Lynne Bertrand: Is my cat unhinged, or has the world gone crazy?
GIGI TEENSMA Theo, a Williamsburg cat with the heart of Shakespeare's Banquo. Purchase photo reprints »
WILLIAMSBURG — Just in time for summer reading, the American Psychiatric Association released its epic rewrite, this past May, of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM gets a re-do every few years so they can drop the embarrassing Victorian-sounding diagnoses like “hysterical neurosis” and add cool ones like “Internet gaming disorder” — all of which keeps the U.S. pharmaceutical industry too busy to notice Canada is giving away drugs for free.
I was poring over DSM-5 on a lazy afternoon this month to see which of my disorders had come and gone.
By the bottom of page 896, it occurred to me that, if the rewrite committee really wants to see the whole definitive reference manual in action, cover to cover, it should come over to our house.
We are a veritable museum of disorders and, actually, they don’t have to look further than the cat.
Cats’ behavior makes perfect sense when they are out in the wild. You don’t find jaguars laid out on the psychiatrist’s couch struggling with angst.
They sleep. They hunt. They sleep.
shrink: Would you go as far as to say that you obsessed with hunting?
jaguar: Well, yeah. Duh.
However, any cat, when trapped inside a house, is prone to hysterical neuroses. I won’t go into detail about our cat’s litter box habits. Suffice to say he refuses to use the same geography twice, a fixation which results in daily negotiations between him and me, and threats that one of us is about to become an outdoor cat.
shrink: Do you mind relieving yourself in the same place, twice?
jaguar: I can’t even find the same place twice. Have you been outside recently? It’s huge.
Another certifiable habit of our cat is to act like everyone is plotting to murder him. See him slipping through a room full of people when suddenly he pretends to have been shot. He freezes. He looks at all of us, horrified — Banquo surrounded by Macbeth’s henchmen — he is now in the throes of paranoia.
Then he tears up the stairs, as flat as he can get, and languishes for the rest of the day under the bed, scribbling emphatically in his journal.
shrink: Do you watch too many action shows before bed?
jaguar: I mate for life. Have you met her? I don’t have to invent predators.
One of our cat’s least decipherable habits is to reenact his morning feeding as many times as possible throughout the day, like an actor in method training. He howls incessantly even if he has just been fed. He stands at the closed door to the mudroom, where his sacred bowl is kept, with his nose pressed where he believes, against all historical precedent, that the door will open again. (There is a cat door for him to go through. When he is “in character” he does not acknowledge it.)
He stares at the blue box of chow, waiting for you to shake his food and turn it upside down. (We are as far from the wild now as we can get without actually becoming Swedish.)
Strangest of all, he will not have eaten the food you gave him for breakfast. He leaves it heaped in his bowl and carries on as if you had left him alone in the house for weeks and the only thing keeping him from looking up the ASPCA is his inability to spell ASPCA.
If you give in and shake the blue box and put new food on top of the old food, he eats the new food (same exact food, 10 minutes fresher) with a fervor as if you finally, after years of remedial instruction, figured out the answer to one plus one.
shrink: How do you feel about blue boxes?
jaguar: I love them. Why?
All of this makes me wonder if human behavior would make complete sense out in the wild.
Lynne Bertrand is a writer who lives in Willliamsburg.