Life with Autism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Cats

Although I have now lived with cats for over 22 years, I have not always been a cat person. I got my first cats in 1999 because my therapist said that I needed a pet to have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.

As a former elementary teacher, I taught at a Saudi Aramco (oil company) school in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia for seven years. I arrived during the First Gulf War when the Iraqis were firing scud missiles at Dhahran.

Dhahran was a primary target because it was the corporate headquarters for the Saudi Aramco Oil Company. A huge allied quartermaster depot was outside Dhahran as was a large airfield from which the allied forces had launched a seemingly endless wave of fighters and bombers that were attacking military targets in the Iraqi occupied country of Kuwait.

Arab culture day with my 3rd graders in 1992, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

When the civil defense sirens began their undulating wail, we’d grab our gas masks and head for the nearest shelter. At school, my 3rd grade students and I would duck and cover under our desks. At home, I’d take shelter in the storage closet under the stairs of my one bedroom condo.

As an American civilian, I used to be a volunteer baker for the USO at Khobar Towers which was the residential home of the U.S. Air Force personnel who manned the allied section of King Abdulaziz Air Base. On Thursday, I’d stock up my car with a hundred dollars worth of baking ingredients prior to heading to Khobar Towers. I baked cookies for the Air Force personnel until I ran out of supplies.

When Thanksgiving and later Christmas rolled around, I would always be one of dozens of U.S. civilian volunteers who would head down to the main gate at Dhahran where we’d meet and greet busloads of U.S. troops.

A USAF Master Sargent worked with an American civilian liaison like a demented maître d’. After telling the pair how many personnel we could take, the senior NCO would consult his clipboard and bark out names.

“GONZALEZ! JONES! FACENELLI! BROWN!”

Four USAF personnel would present themselves, and they’d leave with the civilian who would take them home for a holiday meal.

Since I lived in a cramped one bedroom apartment, I typically partnered with a family and would cater the dinner while the guests played with the family dog, watched TV, talked to the adults, or took a nap.

This was a nice way for us to “give back,” particularly since our troops had kept the Iraqis from invading Saudi Arabia after they overran Kuwait in 1990.

Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia before the bombing in 1996.

During a hot summer’s night in 1996, I awoke to the sound of a loud explosion. A few minutes later, I heard the telephone ring through the paper thin wall next door. Lights starting coming on in the condos around me, and I looked out my bedroom window to see that all of the medical personnel who lived in my area were running towards their cars.

I later learned that terrorists had exploded a gas tanker outside the main security gate of Khobar Towers. Nineteen Air Force servicemen and women died in this attack. As the closest medical facility to Khobar Towers, our corporate hospital was put on alert and all shifts were called in to begin caring for the 400-plus wounded who would shortly be arriving.

Khobar Towers after the bombing.

I never saw any of the troops again and do not know if I knew any of the young men and women who died in the attack. The base commander was scapegoated and removed from command.

Having volunteered at Khobar Towers, I don’t think that this was fair. What most people don’t know is that Khobar Towers was never designed as a military base. As such, it did not have an extensive security perimeter.

Khobar Towers was actually a Saudi government-built set of apartment complexes. The idea was to get the Bedouin (literally translated as “people of the desert”) to stop their nomadic existence and to move into these government-funded buildings.

The problem with doing this is that the Bedouin tribes would have lost their cultural identity. They would also have had to give up their camels and goats. Since none of the Bedouin wanted to do this, these apartments sat empty in the middle of a suburban residential neighborhood until the First Gulf War.

The problem with being in the center of a suburb was that there just wasn’t any space to create a security buffer zone. Doing this would have required the Saudi government to evict the residents of nearby homes so that these buildings could be demolished and bulldozed.

The base commander did what he could do. He put up concrete barricades that forced vehicles to “weave” through them so that a driver wouldn’t have a straight run at the main gate.

The problem was that the front gate was far too close to the buildings that that the security perimeter was supposed to have protected. Terrorists turned a truck into a large bomb. A pentagon investigation later determined that the truck exploded with the equivalent of setting off between 20,000-30,000 pounds of dynamite.

After Khobar Towers was bombed, all of our troops were evacuated from this base and were transferred to a remote location in the desert where they had a much better line of sight for possible threats.

After seven years in Saudi Arabia, I moved to Lebanon where I taught for a year at the American Community School of Beirut. On the evening of the last day of school, I heard the rumble of explosions and rolled out of my bed to lie upon the floor.

A live newsfeed on my laptop told me that the Israelis had launched a series of airstrikes on Beirut in retaliation for the government’s failure to control Hezbollah (literally translated as Party of God). Hezbollah fighters (or terrorists according to the Israelis) were attacking military targets in what was then Israeli-occupied Southern Lebanon.

Touring the Roman ruins at Baalbek, Lebanon with my expatriate colleagues from the American Community School of Beirut in 1998. I’m the slim guy with the baseball cap.

I spent the night under a heavy desk in my apartment. Over the edge of the windowsill, I could see tracer fire rising into the night’s sky as Syrian anti-aircraft gun crews engaged the Israelis.

The Israeli planes flew low overhead, streaking over Beirut from the Mediterranean Sea. My apartment literally shook from the force of their passage. The air was rent by the ack-ack-ack sound of firing anti-aircraft guns that were just a block away.

Moments later I heard the thunder of distant explosions. Everything would then fall quiet, and just when I was wondering if the attack was over, the next wave of Israeli jets would sweep overhead.

In June of 1999, the Israeli Air Force bombed Beirut for Lebanon’s failure to control guerilla attacks that were being conducted by Hezbollah.

The only teachers to arrive at work the following morning were the expatriates. Some of us were American but there were also Canadians, a couple from New Zealand, a Brit, and a Venezuelan.

Since the Israelis had targeted Beirut’s infrastructure, we had no electricity. Several power stations had been bombed into oblivion. Cell phone towers had also been destroyed along with bridges and highways.

Since there was nobody at work, we left to visit a snack shop next door called Washington’s. The owner was in tears behind the counter of his shop. Without electricity he had lost his entire inventory of ice cream. He didn’t know how he would replenish his stock or if it would even be possible to do this since there was no electricity.

The Corniche in Beirut during happier times. I used to watch the sun over the Mediterranean Sea after work while drinking coffee and eating baklava at a coffeeshop. My school and faculty apartment were just a block away.

Throughout the city, stunned Lebanese were assessing the damage. Two hundred Lebanese had died in this attack. A lot of the people who died were first responders who had been called to the scenes of different bombings.

While working to triage and transport the wounded and to put out the fires, a second wave of incoming Israeli planes had inadvertently killed a lot of these rescue personnel because they were bombing the same targets that the first wave had already hit.

It didn’t take long for stunned disbelief to morph into anger. Since Lebanon did not have diplomatic relations with Israel, Americans who were widely seen as pro-Israeli were targeted for payback.

Anti-American mobs began forming. One mob tried storming our Consulate and the security police had to shoot and kill several rioters. Another mob briefly protested outside the American Community School of Beirut. Someone even threw a small explosive over the security wall. We were lucky that no one was hurt.

When the international airport reopened, I flew out and never returned.

I thought that I was fine until a clap of thunder caused me to drop face down on the black asphalt while shopping for groceries in North Carolina. “AIR RAID!” I shouted as I crossed my hands over the back of my head.

For a moment, I was back in Saudi Arabia. The wailing civil defense sirens were warning of yet another Iraqi scud missile attack. Moments later, I was in Beirut on the night of the Israeli air raid. A few moments later, I found myself lying in a wet puddle in a Safeway parking lot. A group of unkind spectators were laughing at me.

A visit to a doctor gave me a referral to a psychologist. The psychologist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.

“But I’ve never been in the military,” I complained. “How can I have PTSD?”

“You don’t have to be in the military to have PTSD. You were a civilian in two different war zones. I am quite frankly surprised that you didn’t have any of these issues while you were still abroad. I can only surmise that since you were overseas, you kept your emotional shields up; but after coming home, you lowered your guard. The thunderstorm triggered a flashback, and you got emotionally body slammed with PTSD.”

Since I hadn’t planned to work for a year so as to have time to readjust to living in the United States, the psychologist suggested that I get a pet so that I’d have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.

I went to PetsMart to get a goldfish. I came out with an appointment to adopt two Manx kittens. I also had hundreds of dollars worth of pet supplies with everything from cat towers and kitty beds to food bowls, water bowls, scratching posts, toys, carriers, and brushes.

Bob and Jasper, 2004

One week later, I picked up Bob and Jasper Baby JB). Bob (so named because he had a bob-tail) and his brother Jasper Baby were my first two cats. I literally lost Bob during my first week as a cat daddy. While unloading groceries from my car, Bob squeezed through the front door and ran away.

Although I dropped my groceries and ran after him, Bob disappeared. JB was despondent over the loss of his brother. To help Jasper cope with the loss of his brother, I went to the local county shelter and found a black kitten named Charlie. I was at the shelter when I heard a man arguing with a woman.

The woman was crying and the guy was being an abusive jerk. I heard him tell her that she could either leave the cat and get in the car with him or he would leave without her. He gave her until the count of five to decide.

Korbi in 2003 after we had moved to Pennsylvania. This was 3 years after she was abandoned. By this time she would have been 15 years old.

The woman gave her fat gray cat a final hug and shoved her into a shelter volunteer’s arms prior to leaving in tears. I personally thought that she had made the wrong decision given how very controlling this guy seemed to be.

The shelter manager told me the rest of the story. After the woman had gotten pregnant, her boyfriend had told her that he would only marry her if she got rid of the cat. Since he didn’t like cats, he announced that keeping the cat would be a “deal breaker.”

Given how the woman would have otherwise been left to carry her child to term on her own, she was forced to give up her beloved cat in exchange for providing some measure of financial security for her child.

Her cat was named Korbi (pictured above). When her owner left her in the arms of the shelter manager, Korbi wailed in protest and struggled to get free. Having already adopted Charlie, I offered to come back in a week to get Korbi, assuming her owner hadn’t changed her mind.

Charlie in Pennsylvania, 2005

Since kittens are more predisposed to socializing than are adult cats, the moment I got home, Charlie popped out of his carrier and immediately began playing with Jasper Baby. The kittens pounced on each other and tumbled across the floor.

Although I was happy for JB, I was worried about Bob. I had put up missing notices around my neighborhood to no avail. Long walks taken throughout the neighborhood had left me completely despondent. Where was Bob?

Korbi joined our growing cat family a week later.

The poor old girl was 14 years old, which made her 80 in human years. She was understandably confused over what had happened. When she went from room to room loudly meowing, I felt as though she was looking for her beloved owner.

The old cat didn’t care for Jasper Baby or Charlie who insisted upon playing with her tail. Although an angry hiss would send them running away, the moment Korbi turned her back, the kittens would scurry forward to again pounce upon her.

The day after Korbi arrived, I heard a clawing sound on the front door. I opened the door to find Bob peering up at me.

Pictured above is Bob who was imperiously sitting on his favorite pillow, 2012

“Rrrrrrr,” said Bob who peered up at me from the front porch. I took this to mean, “I’ve had my great adventure and have decided that I’d rather be a house cat. Could I please come home?”

I opened the door to let him in. Korbi gave me a disgusted look when Bob and Jasper were happily reunited. As bad as it was to be living with two kittens, why had I felt compelled to add a third?

The therapist was right about my need to adopt a pet. My four cats all had distinct personalities. As the alpha male, Bob was very serious. His brother, Jasper Baby was a complete goof. Charlie was mischievous and loved to pounce on the other cats from ambush. Korbi warmed to me in time and would bring me gifts that usually consisted of kitty toys.

Over time, Bob, JB, Charlie, and Korbi have each crossed the rainbow bridge. Although I have mourned each loss, within 2-3 months of each passing, a new kitten has invariably taken the place of the deceased cat. Life goes on.

My cats have been with me through three career changes, (innkeeper, chef, and Culinary Arts teacher), four states, and seven homes over the course of 22 years. At the height of the recession, there was a time when I was unemployed for six months and despite all financial worries, I managed to keep my cats in kibble as well as their moist canned food. I never once contemplated surrendering any of them, or worse yet, simply abandoning them on the side of the road.

My current four cats include Buki Boy and Chi Chi as the alpha male and female cats. Buki is the oldest cat in my home. He’s 12 years old and came to me when he was six. As a kitten, he and his mother and all of his littermates were brought to a no-kill private shelter.

Although his mother and all of his siblings were quickly adopted, Buki languished at the shelter for six long years. Nobody wanted him because he was a black kitty. At the time I adopted him, nearly a third of the shelter’s cats were black.

One of Buki’s favorite places is sitting on my chest when I’m on my Lazy Boy recliner.

Chi Chi and her brother Hunter are both four years old. Chi Chi is a lovely tortoise shell kitty. Although I initially only wanted to adopt her, she was so terrified of me as a kitten, that I also took in her brother.

When these two kittens first came to live with me, Chi Chi (pictured below) hid under an arm chair for nearly a week. She only ventured out to eat, drink, and to use the litter box. Hunter was very brave in comparison. His example inspired Chi Chi to start venturing out. She is now extremely brave and confident. She is also the most socially outgoing of my four cats. During the rare instances that anyone ever visits my home while the other cats hide, Chi Chi will actually come out to say hello.

My remaining two cats are Hunter and Uma. As junior-ranked cats, Uma and Hunter have fewer privileges than Buki or Chi Chi. During the day, the alpha kitties have prioritized petting privileges. If I am sitting in my recliner, they always have first dibs at sitting on my lap.

Now that it’s winter, I’ve put a heater on a coffee table in my den. A fluffy cat bed has been placed in front of the heater and Buki and Chi Chi have reserved this bed as their spot. The junior kitties are not ever allowed to use this bed. Any who dare are glared at until they leave.

When I go to bed, the cats come to me for kitty treats. Buki and Chi Chi always get the first treats. As the alpha kitties, they have pride of place beside me. As junior status cats, Hunter and Uma have been relegated to the foot of the bed. I have to toss them their kitty treats and if either of the boss kitties are feeling particularly peckish, they’re not above gobbling down their treats and then stealing additional treats from the lower ranked cats.

Hunter (right side) cuddling with Uma. Hunter is a gray cat with black tiger stripes. Uma is a calico.

Since access to me is an alpha cat privilege, I always go to bed about 30 minutes before I plan to turn off the lights. This allows ample time to give the cats their treats and to visit with Buki and Chi Chi.

The moment the lights are turned off and I settle down to sleep, Hunter always uses the cover of night to visit. In between head bonking my pillow and rubbing his face against my chest, he purrs with happiness as I gently scratch him behind his ears.

I love having my cats in my life. My cats provide companionship and emotional support. My only real worry is that as I get older, I wonder what will become of them if I were to suddenly keel over and die.

Since I teach Culinary Arts, I know that my school would send the police over as part of a welfare check if the day were to ever come where I didn’t show up for work and nobody was able to get ahold of me through email, text messaging, or phone calls.

At some point, I will retire. What will happen to my cats if I were to suddenly drop dead? I cannot imagine life without my cats. I may have to look in to the possibility of an assisted living arrangement after I retire with provisions in my will for the continued care of my furry friends.

Regarding my PTSD, having cats to care for distracted me from my problems. The medication I was given helped me sleep, and with time and therapy I was able to move on to the point where claps of thunder no longer prompt flashbacks.

Although I sometimes miss living abroad, after seventeen years of life as an expatriate, first as a child in Ghana, Thailand, and El Salvador, and later as an adult in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, I’m happy to be back in the States. I like owning my home and having my own furniture as opposed to living in a furnished apartment.

Even if we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic, I still wouldn’t return to my life as an expat teacher at an international American school. While an overseas school might possibly allow me to bring two cats, they would never let me arrive with four. Since I will never voluntarily give up any of my cats, I’m stateside for good and have absolutely no regrets.

My home in Nevada

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13 Responses

  1. I can’t fathom what you went through. Your writing is excellent and you could turn your story into a book. I’m glad you find such joy in your kitties.

    1. I grew up with 2 cats as a kid, so I do know them. I’m completely angry + morally disgusted at his cooperation with an alpha/juniority hierarchy such as I have never read of in any other cat house story. It’s the last thing to make a book of, when the duty of animal care to the so-called “junior ranked” cats is to deliberately give them all the priority he sees them missing out on.

  2. David,

    I too enjoyed reading your story and fully understand your deep bonding with 4-legged furry friends. The physician who suggested that you get a pet or pets to focus upon was so correct!!! All of our pets [irregardless of species] develop unique personalities and morph into a bedtime schedule such as you describe 30 minutes before falling asleep.

    And from afar, I simply don’t see you keeling over and suddenly leaving your house cats behind. You can and should write down specifically what you’d want done with them if such a tragedy occurred. Yet my hunch is that you’ll leave this earth actively, not passively –– with something quickly reducing you like a heart attack or a stroke.

    You’ll likely participate in who would raise your kitties for you.

    Don’t worry. Be happy!!! 🙂

    1. Thank you for your kind comment. I do hope that my departure from this world will come many years down the road. It would at least be nice to have spent at least some time in retirement and not to keel over “in harness” like an old work horse that never got to retire.

      I was just notified that my entire district will be shutting down without even virtual instruction starting this coming Friday. Covid has apparently hit us hard. 20% of the teachers at my school are either out with Covid or are in quarantine. We don’t have enough substitutes to cover these absences. The district decided to shut down for five days to give our faculty and staff time to rest and recover. Assuming we reopen starting next Wednesday, we’ll have more faculty back in the trenches. I really hope we don’t have to shift to virtual instruction.

  3. I always feel happy when I see there’s a new post from you! I wonder if there are check-in services to make sure you can the cats are OK once you retire. I’m considering looking into similar services in the future when I’m older.

    1. Your kind comment really brightened the end of my day. Thank you.

      I have been in touch with a cousin who is an attorney. He has suggested that I make a will.

  4. Thank you for this incredible write. It was both eye opening and healing in a way as someone with CPTSD.

  5. My husband and I have 5 cats. We both have anxiety and depression. We each have a cat that has a letter as a therapy cat. Where we live right now, we are okay to have our other 3 cats, but there have been some changes in our rental situation, and I’m not sure how long we can continue staying where we live. We had mentioned to our psychiatrists that we found out through online research that a person can have more than one therapy animal, if it is believe to be beneficial to them. I am guessing that is a subject that they aren’t familiar with however, because they seem like they aren’t sure they’re allowed to prescribe us more than one. If we get thrown out of where we’re living right now, we would have a very difficult time being approved for the other 3 cats that don’t have a letter. We aren’t willing to give them up, either, so that means we would end up trying to live on the streets with 5 indoor only cats. I’m not sure how that would even work., but we are bonded to all of our cats and don’t want to leave even one of them for a million bucks. I am going to try to talk to the psychiatrists again on this subject to see if there is a way to approve the other 3 cats. I know keeping them all together is beneficial. We would be an emotional wreck without them all. It’s hard to find people that understand that. Where I live, most people like dogs and don’t care much for cats so they just don’t get it. Each one of our cats provides us with a different kind of medication that helps heal. You cannot get that kind of medication from any bottle.

    1. May life be kind to you and allow keeping of all 5 furry helpers.
      I am 1 person with 2 cats who have letters from my Psychologist & who were given to me by her office about a decade ago.
      In the 1990s I ended up being homeless with 2 cats and ended up having to give them up in order to have a place to live.
      Still greatly pains my heart and soul.

    2. Rent is evil and designed to enslave. Invented as part of Middle Ages feudalism. It follows that a murky economic theory claiming there can be a progressive “law of rent”, instead of abolishing it, is evil too.
      A British claim to its actual abolition I realise does not immediately help folks in the US, but it shows a way, it shows rent is not inevitable. courtchange.wordpress.com/security-of-tenure

    3. I was sorry to read this. If you have a clinical diagnosis for your conditions it could be that you have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You may want to consider consulting an attorney. The first visit is usually free but you should ask just in case. If you don’t have the money to pay for an attorney, you could contact the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). You could also google tenant advocacy groups in your area. They might provide free legal support.

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