During Christmas twelve years ago, Meg Hunt and her rescued cat, Whiskas, formed an unbreakable bond. She tells us how her pet's special brand of feline therapy helped her recover from an eating disorder, and has made every festive season since a happier one.
'The festive season can be stressful'
While the festive season should be full of cheer, it can be a difficult time for many. In fact, new findings by mental health charity Mind show that more than half of people are negatively affected by the pressures of Christmas.
Thankfully, our pets are on hand to help. A recent study by the Mental Health Foundation found that 76% of pet owners felt they could cope much better with stressful situations thanks to their cat, and 87% of respondents said their pet had a positive effect on their overall wellbeing.
This is especially true for 19-year-old Meg Hunt: 'I'd always been rather obsessive about things and the festive period, while exciting, was always (and still is) a stressful time for me,' she explains. 'Routine is important to me as it helps manage my anxious feelings, but Christmas is an unpredictable time. I recall one year when there was a constant stream of people through our front door. Just the sound of the doorbell would make my chest tighten, my heart race and I'd struggle to breathe. The panic was so intense it felt almost like I was on the verge of a heart attack. And because it's meant to be such a joyful time of year, the pressure to appear happy in front of people was a constant struggle; at times it made me want to scream.
'Luckily my family got Whiskas, a black-and-white rescue kitten, when I was seven. She spent that first day under my bed, too timid to come out, and it made me think that perhaps I wasn't the only one at odds with the world. I felt an instant connection with her. She soon settled in, though, and helping to look after her helped ease my anxiety: I found the responsibility rewarding and, at the end of school every day, I'd rush home to see her and feel my spirits lift as soon as she brushed up against my legs.'
'I was trying to feel in control'
'But as I afforgrew older, I began to panic about exams and friendships, and everything seemed to spin out of control. My emotions continued to overwhelm me, and the only way I could think of managing these feelings was to cut back on what I ate. Looking back, it was probably my way of regaining some kind of hold on my life. You'd think a pet would run a mile, but Whiskas was drawn to me like a magnet and would find every way to climb on me or nestle herself up beside me, as if sensing my despair.
'When I was finally admitted to a children's hospital at 10 years old, I was desperately ill. I still have vivid memories of my mum hugging me goodbye and then watching her walk off in tears down the corridor. I hadn't a clue at that stage that, because of my fragile condition, I wouldn't see most of my family, my home or my cat again for weeks.
'Thankfully, Mum stuck photos of Whiskas on my bedroom wall and all the staff would ask about her. It gave me the motivation I needed to get well. After a year in hospital, I was finally discharged and, while living back at home took some adjustment, waking up with Whiskas on my bed in the mornings felt magical.'
'My cat is the best therapy'
'Whenever Christmas comes around, I always think of the joy I felt when I saw Whiskas as a tiny kitten for the first time. I didn't know then what an important part she would play in my life, and how she'd help bring me back from the brink of a mental illness. My recovery was steady but slow and I remember lying awake in bed, thoughts of self-harm and suicide crowding my head, and then hearing her scratch at my bedroom door and a gentle meow as she pushed it open. Soon she'd be on my bed, pushing her nose into my hair, purring softly. I could talk to her about all my anxieties, knowing that she wouldn't judge me.
'Now that I'm older and healthier, I cope better with the stress of the festive season, but Whiskas is still on hand to act as a calming influence. She's the best therapy and, really, that's the best gift I could ask for.'