Back in the early 2000s, I was living in a small European city in a fourth-floor flat and wanted to get a cat. I ended up bringing home a savage feline that would send me to the emergency room.
I got Joey at the local animal shelter, and for the first two weeks, he was a sweet, cuddly house pet. I’d see him sitting up on my windowsill when I came home from work every day, and he slept in the bed with me at night. He seemed content with me and with his new home — until the day he turned on me.
I was sitting on my bed reading a book when he came over purring, nudging my elbow with his head and wanting (I thought) a cuddle. I reached out my hand to pet him and he lunged at it, biting hard into my forearm and not letting go. When I managed to pry him off, he spat at me and jumped at my face over and over. He scratched, he bit, he drew blood, he made screaming sounds I had never before heard coming from a cat.
I eventually managed to get out of the room and close the door — with Joey scratching at it and screeching — and called a friend. Then I phoned a vet, who advised me to go to the ER, given I didn’t know much about the cat’s background.
At the hospital, I was asked to change into a gown and, when I did, I realized how much blood was on my clothes. Doctors counted 87 puncture wounds and other bleeding cuts and scratches from my face to my ankles, a few of them requiring stitches. I had claws removed from my legs with tweezers. I was given a tetanus shot and a prescription for antibiotics. The doctors told me they had never seen a pet cat do so much damage.
I don’t know what made Joey attack me, but I didn’t keep him. I was too scared to even go back into the flat with him in it, so a friend went there for me and brought Joey back to the shelter.
What makes a frightening experience stick with some people, while others can get over it? What kinds of scary experiences are more likely to stick with people? I’ve often wondered. I recently asked social media friends and followers to share their most frightening experiences with me.
Overall, the stories they told seemed to fit into groups: car accidents, sick children, animal encounters and experiences with the supernatural. There were also a fair number of stories involving the ocean, with capsized boats and near-drownings.
A friend of mine told me he had been snorkelling alone in Mexico seven years ago and hadn’t noticed the strong tide leaving the bay. When he looked up to start heading back to shore after about an hour, he realized he had been pushed out much further than he had intended to go and could barely see the shoreline in the distance.
“I tried to swim to shore, but with the tide I wasn’t making much progress. I was getting more and more tired and was being swept further and further out of the bay,” he told me. “Eventually I was too tired to swim and became scared. I focused on floating and kicking towards shore with my fins.”
Watching the bottom, my friend realized he was moving backwards, in spite of his efforts. Amazingly, he said he prepared to drown.
“As my legs got tired, the feeling of fear left me and there was a calmness. Eventually I stopped kicking and just drifted with the current out of the bay. I remember thinking it was weird that I knew I was going to drown, but was no longer afraid at all.”
After a while, he heard someone call out — a kayaker, who first chastised him for being so far from shore alone before realizing he was in trouble. Too weak to hold onto the back edge of the kayak, my friend was towed back to shore when the stranger looped a cord around him.
My friend said he doesn’t feel a conscious fear of the ocean these days, but he hasn’t swum in it since and is now “obsessed” with wearing a life jacket when on the water.
Gladys Perry is the program co-ordinator for Eastern Health’s Traumatic Stress Program. Based in St. John’s, the program has been around for 10 years and sees a team of health-care professionals work with patients who have endured a range of frightening experiences, in group and individual settings. These patients are generally people who are dealing with complex trauma from enduring experiences, such as sexual abuse or childhood neglect.
Patients with what Perry calls single-event trauma, perhaps from a car accident (or a cat attack), might choose to see a regular psychologist outside the program, depending on their level of impairment.
When it comes to a person developing a traumatic stress-related disorder or having no lasting effects after a frightening experience, Perry said it depends on a number of factors, including their temperament, life experience, how they process stress and the circumstances of the trauma.
Our bodies have an innate self-defence system commonly called the “fight or flight response,” which kicks in during periods of perceived threat and prepares us to either fight or run.
“If you can fight or flee (during the traumatic experience), you do better,” Perry said. “If you’re trapped in the experience, you generally freeze, and you’re more likely to develop issues.”
Post-traumatic stress symptoms range from anxiety, eating disorders, self-harming, depression, bi-polar disorder, anger-control issues and more. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will re-experience the trauma through flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive memories. Some develop dissociative disorders as a response to the trauma they experienced, where their brain blocks out the memories or takes the person elsewhere in their mind.
There’s an extremely strong correlation between trauma and addictions, either to drugs, alcohol or food, Perry said, and many of the clinic’s patients self-medicate with one or a number of these to try to numb their pain.
Trauma affects the physiology of the brain, and this has particular consequences in children, when the brain is still being formed, Perry said. The brain is shaped by experience, and the connections in it are literally changed by childhood trauma.
“As neuro pathways are being formed, if there is trauma in the environment, it will go around these pathways,” she said. “The brain will develop new pathways as a result. It’s like a brain injury on a lot of levels.”
There are a number of therapeutic approaches when it comes to dealing with complex trauma, and their effectiveness depends on the person and their experience. Cognitive behavioural therapy, which seeks to change a person’s patterns of thinking, is one; dialectical behaviour therapy often helps those who are unable to regulate their emotions and mood.
A person who has experienced a single-event trauma, like me, can often benefit from exposure therapy if they have lasting effects, spending increased periods of time around cats, or behind the wheel of a car, or near the ocean, whatever the case may be.
For a little while after my Joey attack, when I was walking or driving at night, I’d sometimes think I’d see the flash of a cat in the shadows out of the corner of my eye before I’d turn and realize it was just my imagination. It was a kind of acute stress response that disappeared before long, and I wasn’t left with any long-term fear or anxiety around cats.
The scars on my shins, 15 years later, are another story.