actually have some power. At least, that’s how I initially took it.

But it uncomplicated things in another way when I sat with it for awhile. I find that I’m not at all sure they are dying. Both of them are seniors, but appeared to be in good health as recently as a month ago. One has chronic health issues that are common in aging cats, but which were not impacting her enough to even be treated until she developed a dental problem and stopped eating. The bad tooth has been removed. What she needs is nutritive support until it heals and she can eat again. Not euthanasia.

The other has fluid in her abdominal cavity (a very common problem in cats which could be a symptom of all kinds of things) and a mass on her x-ray which could be solid or fluid. It’s impacting her breathing which is unpleasant and bad for her health, but should I put her to death to resolve a symptom when I don’t even know the cause?

There are a number of progressively more expensive tests. You start with the cheap ones and work your way up, if they are indeterminate, which they often are. When you hit your price cap, standard practice is to treat for the most likely condition and cross your fingers.

I’m OK with all of that. What I’m not OK with is that the next step is to euthanize if that treatment doesn’t work. And honestly, I think my vets made that decision for me in their minds weeks ago. Then they oversimplified the possibilities to make taking the “right” path easier for me. I’m sure they think they are doing me – and my cats – a favor.

One told me the story of having to euthanize her own animal companion because she was working 18 hours a day caring for other peoples’ animals, and couldn’t give him the round-the-clock care his grave, but treatable condition required. She was a mess for 18 hours she said, and pretty broken up for a couple of weeks. I think she was trying to tell me “let go, you’ll get over it,” but in a much more diplomatic way.

I know I’ll get through it, if I’m not too sure how, but that’s not the issue. I won’t ever get over it if I am not morally at peace with the decision. I know this from experience. I had to make a euthanasia decision before under very similar circumstances both symptom-wise and income-wise. I have accepted that what was done cannot be undone, but that’s the only peace I have ever found with that situation. As so often happens in my life, the universe is giving me a do-over, and I am determined to learn from the past and do it differently this time around.

I’ve been running on overwhelm for days now, weathering large emotions and small sleep. And last night, it finally occurred to me to look at this decision in the larger context of my overall life path. Because I do believe we have paths. My path for the past few years has been about trusting and acting upon my own instincts regardless of other opinions and influences, regardless even of short term results. And as soon as I thought that, I saw how it applies to this decision. I need to do this my own way.

My insightful friend also said, “you won’t be happy no matter what decision you make.” In a sense this is true – she is good at observing what I do, though we are different enough that she doesn’t always understand why. What is true is that I will never be emotionally OK with killing my pets.

This does not necessarily mean I won’t do it. If I am convinced there is no hope and nothing but suffering left for them, I very well may. But it will always feel wrong to kill someone I love. I just don’t think there’s any way around that for me (or for any HSP?). And although that’s difficult now, I can’t be sorry that I’m this way. Surely the world can use all of the reluctance to kill that it can get.

When I was in my twenties, I agonized for a couple of years about whether my thoughts or my emotions were the real me. Eventually I came to realize neither of them was. Both are expressions of my identity, but neither IS my identity. And that means I can use either as applicable. Together they show me that, as HSPs sometimes will, I gave up a little too easily. But it is not too late. There are more things to try, and I am trying them.

The face of a black cat looking in from one side of the pictureI read an interesting study last year in which shelter cats were petted and talked to in 15 minute sessions a couple of times a day. The theory was that this would reduce stress, and therefore strengthen the cats’ resistance to respiratory illnesses, which are widespread in the shelter environment, and can easily wipe out a shelter’s entire cat population in one fell swoop.

It worked. The incidence of respiratory illness was substantially reduced in the study cats, so substantially that there could be no doubt. They noted another thing, too. The treatment was applied even to “hostile” or frightened cats, from a distance, with a petting implement, if necessary. Most (or was it ALL) of those cats were friendly by the 5th day of the study. Problem is, most shelters euthanize apparently “unsocializable” cats on the 3rd day, if not sooner. How many millions of cats have been euthanized simply for being afraid in a stressful and unfamiliar situation? (And how many of them were introvert and HSP cats?)

The HSP introvert gift to the world is to deepen thinking on things like this. Non-HSPs and extroverts may not always thank us for such a gift, but it is our inevitable role in greater humanity.

I woke up in the middle of the night and pondered how to resolve the dilemma of human error in situations (like medical care) where lives are at stake. I concluded that our model of health care needs to be fundamentally restructured (not a new idea to many of us, I’m sure). First of all, we need to get the profit motive out of health care. It does not belong there. If entrepreneurs want to sell widgets, fine, but life saving drugs? No.

And secondly, where decisions can mean life or death, they should never, ever rest on just one person. There must be multiple crosschecks, and the crosscheckers must be more motivated to make the correct decision than they are to save face, or perpetuate the institution, or even protect a friend. You don’t find medical environments like that very much in the U.S., and as a result untold thousands of people are killed or otherwise permanently impacted by medical errors every year. That’s as unacceptable as euthanizing introvert cats for hiding in a corner when they are unexpectedly caged.

Sometimes I think we have such a long way to go. As a species, I mean. Humans are slow, slow learners. Have we really evolved socially and psychologically since human history began, or only technologically? We are a young species, evolutionarily speaking, and like youth everywhere, we think we know everything, when everything is actually what we have to learn.

In transcendental moments, I think there is no good or bad, spiritually speaking. Every experience is a necessary part of the whole, endlessly experiencing itself.

But I am no Buddhist. Non-attachment makes no sense to me. Why are we here then, if not to fully live our experiences? Whatever the big picture may be (I believe it is far too big for our puny minds to grasp, no matter how far back we try to step), we are here to be here. And this day, this moment, I am here with my (still) three cats, in a sunny room, thankful.

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