QUESTION: My obsession with caring for feral cats is creating a problem in my marriage. My husband Dan has set a limit of three cats in our household, but he doesn’t know that I am caring for six others secretly. Once he retires to bed at night, I sneak out to the backyard and gather up my other cats, feed them, groom them and give them the love they deserve. Recently, I brought three of them to my local shelter to have them spayed and neutered. The total cost was $100, which is a large amount for me since I live on social security. I have a terrible fear that if I don’t care for these cats something very bad will happen to them. They have learned to trust me and I place a high value on this trust. But lately, I have begun to feel badly about lying to my husband. He doesn’t deserve this treatment as he is a kind, caring man. He just has tighter boundaries than I do. My friends call me the “cat lady” because they know about my secret little hoard. Along with all the sneaking around, nine cats to care for is wearing me out. Can you offer any way out of the quagmire I’ve gotten myself into? Thank you.—Allison
ANSWER: You have a very kind heart, Alison. But your lack of personal boundaries is causing you enough grief and guilt that your caregiving is not creating compassion satisfaction, which is the ability to feel good about the caregiving you provide. While you care deeply for these little animals, you are negating your empathy by lying to your husband. Quite possibly, it is this destructive pattern that is wearing you down. Before you make any moves to correct this heartbreaking situation, you need to come to terms with your own boundaries. As animal lovers, we are often overwhelmed by the disregard most of society has for our animal friends. Unfortunately, those of us who care can only do so much. We can certainly take in one or two animal companions comfortably, we can offer to volunteer or work in an animal shelter or wildlife rescue organization, or we can donate funds to help organizations that support animals. We are not called to do more than our share. With the situation you have created, you are doing your share and much, much more. One way out is to go to your husband, apologize, and then discuss the best way to deal with the situation. You have stated that he is a kind, caring man, and it is my guess he will help you solve this dilemma with the feral cats you are harboring. I would also suggest including someone from your local animal shelter in your dialogue. Perhaps he or she can help find permanent homes for the cats, or find a caregiver who is willing to adopt the cats until a home is found. There is help out there to assist you. It is easy for a cat lover to cross the line and become a cat hoarder. Once this happens, the hoarding can become a psychological disorder that can destroy a life. Once this is under control, take the time to enjoy knowing that you are making a difference by caring for three wonderful little animals.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.com or Amazon.com.